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I'm dreaming of a well-rested Unicorn...
November 9, 2009 9:48 PM   Subscribe

Almost every dream I have is a nightmare, if I remember the dream. Is there a way to train myself not to do this?

Inspired by this question, I realized that almost every time I dream, it's a nightmare. They are typically very vivid and not "anxiety" dreams, like taking a test without studying. On the scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is, say, a sex dream and 10 equals me being in a situation where I have experienced hours of physical torture and eventually am eaten alive by rabid animals (and waking up feeling nauseated, heart pounding, sweaty), I'd say the majority of my dreams are in the 6-8 range.

I have also experienced cyclical nightmares every night for up to 10 months. By this I mean I can wake up 6-10 times a night and pick right up in the nightmare where I left off, or experience the same nightmare every single night for almost a year. I mostly dream like this:

- One night per week I'll have a fantastic, amazing, vivid dream that is weird/fun (it's never more frequently than that)

- Two or three nights per week I won't dream at all

- Three nights per week or more, sometimes up to six nights a week, I will dream about unpleasant things like going to jail for something I didn't do, having my teeth disintegrate slowly and painfully while I try to get them fixed, dying from painful and irreparable injuries, trying to run away from something but being pulled back slowly in an unbearably long, thin trail (like the spaghettification effect of a black hole)

Not sure if this matters, but about 3x per week I have to rely on Ambien to sleep at all and have suffered chronic insomnia since I was 11. The Ambien appears 100% unrelated to my dreaming patterns, as I have had happy dreams, no dreams, and nightmares all on Ambien.

Is there some kind of meditation, visualization or medication I could try to break this? I frequently feel physically and mentally exhausted and DO get sleepy, but dread sleeping knowing that I most likely will wake up terrified. I handle the nightmares fine if another person is in the house with me, for some reason.

If I could break cycle, I think I'd be able to feel rested. Has anyone else experienced this and been able to change it?
posted by Unicorn on the cob to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Okay, this is going to sound odd, but it worked for me when I was on a six month nightmare streak - when I was going to sleep, I would make a list of things I needed to do the next day or things I should think about (i.e. "Mom's birthday is in three weeks, what should I get her?") and the SECOND I woke up, I would pick up the list (I left it on my bedside table) and read it through a few times. It actually worked really well to distract me from any lingering memories of the previous night's terrorfest in my dreams, plus it had the added benefit of relaxing me before I went to sleep, because everything racing through my head was written on the paper, thus allowing me to fall asleep a little easier.
posted by banannafish at 9:55 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have a long history the some of the most god-awful nightmares you can imagine--a pretty consistent 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. I asked a therapist friend about how to lessen them, and he recommended a simple exercise--when I wake up and remember the dream, immediately visualize a better ending. He particularly suggested re-imagining the scenario, adding in whatever I needed that bring about a happy ending--the right tools at hand, a powerful weapon, an army of superhero friends, a prophet with the power to heal and raise the dead. Just picture the right helping coming in and making everything okay.

That seems pretty simplistic, but I haven't had a really bad nightmare in about six months now--and that's a big change.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:17 PM on November 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I hardly ever have nightmares. But the couple times per month I do, about half the time I discover "this is too insaneā€¦ must be dreaming", and from there I get to have the whole lucid dream thing where I'm "conscious"/aware while the dream is going down and I can control things. It totally rocks. Love having nightmares.

Maybe you can figure out something like that to manage them?
posted by floam at 10:45 PM on November 9, 2009


I find that my dreams are very much influenced by what I'm thinking about as I go to sleep. Perhaps this is trite, but if I think happy thoughts, I dream happy dreams. It's also how I can watch scary movies and have minimal ill effects.
posted by youcancallmeal at 11:46 PM on November 9, 2009


To understand my recommendation to help with your dreaming problem, I will outline a possible evolutionary explanation for dreaming and how it might pertain to gender roles.

Sleeping, evolutionarily speaking, is dangerous. All animals have some method to protect themselves when they sleep. Sleeping in a den, sleeping with one eye open, sleeping in a group... and so on. The amount of risk an animal has to predators while sleeping is called predation risk. Humans, if among our families, our dogs, and in our camps have a relatively low predation risk. This gives us a benefit that lots of other animals don't get - extremely deep sleep. And with extremely deep sleep, comes dreaming - a huge boon for our survival. [1]

Dreaming for mammals seems to be a planning mechanism and for learning consolidation. Basically it's a holodeck that your brain uses to test out scenarios that threaten survival or aid in survival. Such as hunting, being hunted, mating, and finding food [2]

Now in today's world, we humans don't have to worry about physical threats to our survival as much as early mammals did. So our minds dwell on things that are remotely possible that are threatening. Children seem especially susceptible to movies and TV programs to build these scenarios. So most of these crazy dreams are the brain trying out any possible scenario that is threatening. [1] [6]

But for women, there are threats (see this thread for some typical threats ) that men don't have to worry about. So they have more nightmare's about things that they don't feel protected from. While it may seem sexist, current research shows that women sleep better when they are satisfied with their current sleep partner. So perhaps, they feel more protected. [3] [4] [5]

So my recommendations are:

1) Give your brain a problem to work on. Before you go to sleep, write down things that you are worrying about. Things that threaten some part of your well being - and jump start the dreaming by doing creative visualizations of how you can attack these problems. It helps if these problems are emotionally compelling.

2) If you have violent dreams of things that you are afraid of (snakes, scary men, spiders ... whatever) learn how to protect yourself from these things. Take a self defense class or learn about snakes how to defend yourself against them. While this may increase dreams about these scary things in the beginning, I feel that this will increase your confidence and thus lower your sense of predation risk feeling against these threats.

[1] Towards an Evolutionary Theory of Dreaming

[2] The effects of the tree-to-ground sleep transition in the
evolution of cognition in early Homo


[3] Prevalence of reported sleep disturbances in a general adult population and their relationship to obstructive airways diseases.

[4] Parker, J.D. (2009). The similarities and differences between UK men and women's nightmares. - Summary

[5] SLEEP 2008 - Troxel

[6] Children's fright reactions to television and films

RadioLab did a sleep epsisode that touches on some of these things.

Sweet dreams.
posted by bigmusic at 1:39 AM on November 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


There are wonderful sleep audios that will help guide your dreams. Glenn Harrold has one (find him on audible.com) that helps you with sleep and lucid dreaming. Belleruth Naparstek also has a terrific sleep audio that you can download from the internet as MP3.

We know from sleep laboratories that everyone dreams every night, so your nightmares mean that you're waking up at the wrong part -- possibly sleeping too lightly. Reducing caffeine (I don't drink it after 12 noon) and creating a dark, sleep-friendly room can help. If the waking persists, try ear plugs and an eyeshade. But the audios have worked the best for me.
posted by fortunaa at 2:35 AM on November 10, 2009


Related article in yesterday's USA Today
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:59 AM on November 10, 2009


Hi, I suggest you try something called Holosync by Centrepointe. Let me be clear that I am not a salesperson or a shill, merely a satisfied customer (for the past 2 months).

I have been crippled by insomnia ever since childhood for reasons you really don't want to know about. Listening to the Holosync recordings before bedtime immediately eliminated my insomnia. That's pretty great right there.

I have never had a problem with nightmares; my dreams have always been unmemorable, abstract and surreal. Two weeks after I started listening to Holosync, the nature of my dreams changed completely and has stayed that way: I started dreaming long, vivid, realistic, complicated stories (not nightmares), with coherent plots, persistent characters, little intellectual puzzles, you name it. Amazing and totally unexpected.

The Holosync sales literature says nothing about curing insomnia or nightmares, and I cannot say it will solve your problem, but I can say it has totally changed the nature of my sleep and my dreams for the better, so I believe there's a good chance it could do the same for you. Best of luck to you.
posted by bukittimah at 4:13 AM on November 10, 2009


I've only had 1 good dream in my whole life (that I remember). All the others have been either weird, or terrible - and usually they're terrible.

Just so you know you're not alone.
posted by Cygnet at 4:20 AM on November 10, 2009


I too suffer from horrible nightmares and all my dreams are lucid. To the point that it takes me about 10-15 minutes every morning to recover and figure out what's real and what was in my dreams. I get to have my own personal horror film screened every night - yay me.

Melatonin has helped somewhat. Supposed to help you sleep and reportedly gives you vivid dreams but the inverse is true for me - it actually suppresses my dreams (or more likely the memory of them) so you might give that a try. Available at pretty much any supermarket vitamin aisle. Also, others have suggested a kind of reverse-psychology approach and that works too. kinda. Try facing your dreams. Write them down so you do remember them, even as bad as they can be. For some reason I've situations where even really terrible dreams that I perceive as repeating dont come back if you write them down. Some cognitive psyhcologist will have to explain that to me sometime.

Also don't drink (alcohol) or eat a couple hours before you sleep.

Hang in there.
posted by elendil71 at 5:41 AM on November 10, 2009


Yeah I am basically in the same boat as you. It has helped me to sleep with earplugs, so that I'm sleeping more deeply.

Maybe some people's inner world is just a little more intense than others'. There are times when I'm glad for the insightful psychological portrait of myself, but other times when I sort of dread bedtime thinking "I don't want to go there again."
posted by hermitosis at 5:48 AM on November 10, 2009


There are so many great suggestions here! I especially see how some things with my health (asthma, anxiety) are related to this, including my gender, and now I am eager to start trying some of these control exercises. Writing things down before and after bed should be easy enough.

I take melatonin a few days a week but will be doing it every night for a bit to see if it helps. I'm also bad about eating dinner around 10 pm and then going to bed just after midnight, so I'll try to cut that out.

If anybody has more links or suggestions, please post! Everything here's made for a fascinating read. The article mentioning happy marriages twigged something in me too -- when I am in the bed with my partner I tend to sleep better than when I'm alone, but if you'd asked me whether asthma or depression were factors, I'd have shrugged it off as unrelated.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 6:51 AM on November 10, 2009


Dreams can be totally about brain chemistry. It's possible you have a neurotransmitter imbalance, and antidepressant medication could turn this around. If it's really a big deal for you, or you recognize other symptoms, you should talk to your doctor.
posted by gensubuser at 6:54 AM on November 10, 2009


My strategy probably isn't the best but waking up earlier than I want to helps my nightmares sometimes (of course I also have a bad habit of running around sleep deprived so...). I'm pretty much in the same situtation as elendil71, but dreaming is not as frequent. Aside from not sleeping enough, I have also found being busy and having things to think about that I need to get done can help. Thanks for the good ideas all.
posted by Feantari at 7:34 AM on November 10, 2009


I rarely have nightmares but when I do they seem to be related to something that I ate. Is there something you are eating or drinking every night? If so, you could be having an allergic reaction.
posted by mareli at 9:27 AM on November 10, 2009


Do you have a pet? I have found that having PointyCat at my feet (or on my head, he's contrary sometimes) seems to help me sleep. Maybe it's some subconcious thing & a carryover from my ancestors - I have a sabre toothed cat to protect me !! But likely it's just a calming thing to have something alive with me.
posted by pointystick at 1:18 PM on November 10, 2009


Pointystick, I'm highly allergic to animals which precludes me having a pet. :(

In a crappy twist of fate, allergy shots induce asthma attacks in me as well, so that's not an option either.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:21 PM on November 10, 2009


Sleep apnea can cause vivid dreams. I am much more likely to have nightmares if I don't use my CPAP.
posted by desjardins at 3:02 PM on November 10, 2009


i have had long periods of vivid frightening dreams that match periods when i was really stressed out or unhappy. When not in such a period of life, i don't have these types of dreams. This doesn't help too much in the short run, but sometimes you may not realize how stressed out you are. Take this as a sign to slow down, assess your mental state, and evaluate how you may be able to decrease the stresses in your life. not sure if this is the issue but wouldn't be surprised if it is.
posted by saraindc at 11:29 AM on February 28, 2010


For a while I was having these nightmares where I dream that I am awake but completely unable to move. It was a lot more terrifying than it sounds. One day I realized that this only occurred when I was sleeping on my back, and I haven't slept on my back or had that particular nightmare since. ( I hope I didn't just jinx myself)
posted by ambulocetus at 8:22 AM on March 28, 2010


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