What are Nightmares?
Nightmares are dreams, however, they are far from sweet. Nightmares are emotional storms: terror, fear, loss, and deep sadness can all be part of a bad dream. Sometimes the emotional peak becomes so high that you jolt awake, for a moment not even remembering you are safe in your own bed.
Often, a series of recurring nightmares can lead to, or worsen, daytime anxiety and worry. They swirl around in your mind, causing a lack of focus making concentrating and working efficiently impossible. And, of course, they can lead to insomnia when the prospect of sleep… and another terrifying nightmare… is the last thing you want to experience when you snuggle down. So, how to stop nightmares?
What Causes Nightmares and Bad Dreams?
No-one has been able to pin down the exact cause of these hellish dreams. However, many theories on the roots of nightmares abound. They include:
- Eating or drinking certain foods too late in the day
- Over stimulation of the brain: movies, reading, video game playing, etc
- Anxiety, fear
- Negative events, such as a death in the family
- Problems at school or work
- Conflict, arguments
- Psychic episodes – precognition or premonition
- Illness, fever
- Alcohol, drug taking.
Many psychotherapists suggest that dreaming is how the brain processes daily events, although that has never been proved. Much research has been carried out into dreaming, but the results are variable because the experience is so subjective. One man’s nightmare is another’s fascinating inspiration.
Rutgers University psychologist, Edward Selby, suggests that people with borderline personality disorder are likely to suffer from frequent nightmares. They call it the ‘cascade factor’ where people get caught up in endless cycles of negative mental processes. They suggest two main causes of bad dreams:
- ‘Ruminizing’ where someone continually thinks about and analyzes one problem. The thoughts go round and round in circles, while they anxiously search for a solution.
- ‘Catastrophizing’ when a person imagines the worst possible outcome to a situation. In fact, they make a habit of always expecting the worst to happen.
How to Stop Nightmares
Some of the solutions are straightforward:
- If you have a habit of chomping a cheese sandwich and downing it with a mug of coffee late in the evening, then replace it with a bowl of healthy cereal and a glass of water. Better still, try not to eat after dinner at all
- Switch to decaf after lunch and avoid alcohol
- Reduce stimulation by watching less exciting TV
- Don’t read smart phones and tablets in bed
- Make sure any reading material is not of the Stephen King variety.
Other problems may take time to work out, but the important thing is not to try and deal with them alone:
Consult your doctor if you are taking medication and explain that nightmares are affecting you badly. He may switch your medication.
If you are suffering from anxiety, it is important to talk to someone about it. A counselor or psychotherapist will be able to reduce your stress levels and give you positive suggestions. Should this not be possible, then call Befrienders Worldwide or The Samaritans (UK), Lifeline (Aus). You can call anytime, night or day and speak to someone who is trained to help.
Learn to recognize when you are ruminizing or catastrophizing. Find ways to distract yourself from it. Contrary to previous advice, losing yourself in a good book or enthralling TV show may work for you. Think back to all the previous times you expected the worst and it didn’t happen. The fact that it didn’t happen wasn't because you put so much energy into worrying about it. Worry is not a magic talisman, and is seriously detrimental to your wellbeing. If you can’t control it, seek help as above.
Your nightmares may be caused by some temporary event that is happening in your life, and therefore, when it has passed, the nightmares should disappear along with it. Sometimes, simply recognizing the bad dreams are caused by such an event is enough to soothe yourself into sleeping well.
Another method of how to stop nightmares is ‘lucid dreaming’. Lucid dreaming is when you become aware in your dream that you are asleep and dreaming. Once you achieve that realization, you can change the direction of the dream, defusing it and even making it a happy one. It would take a whole other article to delve into the fascinating topic of lucid dreams, but there are many resources available.
Helping Kids Deal with Nightmares
The most important thing is to treat your child’s fear positively. Never tease them – it’s very real to them. Your reaction to their nightmare can have far-reaching consequences, so always listen to them and never downplay the scariness.
Methods for dealing with children’s nightmares include:
- Listening and understanding. Talk about the nightmare in the light of day, try gently to get your child to minimize her fears. Perhaps get her to draw a funny picture of the ‘monster’ then do something with it – throwing it in the trash after tearing it into tiny pieces will put her in a place of power.
- Reassurance. Explain that no-one or no-thing can hurt her while she is safe in her bed.
- Devise some coping techniques and encourage your child to make his own suggestions.
- Use a night light or place luminous stars on her ceiling. In this way, she’ll always know she is safe in bed if she wakes suddenly in the night.
- Give them a ‘friend’ to cuddle, a soft toy, or even move the family dog into his room for a night or two.
- Practice some relaxation techniques before bed time. Get your child to visualize being in her favorite place or explain how to construct an imaginary bubble of protection around herself.
We hope we have given you some useful suggestions on how to stop nightmares making your life a misery. Understanding that most are rooted in our daily lives and that there are techniques to allay the night time horrors, is the first step to a good night’s sleep.