Have you ever been jolted awake, seemingly out of nowhere? Perhaps you’re sweating or your heart races as you remember, or strive to recall, a distressing dream that felt oh so real? If so, you’ve experienced nightmares. “Nightmares are unsettling dreams usually associated with feelings of anxiety or fear that awakens you from sleep and sometimes include abnormal movements, behaviors, emotions, or perceptions. They can occur while you’re asleep, falling asleep, or even waking up,” says Raj Dasgupta, M.D., sleep expert and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC. Nightmares are most common in children but can happen at any age, and the occasional one is usually nothing to worry about — but if they happen frequently and your daytime functioning is disrupted due to lack of sleep, it’s important to try to find a fix, says Dr. Dasgupta. Try these tips to stop nightmares, so you can snooze sounder at night.
Find your zen.
One common nightmare trigger is stress. “They sometimes result from us trying to solve problems in our sleep — this is the brain’s rehearsal system at work in the night, so too much daytime stress can lead to nightmares when you go to bed,” says Alex Dimitriu, M.D., founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California. Find activities that keep you calm and make them a regular part of your daily routine. Try things like meditation, yoga, walking or other exercise, a hot bath before bed, or scheduling a few minutes of quiet “me time” where you wind down from the day.
Have a bedtime snack.
If your blood sugar drops too low while you’re sleeping, that can cause a nightmare, says Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., integrative medical expert and author. How can you tell if nighttime “hanger” is to blame for your bad dreams? One good clue is if you feel “hangry” during the day. “There is a simple treatment for this: eat 1-2 ounces of protein before bed for a few nights; think things like two hard-boiled eggs or a bit of meat, fish, or cheese, and avoid carbohydrates, which may make things worse,” says Dr. Teitelbaum.
Stick to a sleep schedule.
Maintaining a regular sleep schedule seven days a week (yes, weekends, too!) is key to getting enough shuteye, and in turn, staving off nightmares. “Sleep deprivation and insomnia has been associated with increased risk of nightmares, so stick to a regular sleeping pattern as much as possible,” says Dr. Dasgupta. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day and aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Finding a routine that works—putting away electronic devices 30 minutes before bed, or reading a few chapters of your book—can help make drifting off to sleep easier.
Nix the nightcap.
Alcohol might make you sleepy, but it (and other substances like drugs) can actually lead to nightmares, says Dr. Dasgupta. Avoid sipping wine, beer, liquor, and other spirits close to bedtime and instead rely on other tricks, like a soothing cup of hot tea or 10-minute meditation, to quiet your mind.
Examine your medicine cabinet.
Depression and anxiety can be a nightmare trigger, but so can some of the drugs often prescribed to treat those conditions, such as SSRI (selective serotonin response inhibitors)—in fact, SSRI may actually intensify dreams, says Michael Breus, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, and Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Other drugs to treat blood pressure or help you sleep may also cause nighttime distress. Talk to your doctor about alternative medications or adjusting your dose to see if that helps.
Try rewriting your nightmares.
We can’t always remember our bad dreams, even if we emotionally or physically react to them — but if you can recall what you dreamt about, image-rehearsal therapy may help reduce nightmares the next time you sleep, says Dr. Breus. Recast your nightmare into a happier, more peaceful script. For example, if you were running down a dark path as a threat got closer and closer, perhaps your new scenario features you walking down a quiet wooded path with your loyal dog trotting along behind you.
Schedule “worry time.”
By now you know that stress, anxiety, and depression can trigger nightmares. One trick that may help you keep a handle on them is to carve out time to feel and experience those negative thoughts and emotions — that way you don’t bring them with you into bed. “Journal or problem solve for 20-30 minutes hours before bedtime to get it all out ahead of time so it doesn’t happen at night,” says Dr. Dimitriu.
Avoid scary things.
This might seem obvious, but watching a frightening movie or reading a scary book can lead to nightmares, so consider taking a break or hitting pause to see if they stop. "This sounds silly but it's not! I know I watched 'The Invisible Man' a couple of weeks ago and definitely had a nightmare that night!" says Dr. Dasgupta.
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