Nightmares are coherent dream sequences that are often realistic, disturbing, unsettling and can result in awakenings from sleep as well as affecting sleep quality. Nightmare themes vary widely from person to person and from time to time for that person. They often focus on imminent physical danger or other distressing themes; the most common is being chased. Nightmares are different to night terrors which are more feeling based and less extreme than Nightmare Disorder which is persistent and severe. Nightmares are most common in children but are also experienced by adults too and for some regularly and in a recurring manner. An estimated 50-85 percent of adults report having the occasional nightmare and in many cases the reasons why the nightmares occur are unclear.
Nightmares normally happen in the longest REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep which is often in the early hours of the morning. The dreamer may feel any number of emotions in a nightmare including anxiety, fear or terror. Other common emotions include anger, rage, embarrassment and disgust and a central theme can be loss of control.
Nightmares can be a result of stress, anxiety, a fever, mental health conditions, a side effect of medication/drugs or physical conditions such as sleep apnoea or restless leg syndrome. They can also follow a traumatic event such as surgery, the loss of a loved one, an assault or an accident. They may involve a realistic reliving of an experience or they may reflect day time worries and concerns and can act as an emotional release for some.
How to help yourself
- Keeping a sleep diary can be a really helpful first step to keep a record but also to identify possible patterns and triggers.
- Avoiding scary books and films before bed can help in some situations as well as avoiding eating straight before bed as your metabolic rate will be higher due to this and your brain more active.
- Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine can also disrupt sleep patterns so considering your lifestyle may also be beneficial.
- Reducing stress can be another key factor when managing nightmares. Exercise can be a really helpful tool to alleviate stress and anxiety as well as using relaxation techniques, yoga, meditation or mindfulness.
- Adopting good sleeping habits and hygiene such as creating a tranquil and calm atmosphere where you sleep has also been shown to help, as an irregular sleep routine or being overtired can increase your risk for nightmares.
- Talking to and sharing with others both generally and about your dreams can also be a helpful way of supporting you in not taking concerns to bed with you.
- Considering any worries, concerns or past traumas may then be a starting place to ascertain any underlying issues which may be contributing. Nightmares can offer an opportunity for self-exploration and understanding and could aid seeing relationships between your dreams and waking life. From here you may then be able to take proactive steps to support yourself through these concerns.
- Being aware of your mind set before going to sleep can be effective too- channel positive, calming thoughts, envisage peaceful and relaxing places using all of your senses and see if you can encourage your dreams to continue in a similar vein.
- Finding ways to process your feelings such as journaling, having designated worry periods or finding creative outlets may also be beneficial.
- For some it can be helpful to consider alternative endings to their nightmares, in which they feel in control or in which fear is neutralised- this could be achieved by writing, drawing or painting an alternative ending to their nightmare. Some people also feel that they may be able to control the outcome of their dream as it is actually happening.
- It may be helpful to see your G.p to discuss your experiencing and concerns and to rule out drugs, medications or illness as a cause if this feels relevant for you.