Managing Nightmares
June 9, 2020 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I am prone to nightmare, night terrors, sleep terrors, and many years ago, intermittent sleep walking. The latter 3 conditions have been addressed through medication. The nightmares remain. It's become stressful to need to sleep knowing that good sleep may not come. How do you manage your bad dreams?
posted by Kitchen Witch to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In all honesty, I have more dreams when I get a full night's sleep. Making sure I do NOT get a full 8 hours usually ends my bad dream cycles. I know nobody's gonna like my saying that and it might not work for the severity of your problems, but making sure I only get six or seven hours usually stops it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:20 AM on June 9, 2020

Like jenfullmoon I find sleeping a bit less than a "full night" helps avoid nightmares.

When I do have a nightmare as soon as I'm conscious enough I replay in my memory a recent hike or walk; that seems for me to release the stress. Actually I seem more often to get a "pre-sleeping nightmare" where shortly before I'm totally asleep my brain digs up images of agony and violence, and I use the same mind-redirection to get past those. I try to direct my monkey mind to peace and beauty rather than dwell in the painful ideas and thoughts.
posted by windsock at 10:08 AM on June 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have consistent, terrible nightmares. It is from trauma. Maybe yours are, maybe not. But for me knowing why has helped de-fang them a bit. The ol’ Ask standard of being in therapy may help if they are from memories, fears, or ideas you can process in waking time.

At times, I write down my dreams every morning upon waking. Good ones, neutral ones, bad ones. I only do this for a few weeks at a time. They help me find links between them, and understand them a bit more. It neutralizes some of the uncomfortable feelings about them, and gives me a way to process them on my own terms, rather than being unable to shake them.

Additionally, when my brain hangs onto a nightmare and it pops back into my head all morning/day, I stop and go “I am remembering a bad dream right now. Remembering it feels scary and disturbing. It’s ok to feel upset by something that is upsetting.” Acknowledging what is happening helps remove myself from it a little.

Finally, sometimes waking up from a nightmare makes trying to go back to sleep scary. I don’t have an answer for that, but your feelings are valid, and it is hard to deal with. You deserve good rest.
posted by missmary6 at 10:12 AM on June 9, 2020

I read a theory a while back that nightmares are our brain's way of running us through various survival simulations.

Although I still have nightmares, they bother me significantly less now that I view them as a sort of training exercise.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:13 AM on June 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nthing that getting closer to 6 hours of sleep a night helps decrease my nightmare frequency. I think exercising more frequently/intensely has also helped a bit.

Honestly, the thing that helped the most was when I messed up my lower back, and the pain would wake me up multiple times throughout the night, but I really wouldn't recommend that as a solution.

On preview: Yeah, my nightmares are trauma related as well, fwiw.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:14 AM on June 9, 2020

If you are taking trazodone to address any sleep issues, know that a side effect is more dreams and sometimes nightmares. I mention this because it's commonly perscribed for sleeping problems and it's a side effect that's not mentioned but if you have it, it's awful. You didn't mention this specifically, but wanted to mention it just in case.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:24 AM on June 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

If I remember the nightmare, I've had success with lying back down and "solving" it by imagining a continuation with a happy ending. I often end up semi lucid dreaming and/or fall back asleep, but even if I don't, it tends to dissolve the anxiety and emotional response. Doesn't work for all dreams, but makes some nightmares have less impact.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:27 AM on June 9, 2020

Sorry, sleep terrors should say sleep paralysis.

I take Clonazepam but that is good to know about trazadone.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 10:27 AM on June 9, 2020

In my experience and backed up by research, regular 'long term' (>2 weeks) use of benzodiazepines causes physiological tolerance and dependence--then the formerly-magic pills no longer freaking work as sleep aids, and bonus, cause rebound REM upon withdrawal. Of course they do. Other commonly prescribed sleep aids also cause tolerance rapidly, such as Lunesta (eszopiclone) and Ambien (zolpidem), with the exception of Xyrem [sodium oxybate, an extremely controlled substance for good reason]).

Instead, I use other prescriptions regularly (prazosin, trazodone, gabapentin) and supplements occasionally (melatonin, valerian), depending on what I'm struggling with. (Prazosin for nightmares/sleep terrors/PTSD-related symptoms, trazodone for sleep quality & ease of falling asleep, gabapentin for restless leg syndrome. Melatonin for insomnia related to falling asleep, valerian for night-time anxiety.) I also use cannabis which happens to interact with REM sleep (less of it, less vivid) in a way that ameliorates the trazodone/melatonin encouragement of stronger dreams.
posted by saveyoursanity at 10:48 AM on June 9, 2020

I had terrible PTSD related nightmares that would wake me up and then, as soon as I fell back to sleep, start back up again. The only things that stopped that was that as soon as I woke up I would do easy crossword puzzles or Sudoku or something for 15 or 20 minutes, which seemed to reset my brain without waking me all the way up.

Getting treatment for my PTSD made the nightmares much less frequent.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:51 AM on June 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

I have trauma, and sometimes my nightmares are related to that, and sometimes they aren't. I was put on Clonazepam for chronic severe insomnia. I am currently on trazadone. The clonazepam made my dreams affect me more, emotionally. It was fun for the good dreams, terrible for the nightmares. Trazadone doesn't give me those same issues.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:04 AM on June 9, 2020

1. Don't eat before bed.
2. Keep a soothing low volume tv show or music playing all night.
3. Have an imaginative scenario and mantra at the ready to replace any thoughts or details about the dream, do NOT let yourself replay the dream in your head/thoughts upon waking. Repeat your imaginative scenario any time the dream details try to take over your thoughts. For example something like "a fat fluffy orange kitten is sitting on the beach". Redirect ANY thoughts of the dream toward thinking only about that kitten. You might have to do it for a long time, hours. But it's worked for me to help forget particularly horrible nightmares.
posted by fourpotatoes at 11:12 AM on June 9, 2020

Worth double checking if anything physically bad is happening to you while you sleep. Some people have nightmares due to asthma attacks, or having fevers, or poor circulation resulting in pain from lying still.

Worth trying to see if you can become proficient enough at lucid dreaming to be aware that you are dreaming when the nightmares happen and take control and steer the dream into better directions.

Worth figuring out if there is any terrible unresolved emotions being suppressed that are coming out as nightmares. For example if you hate, hate, hate your boss you could end up consistently dreaming of being trapped and abused by an authority figure, or have a recurring dream about fighting or killing one. Look for a consistent pattern in the nightmares and then look for parallel fear or rage in your real life, or in your past.

As soon as you wake from a nightmare that you remember, invent additional action that leads to a good resolution. For example if your nightmare involves you looking down from a high place and seeing someone you love smashed into pieces like a doll far below you, then imagine paramedics rushing up and sticking the pieces back together again and your loved one being successfully repaired and standing up and waving at you happily from below. A person cannot really break into pieces from a fall, but since that is the logic of the dream you can rewrite the story according to the logic of the dream. Doing this will help a lot, because your subconscious believes both the dream and the story you tell yourself afterwards. Subconsciouses are funny credulous things and continuing the story to a happy ending works much better than trying to convince them it was just a dream and didn't matter and can be forgotten.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:30 PM on June 9, 2020

Also perhaps relevant is that many people have intrusive thoughts of horror scenarios as they fall asleep. They just get the bedtime uglies, recurring thoughts of shame or fear. This is probably adaptive, as it keeps you safe in your nest in your den in the dark. It's like the fear of monsters that little children develop, but in adults takes other forms but still keeps you from running into coyotes or falling down the well when you can't see.

Rather than try not to think of a white bear that is rending people limb from limb, it is often much more effective to direct these kinds of thoughts into gory directions that are acceptable to you. Instead of trying not to think of your sister being murdered if your brain decides to drift in that direction as you get sleepy, picture your bloodthirsty white bear massacring politicians - cozy thought! - or any other nasty or gory imagery that does not distress you.

Your nightmares could spring from these thoughts as you start falling asleep and turn into dreams. If you have the bedtime uglies you can intercept and divert them into safer channels before you fall asleep, and maybe turn them into a weird dream about wandering through the white house looking for a missing president and eating teddy grahams as you check the cupboards and behind the curtains in the oval office.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:43 PM on June 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I used to be a very accomplished lucid dreamer, but right now I can't distinguish between dreams and reality so a lot of what I would normally try to activate mid-dreaming isn't available. Usually I have the same type of anxiety dreams over and over: I'm stuck in an empty endless wasteland, or a parking lot, or a mall after it closes. Places with no way out. The nightmares I had last night were violent and terrifying, involving brutal deaths to small animals and other horrible things I don't want to mention. If I tell myself a bedtime story about something that makes me happy (happy kittens, for example), I dream about kittens being tortured. My brain is not my friend right now.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 8:13 PM on June 9, 2020

That’s awful. I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through it, and I’m glad you’re here.

When I was having really awful PTSD nightmares, I had a good friend whom I could call (even in the middle of the night). Having a brief conversation was usually enough to keep me from diving right back into the bad dreams.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:30 PM on June 9, 2020

I had constant nightmares for like ten years of my life - I can't exactly say what has almost stopped them, but not snacking before bed, getting a flatter pillow, and falling asleep with an interesting but bland podcast or audiobook all seem to have helped. Also they became much less frequent when I stopped taking a high-estrogen birth control pill as well.

About a year ago we went to a resort and all the pillows were really fluffy and I had terrible nightmares for like 5 days straight after not having many for years. Instead of using the pillows I switched to a folded up towel, and they stopped again.
posted by euphoria066 at 8:35 PM on June 9, 2020

I have a lot of nightmares also, some of which are clearly linked to past trauma. Something I've noticed is that my brain is good at sneaking in a bunch of horrible dreams if I've been exposed to something stressful, triggering, or anxiety-producing that I haven't let myself think through or focus on when awake. If I put more effort into thinking consciously about bad stuff, and processing it, I end up having fewer nightmares. It's like if my awake brain tamps it down, it seeps into my dreams.

The only other thing I've found to help is really tiring my brain out before bed, usually by spending a long time reading. I sometimes can predict when I'm going to have nightmares, because my brain is skittish and anxiously jumping from thought to thought without fully processing things. On those nights I do better by just staying awake & keeping my brain active until I'm really exhausted.

Neither of these is foolproof and I still get nightmares, but they help a bit.
posted by DTMFA at 9:00 PM on June 9, 2020

I've been struggling with PTSD for the last four years, and with it nightmares and sleep paralysis, so I was curious about what the answers here would be. I thought I had no idea. But during the lockdown, I've been taking brief notes, about the dreams, and also about my other health issues.
This night I woke from terrible nightmares twice, and then when the morning came, I thought to check the dreams with the other data. What seems to improve my state of mind is primarily exercise. Not a lot, just over 6.000 steps a day on my phone app (so not a Fitbit or anything that smart) gives a better sleep. I'm trying to get to 10.000 steps a day, but here I'm just writing about what works for the nightmares. Early May, I read something about mental health and the microbiome, and I started trying to change my diet to something more gut flora friendly, and I think that is helpful too, though the correlation isn't as strong as with the exercise.
Exercise isn't a cure-all; one day recently I went for a good long walk and felt physically good, but then talked with a friend about issues that triggered the PTSD, and slam, nightmares came back.
When I have had a nightmare, I often just spend a little time playing solitaire on my phone, and then I can go back to sleep. If it is really bad, I get up and read a bit in a book (not online). After a very short while, I can usually sleep again. And sometimes, I just get up, even though it is very early in the morning.
posted by mumimor at 11:00 PM on June 9, 2020

Worth double checking if anything physically bad is happening to you while you sleep. Some people have nightmares due to asthma attacks, or having fevers, or poor circulation resulting in pain from lying still.

This is a good point! I also find that when I'm really congested (I have allergies and also GERD which can irritate sinuses as well), that I'm more prone to nightmares, especially if I end up rolling over on my back in the night or if I have too many covers on me so that I heat up too much. Flonase and mucinex both help with this for me.
posted by litera scripta manet at 3:08 AM on June 10, 2020

It looks like anger was the culprit. I have been angry about many things for well over a year, but yesterday the main source of my anger (work) was resolved because I got to give notice today. My God, did I sleep peacefully last night for the first time in months. I woke up so rested I actually started to cry. Now when I am having nightmares I will wake up and try to ID the source of my anger so I can put it aside to process another day.

Thank you all for your kind comments. Wishing you all a good night's rest.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 12:24 AM on June 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older Weird elbow sensation   |   Sunk Costs: Replace or Repair Canon 5D Mark II... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments