an image of a girl having nightmares

How To Avoid Having Nightmares?

There’s nothing worse than trying to get restful sleep, when all of a sudden, a monster starts to chase you, and just moments before it catches up to you… you’re back to the drawing board. Woken up suddenly, soaked in sweat, heart about to burst from your chest… We’ve all been there. Nightmares can cause stress that can last for long after we’ve woken up. The adrenaline pumps up and we can’t go back to sleep. This is usually caused by stress, but there’s more to nightmares than you know. We are going to talk about nightmares and how to prevent them naturally in the following article.

What are nightmares?

In simple terms, nightmares are the work of our glorious mind. Our unconscious mind literally plays tricks on us while releasing stress and tension while we are asleep. We have no substantial evidence as to why we have nightmares. Sometimes we have nightmares when we’re in a stressful period of our lives, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, nightmares can be pretty random. But, there are some other factors that we can include in our theories that might help us avoid having nightmares as much as possible.

Nightmares are essentially dreams. However, they differ from dreams in a way that they bring out intense feelings of fear, distress or terror. They often feel very vivid – causing us to suddenly wake up. That can cause hypertension and anxiety, and some nightmares can even cause deep psychological damage.

an image of a woman suffering from insomnia caused by nightmares

Dreams and nightmares

We all know that dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of our sleep. This is the phase where our body gets the most rest. However, our brain is literally working at incredible speed, processing information – very much looking like when we are awake. This is also the time when nightmares occur. Very little is known about why we dream in general.

Some scientists say that our brain is processing data we’ve collected during the day, some that we’re managing subconscious thoughts. Others say that some dreams are caused by chemicals in our brain. Many also associate nightmares with growth, because the biggest population experiencing nightmares in between 6-18 years of age, which is the strongest period of both physical and mental development. It might be all of these for all we know, but the good news is, there are some things that are in our control when it comes to sleeping soundly.

Most common nightmares

Although nightmares can be pretty subjective, based on personal experience, fears and insecurities, there are recurring themes to everyone when they are having nightmares. Some of the most common nightmares have themes of violence, death, threats and grotesque. Some nightmares don’t even have to jumpscare us. There are nightmares which simply inflict terror on us, leave us sad, uneasy, anxious, or cause severe disgust.

You’ve certainly had at least one of these nightmares:

  1. Falling
  2. Death
  3. Being paralysed
  4. Something/someone chasing you
  5. Being the center of a scandal

Psychologists often associate these kind of dreams with the problems we are facing in our lives. This is the subconscious way of dealing with issues in both literal and abstract ways. Everything that we are facing might influence our brain to process it during night, and bad emotions are often more intense in dreams than good ones. Because of that, we tend to remember our dreams better if we felt scared, humiliated or nervous after waking up.

an image of a nightmare

Causes of nightmares

We are going to deal with most prominent causes of nightmares. Many sleep experts, psychologists and scientists have been working for decades, learning about what causes these intense and scary dreams. In order to learn how to prevent nightmares from happening, we have to make sure we learn as much as we can about their causes. These are the factors we need to take into account when it’s time to catch some shut-eye.

Stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety are important factors when it comes to causes of nightmares. People with anxiety disorders have nightmares more frequently. Anxiety and stress can be caused by many things. It can be as trivial as losing a job or moving to a new place, or severe like losing a loved one or going through a divorce. Studies reported that students and athletes have a higher chance of having a nightmare the night before a big exam/competition. The pressure and stress of the upcoming event builds up during the day, causing our brain to try and cope with it once we fall asleep, causing a nightmare. This proves to be as the most common trigger for nightmares.

an image of a woman having stress caused by nightmares

Popular media

Adrenaline junkies, most of all, horror movie fans, have a higher chance of experiencing a nightmare if they’re watching a scary movie or show before bedtime. However, it doesn’t only end there. This can go as far as watching or hearing some disturbing news reports, or suspenseful shows. The imagery or the impression we get from the experience can be imprinted in our unconscious mind, causing a bad dream. Imagery of grotesque, violence, terror inducing music and jumpscare memes and videos can leave a lasting and impactful impression, especially at children at a younger age, even causing long-lasting trauma. Although there are no solid scientific evidence, we can say with certainty that everyone experienced these kind of dreams.

an image of parents are watching scary movie with kids

Sleeping habits

Our sleeping habits can also affect whether we’ll go to the dreamy candy land and play with the horsies, or be chased by a dragon with razor sharp teeth. Some environmental factors, like the room temperature, scents and the amount of comfort we get from our mattresses or pillows can also affect our dreaming state. If we’re uncomfortable in our own bed, there are bigger chances of waking up throughout the night. Let’s not forget that when woken up at the REM stage of sleep, we will remember most, if not the entire dream we had. So, let’s not do that and sleep over our evil monsters and wake up remembering nothing. Check your mattress for firmness, chunks or lumps, change your beddings regularly, buy a new pillow, light up a rose scented candle, and create the optimal room temperature.

Depression and trauma

People that are clinically depressed and people who have had severe trauma in their past (e.g. PTSD) can have more frequent nightmares. The cause in depression lays in the lack of motivation and an all-time low self-esteem followed by negative and downright mentally damaging thoughts. These kinds of occurrences request immediate medical and psychiatric attention as they can lead to serious consequences. PTSD sufferers and people who have gone through severely traumatic events such as natural disasters, or relationship violence also prove to be one of the most frequent nightmare dreamers. The dreams often repeat the previously relived event, oftentimes causing the sufferer wake up suddenly, much like having an episode.

an image of a man being depressed

Drugs, alcohol, medications

It goes without saying that psychoactive substances can cause nightmares. In REM sleep it’s bad enough that the brain itself is playing tricks on us while we’re asleep, but if we’re using, it gets even worse. The most prominent substances that cause nightmares are opium, cocaine and cannabis.

Drugs can also cause nightmares. Prescription drugs can change sleeping patterns by affecting neurotransmitters and therefore can influencing REM and NREM sleep stages. Sedatives, drugs used in Alzheimer’s disease, some antidepressants, antihistamines, and antipsychotics can cause nightmares and other vivid dreams.

Although someone likes a glass of wine, a can of beer or a nightcap before bed to fall asleep faster, they can cause lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis and bad dreams in general. Alcohol is a natural diuretic, so you will have frequent walks to the bathroom during the night, causing you to wake up multiple times, which is bad for sleeping.

How to minimize chances of having nightmares?

We’ve learned the most prominent causes for having nightmares, so it can be much easier to determine new ways to avoid having them when we lie down. If you’re not really interested in learning to control your dreams, which many people can do with a lot of practice, then here are some of the best things you have to try to minimize the chance of having a nightmare.

Make sure you're comfortable

Optimize the room temperature, and make sure you sleep on a high-quality mattress and pillow. An ideal mattress offers adequate support without being too firm. Depending on the way that you sleep (on your stomach, back or side), you can choose various types of mattresses (memory foam, spring, pocketed spring, latex, hybrid, and other). A new mattress can’t be the only solution, though. If you’re on a lower budget, a mattress topper can be a great short-term solution. Remember: the mission is to make your sleeping space as comfortable as possible, so you won’t toss and turn in your bed in hope of getting some shut-eye.

an image of a man sleeping on his back and snoring

Routine

Routine is recommended when it comes to sleeping. If you stick to your sleeping schedule religiously, you will minimize the chance of having a nightmare. Routines are great to stick by because they lower stress and anxiety. In any way, a healthy sleep schedule can help you a lot. Sleep deprivation can also cause bad dreams. That’s why it’s important to not stay up too late, especially if you have to wake up early in the morning for job or school. Sleep at least 6 hours a day in order to get the proper REM phase rest.

Food and diets

Diets aren’t the direct causes of nightmares, but insufficient nutrition throughout the day is. Don’t go to bed hungry – but don’t stuff yourself as well. Going to bed stuffed will cause your metabolism to work long after you’ve fallen asleep, leading to restless sleep, heartburn, and acid reflux. These can cause frequent waking up and consequently make you wake during a nightmare. Avoid spicy food, high-protein food, fats and junk food in general before bed. Keep snacks light: turkey, avocado, and oats have proven to be the optimal bedtime snack.

Whitenoise

Oftentimes we associate voices, noises and other audio stimuli to feelings and experiences. If you want to get restful sleep during the night and are afraid of relaxing enough not to have nightmares, then a white noise machine or simply looking up white noise on the internet, or playing it on youtube can help. A white noise is a sound containing many frequencies with an equal intensity, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. White noise can be a great substitute for earplugs, as these many frequencies can mask other noises, especially if you have a neighbour that likes to leave the TV on the whole night. Find a noise that you associate positive feelings with, and try to fall asleep to it. Great examples of white noises are: raindrops, distant thunderstorm, ocean breeze, sounds of a forest, ocean waves, or crickets.

a woman listening to a white noise

Video games

Believe it or not, some studies conducted have proved that people with PTSD who frequently played video games had less issues coping with their trauma and had less threatening dreams. The thing with video games is that they influence our brain to be more prone to problem-solving and coping. This can be used to ‘train’ our minds that we have all the control. Many gamers reported that they had lucid dreams due to the fact that they played a lot of video games. Contrary to popular belief, video games are a great way to stimulate your brain and keep it occupied and ready for some problem solving. Just make sure not to play horror video games late into the night, of course – keep it light and casual.

an image of sony playstation joystick

Talk about it/write about it

Reduce your stress and anxiety followed by having nightmares by putting it in writing, or talking to someone about it. Psychologists believe that articulating your feelings and getting proper emotional support from friends or family can significantly help in coping with bad dreams. Writing is also a great tool that helps you process all of the information more systematically. It can provide solutions faster and coping with more ease. If you have a knack for writing, a bad dream can even serve as a great inspiration for a short story – but it doesn’t have to end badly, because you have control there. Change the course, make a more satisfying ending. That way you’ll feel less anxious and next time you fall asleep, you’ll be reminded that it’s just your brain playing tricks on you.

writing about the dreams and nightmares

Off to the dream land

Try not to overthink – stress and anxiety come very quickly to the stage after that. You have the power to make your sleeping better. Start from your surroundings, and then introspect. What are your main problems? Write them down and try to solve them one by one. Don’t forget! Feeling vulnerable, afraid, sad and helpless is normal, but these feelings cannot persist. There is no shame in asking professional help. Insomnia, anxiety and even depression can be treated successfully, so don’t let your bad dreams control you. Nightmares can be traumatic, but the only thing worse than that is not being able to cope with the real world after that.

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