Darkness swirls. A slithering snake encircles your legs. Fins circle and get closer as you tread deep, murky water. You’re standing in front of a crowd in nothing but your underwear. You wake up. Sweaty palms, racing heart, and being jolted awake with fear and stress — it sounds like a horror movie. You’re safe. You’re OK. It was just a nightmare.
We’ve all had scary dreams. Nightmares are unsettling dreams associated with feelings of fear and anxiety that leave you sleepless. Sometimes, bad dreams might cause you to wake up the following day feeling stressed.
Having a bad dream on occasion is normal, but you may want to avoid the negative emotions they generate.
So, today, we’re going to explore tips on how to avoid bad dreams while also examining what causes them and what they mean.
Common Causes of Nightmares
Nightmares are still mysterious to scientists. Although we don’t know what triggers them, we do know about plenty of factors that make nightmares more likely.
Sometimes, the daily stresses of life can trigger nightmares. Worrying about work or school can make you more likely to have scary dreams. Life changes, like relocating to a new hood, can cause bad dreams. You’re more likely to develop nightmares due to chronic anxiety and stress.
2. Sleep Deprivation
A lack of quality sleep can trigger nightmares. A change in your schedule may cause a dip in restful sleep. For example, if you have difficulty staying asleep or going to bed at unusual times. Insomnia is a common cause of nightmares as well.
3. Some Medications
Some drugs — including certain stimulants, beta blockers, melatonin supplements, and antibiotics, may contribute to nightmares. Nightmares may also occur after stopping the use of some medications like benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and barbiturates. Consult your doctor if you think that drugs cause your nightmares. They can change the dose that you take.
4. Scary Books and Movies
We all have experienced it. Sometimes, watching a horror movie or reading a scary book can cause nightmares, especially if you do them before bed. TV shows and video games that scare you make you more likely to experience bad dreams. If you notice that you typically have nightmares after watching or reading something scary, avoid those activities right before sleeping.
5. Substance Misuse and Withdrawal
If you misuse drugs or alcohol, you may have nightmares. Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol may also make them more likely. For example, opioid drugs affect parts of your body that regulate sleep. You may have heavy sleep and go back and forth between stages of sleep much quicker. That might bring bad dreams. The nightmares can persist if you go through withdrawal and your patterns adjust again.
6. Mental Health Conditions
You’re more likely to have nightmares when dealing with mental health conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, or schizophrenia. Your doctors may suggest things like stress-easing approaches or different types of therapy to help keep your nightmares at a minimum.
How to Avoid Bad Dreams at Night
Addressing nightmares is crucial because they are linked to suicidal behavior, depression, and insomnia. Since scary dreams can also cause sleep apnea, they’re linked to obesity and heart disease. Try these six steps on how to not have bad dreams.
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Sleep experts recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help reframe how you think, feel, and act. A type of CBT that mainly focuses on sleep-related disorders is called CBT for insomnia (CBT-I). A CBT-I therapist guides you to restructure your sleep schedule and restrict negative stimuli. That helps improve sleep and reduce nightmares.
2. Imagery Rehearsal Therapy
This approach involves rewriting a recurring scary dream into a script and then rehearsing when awake to change how it unfolds and impacts you. The goal is the bad dream to follow the new version if it recurs.
A related approach called Exposure, Relation, and Rescripting Therapy (ERRT) is built on image rehearsal therapy by adding progressive muscle relaxation and refinement of sleep habits to complete imagery rehearsal therapy.
3. Improved Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene refers to both nighttime and daytime habits that affect sleep. Improving sleep hygiene promotes better sleep and reduces bad dreams. Good habits to adopt include:
- Avoiding heavy meals before bed
- Implementing a relaxing bedtime routine
- Arranging a comfortable bedroom environment
- Using the bedroom only for sleep and being intimate
- Getting regular exercise, preferably in the morning
- Engaging in enjoyable and affirming social interactions
- Cutting out nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine in the evening
- Going to bed and waking up at more or less the same time daily
- Taking a shower before bed to reduce the need to wake up to urinate
- Turning off or putting away electronic devices while getting ready for bed
4. Stress Relief
If you are looking for how to avoid bad dream nightmares, stress relief can help. You can talk to trusted relatives and friends or make time for self-care activities like hobbies, exercises, and occasional rest periods. Consider relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, and music as stress relievers.
In some cases, your sleep expert may prescribe medication to treat nightmares. However, some drugs, like beta blockers, may dampen the fight-or-flight response. So, if you suspect that your medicine contributes to nightmares, talk to your doctor before stopping it or decreasing its dosage.
6. Use Nightware
Nightware is a smartwatch that tracks body movements and heart rate and vibrates when it detects that you’re having a nightmare. In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Nightwear manufacturing for adults with nightmare disorders. The device provides a low-risk option for managing bad dreams. Plus, you can combine nightware with medications and therapy for nightmares. However, the device is available by prescription.
When Should You See a Doctor About Nightmares?
It’s common to have occasional bad dreams, but you might find it hard to know when nightmares cause concern. You should consult your sleep expert about nightmares if:
- They happen more than once a week
- They affect your daily activity, mood, or sleep
- You experience nightmares when you start medication
You can keep a sleep diary to help your doctor understand how nightmares affect you.
Sleep is an essential part of your life. It helps your body rest, repair, and recharge. Nightmares can significantly affect your sleep and life quality. The above tips can help you not have bad dreams at night.
Start by keeping a regular wake-sleep schedule and engaging in regular exercises, which will help reduce nightmare symptoms. You may also find meditation and yoga helpful.
Remember to practice good sleep hygiene, which helps prevent sleep deprivation that may bring nightmares. Make your bedroom a tranquil, relaxing place that’s reserved for sex and sleep so that you don’t associate it with stressful activities.
Plus, be wary of nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, which may remain in your system for over 12 hours and often disrupt your sleep patterns. If symptoms persist, consult your sleep experts for medications, therapy, or Nightware device.