Almost everyone can experience nightmares — and especially during the pandemic.
“With a combination of additional stress and safer-at-home orders, more people are struggling with nightmares,” said Jennifer Martin, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s board of directors.
If your days are filled with online school for the children, social distancing, masks and a daily death toll, isn’t it no wonder adults are having nightmares at night?
“Dreams do usually incorporate things that happened during the day, leading some researchers to hypothesize that dreams and rapid eye movement sleep is essential for memory consolidation and cognitive rejuvenation,” said Joshua Tal, a sleep and health psychologist based in Manhattan. “Nightmares are the mind’s attempts at making sense of these events, by replaying them in images during sleep.”
If someone has frequent nightmares — more than once or twice weekly — that cause distress or impairment at work or among people, he or she might have nightmare disorder. Treatments include medications and behavioral therapies.
Trying out these 10 steps could help you ease your nightmares and improve your sleep and quality of life.
1. Establish a sleep routine
Nightmares, Martin said, occur during rapid eye movement sleep, the phase during which our muscles relax and we dream. Waking up during REM sleep enables recollection of the dream and resulting distress.
“One of the most effective ways to treat nightmare problems in adults is actually to get them sleeping more soundly (so) they wake up less often,” Martin said.
2. Cut back on alcohol
Alcoholic beverages can induce restlessness and awakenings throughout the night — potentially helping you remember nightmares, Martin said.
One drink more than three hours before bedtime is OK, Martin said. Just pay attention to whether it causes a post-dinner nap and alertness at bedtime, and eliminate that drink if it does.
3. Don’t eat before bed
4. Review your medications
Some medications can prompt nightmares by interrupting REM sleep.
“If people can identify that their nightmares either started or increased when they had a change in their medication, that’s definitely a reason to talk to their doctor” about their medication schedule or alternatives, Martin said.
Melatonin, while a popular sleep aid, influences our circadian rhythm that regulates REM sleep, and can lead to more or fewer nightmares. If you want to take melatonin for better sleep, work with a sleep specialist to ensure you’re taking it at the right time and not compounding the problem, Martin said.
5. Practice stress-relieving activities
“Nightmares activate the sympathetic nervous system, the ‘fight or flight system,’ the body’s natural response to imminent danger,” said Tal via email.
“The body also has an innate relaxation system: the parasympathetic nervous system, aka the ‘rest and digest’ system.” Progressive muscle relaxation and other relaxation activities can help activate that system.
6. Journal your worries
Write down your worries to get them all out ahead of time, lest they rear their disquieting heads at night. Journaling can be helpful for alleviating nightmares and stress in general, Tal said.
7. Don’t watch or read scary content before bed
Since our nighttime observations can appear during sleep, “spend some energy engaging with things that are more emotionally neutral or even positive” before bedtime, Martin suggested.
During the pandemic, our everyday lives are looking pretty scary, too. “Reading the news media and then hopping into bed is more likely to trigger disturbing and upsetting dreams than looking through pictures from your last vacation with your family,” she added.
8. Rewrite the ending
Imagery rehearsal therapy is effective “when the chronic nightmares are showing similar themes and patterns,” Tal said.
“By practicing a rewrite during the daytime, you increase your chances of having them at night while you’re sleeping instead of your nightmare,” Tal said.
9. Use a white noise machine
Silence is key in a sleep routine, but “for people who either don’t like it to be completely quiet or who are awakened by noises they can’t control during the night,” background noise “is a good strategy,” Martin said.
Try a fan or a white noise machine or app for several consecutive nights to help your brain adapt, she added.
10. Check up on your mental health
If nothing works and you’re still having nightmares, talk with a therapist or sleep specialist.
“Nightmares might be a sign of a larger issue, such as PTSD or a mood disorder,” Tal said. “It is possible to treat the nightmares without treating the underlying disorder, but it may also be helpful to treat both the symptom and the disorder.
“There has been great progress on psychological treatments for nightmares, insomnia, anxiety and mood disorders,” Tal added. “Do not be afraid to ask for help; psychotherapy works and it is often short term and accessible.”