Staggering Insomnia Almost Seems Preferable
July 25, 2009 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Please hope me get control of my bad dreams until I can resolve their real-world roots.

Hi. Here's the situation - I quit smoking marijuana at the start of the summer and have reduced my boozing to a very low level - like, maybe once every six weeks if there's an occasion that warrants it. As a result of these lifestyle changes, I've regained an awareness of my dreams. The bad news is that these dreams have been, with a single exception, uniformly shitty for the past few weeks. I woke up yelling this morning and have felt crappy all day. I can't take much more of this.

These aren't nightmares, exactly - "anxiety dreams" would probably be more accurate. I'm a fella highly prone to anxiety and depression and this is an especially anxious time for me. I've got two main sources of tension in my life right now - one of which I'll be able to unravel towards the end of next week and another that has to wait until mid-August. Examining the symbolism and the situations that I REM myself into at night seems to trace these dreams back to my real-life tension pretty reliably, so I realize that the permanent cure here is to address this tension in the waking world.

Until I am able to do so, however, I would really like to stop dreading my bed. Being able to sleep through the night was one of my favorite early benefits of sobering up, but these dreams are getting really vivid now. Hell, the one that woke me hollering today had a humiliating plotline. So, what are some reliable, short-term techniques to tamp down these awful dreams during the interval preceding my first opportunities to dial back their real-world causes?

Degrees of Difficulty: In some previous, similar AskMes that I've read, a frequently given piece of advice is to exercise more. In my case, I'm already doing rather a lot of that. The best control I've ever found for my aforementioned anxiety and depression problems is my four formal weekly workouts. If you include my bicycle commutes in your reckoning, then I workout daily at this point. It's also frequently suggested to reduce one's caffeine intake - at the moment, I'm already down to one or two mugs of coffee a day with breakfast. I'm open to eliminating caffeine entirely if you really think that's the best thing to do, but it would mean more sleeping in order to have the energy to manage my life. And at the moment, sleep is where I'm not at all a Viking.
posted by EatTheWeek to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Agreed. Which reminds me of Degree of Difficulty #3 - Vanishingly little spare money. Indeed, this is why one of the anxiety sources must wait until mid-August for resolution. I do plan on resuming therapy this autumn, when I'll be able to do so through my school.

Thank you, though - you're dead right. I've let my mental stuff go untreated for a little too long.
posted by EatTheWeek at 1:51 PM on July 25, 2009

There are two techniques that therapists teach which may be helpful:

1) set aside a time during the day to worry. during that time, you worry about everything that needs worrying about it. make sure it isn't right before bedtime. if you start worrying while trying to fall asleep, keep reminding yourself that you have a scheduled time to worry and this isn't it.

2) shortly before bedtime, recall the bad dreams and then try to rethink them with happy endings. In other words, if you are searching for a classroom to take the test that will determine your whole future and you never find it (one of my own anxiety dreams), imagine finding it and doing wonderfully or anything else that is non worrying. Do this repeatedly.

Some people find both of these helpful.
posted by Maias at 2:04 PM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Hi, me. I'm guessing you're at the point where the anxiety you're now feeling about actually going to bed is making the anxiety-filled dreams even worse. One thing to try, which I find has decreased my brutally scary and anxious dreams by about 50%: I crawl into bed, turn the light off and immediately switch on a good story-based podcast (right now I'm making my way through the back episodes of This American Life). I generally listen to about 30 minutes of one and then fall asleep. Not sure why this works - maybe it engages part of the brain that would ordinarily be freaking out, but definitely worth a try. Best of luck.
posted by meerkatty at 2:17 PM on July 25, 2009

If possible, try changing your mind-set, and embrace these dreams. They may be more helpful to your mental well-being than you think. I believe dreams are a deeper way of resolving real world tensions and problems. The reason the root conflicts have been allowed to continue and fester, might have been due to your drug-induced sleep schedule in the recent past. Think of the dreams as momma's castor oil for the psyche.
posted by Acacia at 2:30 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Following on Acacia's point, anxiety dreams may be your brain's attempt at a bit of self-therapy. IANA psychiatrist/dream researcher but according to threat simulation theory dreams featuring threatening/anxious situations may have their roots in our ancestors evolving in an environment where dangerous life-threatening events were likely, so dreams partly evolved as a way of creating real-feeling threat situations so we'd better able to deal. So your brain's having a bit of a clear through, but it's needed.

Re dealing with dreams like this, I've found attempting meditation before going to sleep has help me enter sleep in a more settled mindset, which reduced the stressful dreams. I also found writing down whatever I could remember as I woke up quite good for 'clearing' it out of my system. YMMV.

Good luck & hope things get beter for you
posted by Skaramoosh at 3:07 PM on July 25, 2009

Google 'marijuana withdrawal nightmares' as I just did; you'll see that your problem seems to be very common.

I read a bunch of the anecdotal accounts of what people had tried to help themselves and found about six claiming to have gotten significant relief from melatonin, which fits with my understanding of a mechanism involved in all this that I won't go into right now.

If you try it, go with the most reputable brand you can find. There are compounds closely related to melatonin which would probably make the nightmares even worse.

By the way, I think your difficulties with numbness in your hands and feet at waking could have been caused by marijuana lowering the pressure in the fluid of your spinal cord (essentially deflating it) and thereby pinching the nerves that radiate from it to your hands and feet.
posted by jamjam at 3:08 PM on July 25, 2009

Try learning to have lucid dreams. Once you can do that, you should be able to control them. There's all kinds of information about lucid dreaming online

Even with the anxiety 'sources' gone you can still have anxious dreams, so it can still be a good way to control them even if things in your real life get straightened out.
posted by delmoi at 3:10 PM on July 25, 2009

Some things my therapist has told me to try, in a general-dream-anxiety sense:
  • Cut out caffeine entirely.
  • Stop eating as far away from bedtime as possible. If you can stop eating at dinner and go to bed several hours after that, it may help.
  • Change when you exercise. If you're exercising after work, see if you can change that to the morning, and/or vice-versa.
  • Change your sleeping times. If you're a night-owl, try going to bed early. If you're an early bird, try going to sleep a little later
  • Write down your dreams as soon as you wake up. That may give you a sense of control.
  • Tell yourself, before bed, that you're going to take control of your dream as soon as it starts to go bad. Visualize yourself being the DreamMaster, or whatever.
  • Take 20 minutes, at least 1 hour before bed, to over-worry about everything that's on your mind, and limit that worrying to those 20 minutes. After the 20 minutes are up, say out loud, "I am finished worrying about these things for today, and will worry about them again tomorrow." It feels a little stupid to me, but it sometimes helps.
  • Shut off everything at least 30 minutes before bed and do something truly relaxing that doesn't engage your mind. Take a leisurely stroll. Take a bath. Meditate. Don't watch TV or read or go on the computer.
I hope some of these are helpful, and that you get some decent rest soon.
posted by xingcat at 3:15 PM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree about therapy. But, dreams are just dreams. I have had terrible anxiety-based dreams throughout my life. After recent major surgery I had some truly awful ones. You can try figuring out what the dreams are telling you. If they wake you up, try and figure out what is going on. I actually enjoyed figuring out what my mind was trying to tell me. There were times in my dreams when I would tell myself that it was just a dream and watch it like a movie. I remember these dreams and I am amazed at how the mind tries to make sense out of complex and sometimes horrible things. It is truly wonderful.

If you are having night terrors or panic attacks, talk to a doctor.
posted by fifilaru at 3:15 PM on July 25, 2009

My sleep has been completely transformed in the last few months since I began doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation in bed as I'm going to sleep. I use this mp3, but there are plenty of others - I just happen to find her voice particularly soothing before sleep. I'm sleeping better and longer, and my nightmares have all but vanished. The muscle contracting and relaxing helps relieve the tension I carry from my anxiety, so I don't work it out in my dreams.
posted by xsquared-1 at 5:47 PM on July 25, 2009

Caffeine makes anxiety much worse in some people. I've seen the effect of going off it completely on one such person, and it's remarkable. If I were you, I'd be finding out whether I was one of those people.
posted by flabdablet at 8:14 PM on July 25, 2009

If I have a particularly shitty nightmare, I map it to try and work out what the fuck my subconscience is trying to tell me. Take a large sheet of paper, write a few words to summarise each bit of the dream, and then write out any words that seem relevate to you or related to the concept. For example, a dream about drowning may look like:

drowning in a cesspool - helplessness - abandonment - smothering- consumed - loss

That sort of thing. It doesn't need to be enlightening, but it's often a good way to ferreting out what's really bothering your head and getting a grip on how you can fix it. It can be quite cathartic just to write it all out. Also, you can burn the paper afterwards and 'purge' yourself of the anxiety.

Also, having someone you can just talk to about it can help. I know the default answer on the green for any mental unhappiness is to GET A THERAPIST, but even talking to your mum or a close friend can be helpful.

Good luck. I get vivid nasty nightmares as well from time to time, so I know how debilitating it can be. Talking to my boyfriend about them and mapping them works for me. I hope it helps you, too.
posted by Jilder at 10:37 PM on July 25, 2009

Nthing Lucid dreaming, though it can take a little while to learn, but sometimes not, especially if you are recalling ultra vivid dreams. Regular occurances of things such as humiliation or big scary monsters act as 'dreamsigns' that you learn to notice. So the next time you feel humiliated for example, you ask yourself 'am i dreaming?'

To learn this, I set my watch to beep every hour and then checked if i was dreaming each hour. After about a week I started occasionally checking if I was dreaming during dreams,and realising I was dreaming, which is really strange if you've never had it happen before.

I check if I'm dreaming by counting my fingers. If I'm dreaming, usually there are a few missing or they are malformed. Then you can start dealing with whats hapening in your dreams, or just turn it into a sex scene.

If you're interesed in this method I'd recomend Stephen La Berge's Exploring the world of lucid dreaming .
posted by jcwilliams at 8:08 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey everyone - thanks for all the great suggestions! I thought you might like to know that, thanks to making a lot of the adjustments suggested here, I'm just now waking up from a night where I dreamed of A) going on a swimming and mountain climbing adventure with friends B) exploring some caves with some other friends C) listening to an old recording with a forgotten pop star and, my favorite, D) spooning with Salma Hayek
posted by EatTheWeek at 10:03 AM on August 13, 2009

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