How do I get back to having pleasant dreams?
April 17, 2016 4:29 AM   Subscribe

I've noticed recently that when I've had particularly stressful weeks at work my brain ends up reliving those stresses through dreams/nightmares, leading me to wake up in the middle of the night with my mind racing and having trouble going back to sleep, which is obviously not helping the stress situation. Does this happen to you?

I am generally happy with my work and work environment, but there are high stress / long hours from time to time and with problems that haven't yet been solved by the end of the work day, and I find the stress is following me home by appearing in my dreams in the evenings and over the weekends.

The "problems" can range anywhere from me dreaming up the task list for the next day and essentially working in my dreams (with nothing to show for it when I wake up) to reliving the stressful events of the work day, or having nightmares about something bad happening at work as a result of me not completing something.

I realize in a rare occasion this can be a good thing because my brain is trying to unpack the day's occurrence and maybe find a solution unconsciously, but I find its not helpful most of the time because the stress dream ends up waking me up and i have trouble getting back to sleep, which obviously doesn't make the next workday less stressful.

And now it's invading my weekends! I just want to get back to having pleasant dreams and sleeping being a restful, restorative experience.

Any tips from mefites if they've had similar experiences and how they got through this would be welcome.
posted by Karaage to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I don't often have bad dreams as such but I find listening to talk radio or podcasts through a single earpiece pushes stressful content out of my mind. I often fall asleep like that. You can get pillows with built-in speakers that are quite good, but a single in-ear earpiece on a long cable works best for me.
posted by Segundus at 5:06 AM on April 17, 2016

Yes this totally happens to me! I'm the type to have nightmares after a scary movie too.

What helps
- the mindset I go to bed with will be reflected in the dream. So watch a funny video, read uplifting news and generally keep your thoughts light.
- unpack what's bothering you (journal) but NOT right before bed
- meditate on loving kindness (or my favorite, taking and giving aka "tonglen" in Tibetan) before bed
- exercise

Basically you need to work to shift your mental state during the evening well before bed.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:34 AM on April 17, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yes. I get night terrors whenever I am really upset or stressed, which not only causes me to wake up a lot, but also makes me sleepwalk and end up outside because my body thinks that's the way to get away from the nightmares.

Three things help: lots of water, listening to ASMR videos on Youtube, and taking a small amount of Xanax (though eventually I had to upgrade to Xanax plus Klonopin but that's a last resort for most people).

Hope you sleep better soon. Poor sleep really wrecks the mind and body and feeds on itself, especially if your mind is trying to work out a lot of things subconsciously when what you really need is rest.
posted by Hermione Granger at 5:50 AM on April 17, 2016

I find my work stress creeps less into the rest of my life if my default after work is something else to do rather than resting or TV - hobbies like DIY, cooking, music, chess, etc. that challenge me in some way. I go to bed often thinking about those things rather than my to-do list at work, which has done the trick the last couple of years.
posted by scrittore at 6:11 AM on April 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

Chewable melatonin kept bedside might help you get back to sleep when you wake up in the middle of the night, though for some people (me) it causes super vivid complex dreams so it might be a bad choice for your particular situation. (But they could be pleasant and relaxing vivid complex dreams.) In the US it is an otc sleep aid and is pretty safe so it might be worth a try as a temporary thing. I find that it definitely does not make me groggy the next day, unlike literally every other sleep aid I have ever tried.

When people have obvious and concrete stress dreams like you are having, it can point to similarly obvious and concrete solutions, but often only in retrospect. Is there something that you wish could happen at work that would solve all the smaller problems? Do you think asking for more responsibility might make you feel more in control? Or maybe your work is causing you to neglect other parts of life that would balance you out? Take some time to concentrate and focus on what you are stressing about and really drill down into it. Sometimes the solution might be unworkable (quit and move to the beach! Cause your awful coworker to quit, running out of the office crying about how wonderful you are! A room full of puppies!) but there are always choices you can make. Don't do this thinking in bed, do it in the daylight when fully awake and comfortable.
posted by Mizu at 6:14 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I try to go for a run after work a few times a week. I get the sensation halfway through that I am literally running the stress off. And I don't check email after my workout. If I stay late or have a particularly tough deadline and I can't do this, I usually have the dreams you describe.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:35 AM on April 17, 2016

One hour of alone time before bed where I don't have to talk to anyone or answer any questions.

A bowl of oatmeal with fruit and a bit of chocolate on top, with some walnuts mixed in, about 2 hours before bed.

Several cups of Yogi Sleepytime tea.

It also helps to create a good sleep environment. Clean your bedroom, move your furniture around, adjust your sleeping temperature, etc.
posted by myselfasme at 7:40 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

If it helps in any way, I get these in a way where I have to do really dull, repetitive, complicated tasks that are so boring it wakes me up. These dreams run in my family, I learned. I named them "procedural dreams" so I'd have a shorthand to explain to my partner why I was up for a while in the middle of the night. If one gets me good, I'll usually write out a list of the things my brain is hollering at me and then read a magazine for a bit (no screens, if I can help it) and head back to bed in an hour or so.
posted by lauranesson at 8:12 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, this definitely happens to me! I see it as the working equivalent of the "I have an exam in a class I didn't realize I was enrolled in" kind of stress dream. They can range from mildly disconcerting to really very stressful. (I am also generally prone to having a wide range of nightmares, of the concrete and more abstract variety.)

I haven't solved this completely, but some things I've learned:

Definitely do whatever it takes to make sure you are not thinking about work before bed. I would aim for an 1-2 hours of no work relaxation before bed. Read a book, watch a TV show if it won't keep you up, whatever helps distract you.

Oh, and don't check your phone before bed or during the night. Turn off all alerts if you need to; if feasible, you can even switch to airplane mode (or turn it off if you don't use it as an alarm).

When you're trying to go to sleep, listening to a podcast/audiobook/public radio might help keep you distracted. Personally, I use a soothing noise app on my iphone and do some variation on meditation. Usually this is visualizing something that makes me calm and distracts me, like walking on the beach. (Kind of cliche, I know, but it works.)

If you keep getting pulled into work thoughts, you could try something a little more active, like multiplication tables, counting to a hundred by multiples of seven. If you are less math inclined, you can play the alphabet game (or whatever it's called). Like, coming up with a movie title for each letter of the alphabet.

If you can't get to sleep, or wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work, don't lie in bed and ruminate. Get up and read a book or do something else soothing and distracting.

I've also noticed I'm more prone to nightmares if my sleep environment isn't good. In particular, if I overheat, I seem more prone to nightmares (as evidenced by nightsweats). This is kind of hard to prove definitively, but once I switched to sleeping in lighter clothing and without a blanket, I've cut down on nightmares. Similarly, I've noticed that when I'm really congested, I think it effects my breathing when I'm sleeping, which also leads to nightmares. This may or may not be relevant to you, but definitely think about ways you can improve your sleep environment.

Exercise couldn't hurt, of course. Maybe look into cutting down on caffeine if you drink it later in the day.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:14 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was able to end a long string of horrific nightmares using the approach I describe here.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:46 AM on April 17, 2016

I've found some effect from consciously redirecting my mind/imagination - when I'm resting, what's the first thought to mind? Often something anxious and stressful, but if I can instead try to imagine feeling happy and satisfied, walking through a forest, etc. It helps give my brain something to make dreams from other than work, with emotions other than stress and fear in it.

But I think scrittore is right on, even more than that: since I started gardening, even just going out and tending the roses for a bit right after I get home, I've noticed the first thing I see when I close my eyes is trees and leaves and flowers, not spreadsheets. So I'd recommend their advice.
posted by Lady Li at 10:12 AM on April 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is unlikely to be the sole cause of your nightmares but is worth crossing off the list: my worst nightmares happen when I get cold while sleeping - not enough pajamas, kicked the blanket off, what have you. Every time I wake up from a nightmare I realize that I am freezing and warming up helps me sleep again.
posted by telepanda at 1:19 PM on April 17, 2016

Adding to what St. Peepsburg wrote ... tonglen ... if you do start this, start slowly. That is start with a "normal" meditation, breathing in the good, exhaling the bad for, let's say, 15 minutes, then moving to tonglen. At first, only do tonglen for 5 minutes, then you can increase as you see fit. I I started tonglen naively. In my first 2 sittings I brought in all the bad of the world for like an hour and wrecked myself. Don't do that.
posted by falsedmitri at 5:16 PM on April 17, 2016

Having the radio on while I sleep tends to make me dream about whatever is on the radio. Like, I'll dream about the content of the NPR news reports. So maybe you could find some recordings of people talking about pleasant things like kittens or whatever and leave that on while you sleep, low enough that you can still fall asleep but high enough that you can just make out the words.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:16 PM on April 17, 2016

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