Around 5 percent of folks have persistent nightmares at any given time. So—math in progress—if “people having nightmares” was a U.S. state, it would be fourth largest with 16 million people. You aren’t alone.
Here are the seven best ways to stop nightmares.
- Lower your overall stress/anxiety level
- Think more positively, both overall and about your dream
- Avoid overuse of alcohol, sleeping pills, or other substances
- Visualize a happy ending to your dream while you’re awake
- Get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep
- Add pleasant smells to your bedroom
- Grow up! (Children, students, and the unmarried are more likely to have nightmares.)
Some of these are easier said than done—still, let’s look at why they’re touted to work.
When Are Nightmares a Serious Problem?
Recurring nightmares are a very common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, can be a side effect of certain medications, and, in some cases, put you at risk of harming yourself or others.
So, if you have experienced trauma, recently started or stopped a medication, or are acting out violently in your sleep, talk to a doctor right away about your nightmares.
If your nightmares are more of a nuisance, read on!
1) Lower Your Overall Stress/Anxiety Level
Stress and anxiety carry over from our waking lives to our dream world. Symptoms of anxiety like restlessness, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and gastrointestinal (GI) problems make it difficult to fall asleep.
Dreams that occur in the first few moments before we fall asleep are usually less surreal than those that occur later in our sleep cycle. So, if your nightmares are happening early in the night or seem to be about real life events—like showing up unprepared to a big meeting, for instance—it could be a sign you’re stressed out.
Classic stress reduction methods like getting more exercise, talking to friends more often, and quitting the job you don’t like are all options to consider.
Also, what we’re going to talk about next.
2) Think More Positively
A recent study showed that people who thought the most negatively during the day had the worst nightmares. If you feel that your underlying worries are causing your nightmares, limiting your worrying could end the nightmares.
Or, you can attack it from the other side. Telling yourself that your dream is nothing more than brain fiction can help. Instead of dwelling on your dream and building it into a massive concern—what psychologists call “catastrophizing”—you can tell yourself that it’s not a big deal.
This can all fall under the umbrella of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness helps you relax, focus on what’s truly important in your life, and drive worry away. Yoga has been going strong for more than 2,000 years; so has prayer. Find a mindfulness practice that appeals to you, stick to it, and see if your nightmares subside.
3) Avoid Overuse of Alcohol, Sleeping Pills, or Other Substances
Not surprisingly, altering your brain chemicals can cause your sleep to go a bit haywire. Antidepressant use and withdrawal is associated with changes in sleep and dream patterns. If you recently started or stopped a prescription medication and find yourself experiencing more frequent nightmares, talk to your doctor right away.
But other substances that we can buy over the counter—or over the bar—can lead to nightmares, too.
When we overuse sleeping pills or alcohol, we can sleep longer than normal. More sleep can mean more time to dream, and thus, more time to have a bad dream.
We’re also at risk when we stop taking these substances. More frequent or vivid nightmares can be a symptom of withdrawal. Trying to cut back? That could be why you’re having more nightmares.
4) Visualize a Happy Ending to Your Dream
Therapists often recommend visualization to people suffering from PTSD. Many times, their nightmares repeat, replicating the traumatic experience they suffered. Anyone who suffered a traumatic experience and is having persistent nightmares should see a doctor.
If you want to cancel the next episode of your recurring nightmare, consider visualizing or journaling a positive outcome. For example, if you have a recurring dream that you miss the bus to work, you could envision that a co-worker happened to be driving by and picked you up! Not likely, sure, but you’re writing this story, not your subconscious. As Bob Ross would say—it’s your world!
5) Get Seven to Nine Hours of Sleep Every Night
A study of the general population in the U.K. found that people who slept less than seven hours per night, or more than nine, were slightly more likely to have nightmares.
Their data wasn’t conclusive, but if you fall into one of these categories, try joining the seven-to-nine-hours-of-sleep club. Hey, Bill Gates and Ellen DeGeneres do it!
6) Add Pleasant Smells to Your Bedroom
One study had 15 women fall asleep at a sleep research center. Three types of smells—rose, rotten, and neutral—were then emitted in the room. The women reported more positive dreams while sniffing roses and more negative dreams while sniffing rotten.
Not positive proof that you should order a nightly bouquet delivery, but you might spritz out a pleasant room spray before bed and see if that helps.
7) Grow Up!
Lots of kids have nightmares—a study found that 28 percent of adolescents experience nightmares. But among the general population, nightmares are a problem for only 5 to 8 percent of people. So if you’re a kid reading this, it’s likely that your nightmares will decrease as you get older. Your acne, too.
But other milestones of adulthood tend to decrease nightmares too, according to a recent study.
Sleep study subjects who had gotten married—whether they were widowed, divorced, or still living in marital bliss, were less likely to experience nightmares compared to those who were single.
And people with full-time jobs were less likely to experience nightmares than students. Is all that unsolicited advice your relatives give you about finding a steady job and a good spouse actually sleep advice?
Face It: Nightmares Could Just Be What Makes You, You
A 1996 study found that people who fall into the psychological category of having “thin boundaries” are more likely to have nightmares.
According to psychologists, folks with “thin boundaries” are less likely to see things in binary terms like yes or no, right or wrong. Instead they see the world around them in shades of gray. People with thin boundaries tend to be open with others and open to new ideas. Those with “thick boundaries” are more rigid in their beliefs and their relationships.
Artists and creative people typically test as having thin boundaries. If you think this describes you, the tips above may help you have fewer nightmares, but they may never go away. Your nightmares may just be a bug in the software that makes you open, creative, artistic—no easier to eliminate than your desire to start your next crafting project or short story.
So make yourself comfortable with Purple sleep products and enjoy the show!
Prenatal and early life origins of adolescence sleep problems: evidence from a birth cohort, International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health
Nightmares in the general population: identifying potential causal factors, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology
Nightmares: Under-Reported, Undetected, and Therefore Untreated, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine
Nightmares and disorders of dreaming, American Family Physician
What Dreams May Come: Emotional Cascades and Nightmares in Borderline Personality Disorder, Dreaming: The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Dreams
Dreaming and personality: Thick vs. thin boundaries, Dreaming: The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Dreams
How Thin Are Your Boundaries, Psychology Today
Five Steps to Conquering Nightmares, Psychology Today
Nightmare Disorder, Mayo Clinic