Free falling into a black void. Teeth falling out. Being naked in public. Most of us can recall waking from a nightmare in a cold sweat.
Indeed, between 50 and 85 percent of adults report having experienced the occasional nightmare, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).
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While nightmares become less frequent as you age, you might have noticed an uptick in nightmares in the past year. That's because stress, anxiety and trauma — which have been ever-present during the novel coronavirus pandemic — can trigger nightmares, per the Mayo Clinic.
Though the sporadic bad dream is nothing to worry about, recurring nightmares can become a nuisance, especially if they're sabotaging your shut-eye.
"Nightmares negatively impact our sleep quality because they involve an awakening," Patricia Haynes PhD, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist, tells LIVESTRONG.com. When you rouse from sleep feeling anxious or with a racing heart, going back to bed can be difficult. And the more your sleep is disrupted, the less rested you'll feel in the morning.
In addition, fear of nightmares may cause you to avoid sleep. This can lead to sleep deprivation or a pattern of disturbed sleep that can, in some cases, even turn into insomnia, according to the Sleep Foundation.
To make matters worse, nightmares may aggravate existing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, which are already associated with symptoms like sleep disruption.
Here, Haynes suggests strategies to nix nightmares for a relaxing night's rest.
1. Get Stress Under Control
Stress and anxiety can provoke nightmares, so finding ways to manage these feelings can be helpful.
"Stress management includes practicing deep breathing and mindfulness, reducing demands at work or home, taking breaks and cultivating positive relationships," Haynes says.
This advice is nothing new, Haynes says, but just because you've heard it before doesn't mean you're doing it. That's why she encourages prioritizing stress management in your day-to-day.
2. Try to ‘Switch Tracks’
When you wake up from a nightmare, "Do something mellow or relaxing that will help you fall back asleep quickly," Haynes says.
Deep breathing, meditation or progressive deep muscle relaxation can all be good places to start.
3. Don't Marinate in It...
"It can be easy to slip into a rabbit hole and try to analyze our way out," Haynes says. "We wonder what the nightmare means and why we had it."
But, often, overanalyzing a terrifying dream just compounds the distress by taking over your waking hours too.
"When we analyze our nightmare during the day, we are replaying the same nightmare imagery over and over again just like a broken record," Haynes says.
4. ...but Don't Actively Push It Away, Either
Telling yourself to not think about a nightmare will usually have the reverse effect.
"For example: Don't think about white bears. Are you now thinking about polar bears? This was a classic psychology research study by Wegner that demonstrated how attempts to suppress thoughts or images are unsuccessful and actually bring on the thought or image that we are trying to suppress," Haynes says.
The ideal way to respond to a nightmare is to allow the imagery without inviting it in or pushing it away, she explains. Like mindfulness, simply acknowledge the thought (in this case, the nightmare) and let it pass.
5. Change the Imagery
If the mindfulness approach isn't working for you, you can try to change your dream's imagery in a more positive or personal way. By doing this, you essentially "take control of the dream and 'break up' the habit of replaying the same image over and over again," Haynes says.
In other words, you rewrite your dream on your own terms. Because there are no reality-based rules to dream re-scripting, you can be as creative as you want.
In fact, "one theory is that the more fanciful the imagery, the more we can disengage the habit and help our mind use dreaming and imagery to process the stressful or emotional experience," Haynes says.
Here's an example from her practice:
"I had a patient who had recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan. He had a recurrent nightmare that involved trying to stop a bombing in an Afghan market. We worked together writing a new narrative to this dream. Instead of trying to stop the bombing, he let the bombing happen. When the bomb went off, he saw flowers exploding all over the marketplace. After writing this narrative, he spent some time practicing the imagery as well. After practicing for a week or two, the dream started changing — incorporating weird settings and people — and he had less fear. After another week, he no longer had the nightmare."
6. Get Professional Help
If you have nightmares more than once a week or they significantly affect your sleep, mood or daily life, it may help to seek out a doctor or mental health provider, per the Sleep Foundation.
Specifically, "it may be helpful to seek assistance from a behavioral sleep medicine specialist, a clinician with training and experience in nightmare and insomnia sleep therapies," Haynes says.
The Difference Between Bad Dreams, Nightmares and Night Terrors
These three terms get tossed around interchangeably, but they are indeed distinct experiences.
While bad dreams may cause distress, they don't rouse you from sleep, according to the Sleep Foundation.
"The primary difference between a bad dream and a nightmare is the intensity of the dream," Haynes adds.
Nightmares, on the other hand, often contain vivid, disturbing dream images that involve a threat to our survival or safety (think: being attacked or chased).
"The dream content is often so disturbing that the person wakes up from sleep, feeling confused or upset," Haynes says.
Sometimes people use the term 'night terror' in reference to a terrifying nightmare. In both cases, people arouse from sleep in an extremely fearful state.
"However, technically, sleep terrors are completely different from nightmares," Haynes says.
For one, night terrors (sometimes called sleep terrors) don't occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the typical stage of sleep associated with dreaming, she says. Rather, they happen during deep sleep, also called slow-wave sleep.
It's harder to wake from this type of sleep, which is why a person may appear awake during a sleep terror — for instance, their eyes are open or they're screaming — but they remain unresponsive, Haynes says.
This also explains why, unlike nightmares, it's uncommon to remember the dream content of a night terror.
These terrors affect children much more often than adults, according to the Mayo Clinic, and they're usually not any cause for concern. But you should see a doctor if they become more frequent or routinely disrupt sleep, lead to injury or safety concerns, cause excessive sleepiness or problems with functioning during the day, continue beyond the teen years or start in adulthood.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.