Bad dreams are uncomfortable, but there are ways to beat them.
Bad dreams can spoil your day, before it even begins.
Sometimes, that nightmare experience can haunt your waking mind, leaving you wondering why you dreamt those horrors. Sometimes even worse, you wake up wondering why such a silly experience (like showing up to a class or meeting unprepared, or naked) could be experienced with such paralyzing fright.
Often, people fear their bad dreams, and don’t know what to do about them. The surprising thing is that psychology and research really don’t fully understand dreams. A hundred years ago, dream analysis was a popular, but ultimately ineffective method of psychotherapy. Because they are impossible to directly study — we can’t actually see someone’s dreams, but can only listen to their report and descriptions — and because our society places remarkably little emphasis upon sleep and dreaming, we actually know little about what dreams are, or what they do.
But, there are a few proven ways to take away the power of bad dreams:
1) Here’s the first, most important message about bad dreams: They don’t necessarily mean ANYTHING. According to modern science, dreams are not prophetic, are not connected to the future, to other worlds, nor are they revealing of ones’ true self. As far as researchers have determined, dreams appear to be a side-effect of the process by which our brains encode long term memories. When researchers interrupt or prevent dreaming, memory and learning is impaired.
Basically, you the dreamer are just an accidental bystander as your mind takes your recent experiences and moves them into longer term memory. So, the scary dreams you experience, are often just a distorted experience, as if you were watching a television replay your days’ experiences, seen through a stained glass window. So, when you wake up, sweating and upset, from those bad dreams — tell yourself that they are just your brain’s way of putting away memories.
2) Bad dreams can ruin your day; IF you let them. Most dreams fade from memory within a short time of waking. But when we ruminate on them, and spend a lot of time worrying over them and what they mean, we not only instill them more deeply in our memory, but also increase the chances of them coming back again.
So, if you find yourself brooding over that nightmare, remind yourself that it was just a dream, just a confused process of your mind, and move on with your day. The more you stress over them, the more energy you give to the bad dreams.
And remember — dreams are just your mind replaying your day’s experiences. If you spend time today worrying on your bad dreams, you are making them part of your day’ experiences and telling your mind to remember them — which means they may come back tonight in your dreams.
3) But this same tactic can be turned on its head, and used to help you master your nightmares. Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is a method used in Cognitive Behavioral Treatment, teaching people to script new dreams. IRT helps people to take their recurring bad dreams and plan out a new way for the dream to go.
Instead of replaying the bad dream over and over, imagine how you would rather have the dream go? Rehearse that script mentally, instead of remembering and worrying over that nightmare. By doing this practice, you are making this new mental experience part of your day, and thus something your mind will encode into memory.
You are also taking fuel away from that nightmare, like stealing oxygen from a fire. By ignoring the nightmare, and replacing it with other thoughts, you are teaching your brain that the new script is more important than that uncomfortable dream.
4) Sleep hygiene is an important part of having healthy sleep, and good dreams. If you find sleep a frustrating, challenging and stressful experience, when you finally fall into an exhausted slumber you are more likely to have stressed and uncomfortable dreams.
Being mindful of caffeine and alcohol, paying attention to planning an environment conducive to sleep, and teaching yourself how to sleep well, are all things more likely to make your dreams a pleasant experience.
5) Sometimes, nightmares can be associated with traumatic symptoms of PTSD, or are a facet of other problems. Cognitive behavioral techniques such as IRT are often used to lessen the frequency and emotional impact of nightmares. But sometimes, additional strategies such as medication can be useful, to help people gain enough emotional distance and relief from their nightmares, so that they can begin to regain control over them. Some medications, such as Prazosin and Clonidine, have demonstrated efficacy in reducing the frequency of nightmares in people with some diagnosed psychiatric disorders. If you find yourself struggling with recurring nightmares, repeating traumatic and painful experiences, and techniques such as IRT aren’t working, it might be time to talk to your doctor.
While sometimes uncomfortable and stressful, nightmares can often be a window into our dreamworld.
Not in a wild, “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Inception” kind of way, where our nightmares reveal new layers of reality. Instead, bad dreams can help us to pay mindful, thoughtful attention to the ways in which our daily behaviors and mental experiences impact our lives, both awake and asleep.
Learning to hack your bad dreams can teach you ways to be more in control of many aspects of your life awake and dreaming.
Note: I’m not convinced by the concept or strategy called “Lucid Dreaming.” Research supporting it is rather poor, and there appears little strong evidence that it is a therapeutic strategy. If we frame dreaming as a side-effect of memory encoding, then the idea of lucid dreaming doesn’t make a lot of sense. So, to be honest, I tell my patients not to waste their time on it. If you can lucid dream — bully for you — have fun flying in your dreams. For the rest of us, these real-world strategies are more effective.
This article originally appeared on www.PsychologyToday.com.
Photo credit: Flickr/jFRwmb