How to get rid of bad dreams?
January 24, 2007 8:41 AM   Subscribe

My partner reports consistently having bad dreams. She would like to be able to either (a) have good dreams instead, or (b) just not remember them anymore. What techniques/practices are there that can help her achieve this? I'm at a loss to help her, because I've never had the problem.

(Consider this a re-opening of this question from a couple years ago.)

Details: the dreams are very diverse, and do not seem to fixate on any single aspect of her life. She often wakes up multiple times during any given night. She doesn't wake up screaming, but the dreams are bad enough to cause her anxiety. She is not taking any antidepressant medication that might cause them. She works out at least three times a week. (If you think there are any salient details I've missed, ask in the thread.)

Again, I'm at a loss, so any suggestions would be appreciated.
posted by voltairemodern to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Figure out a way to sleep through the night. Dreams are the conscious mind's attempt to put some order to the r.e.m. sleep phase when it wakes up in the middle of that phase.

Sounds like you have a trigger that is causing the sleeplessness and the bad dreams, possibly anxiety or depression issues.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:48 AM on January 24, 2007

My wife has the same problem, particularly when she goes to bed late and wakes up late. We've theorized that the increasing light in the morning, during her highest concentration of REM sleep, has something to do with it. If she gets to bed on time and wakes up before the sun gets too high, she usually doesn't have nightmares.
posted by sleevener at 8:55 AM on January 24, 2007

The wakefulness might be causing the bad dreams, rather than vice-versa. She should consult a doctor, who will hopefully reccomend a sleep specialist to find the cause of her wakefulness, and perhaps even a solution.

It's helpful to remember that dreams aren't anything mystical. They're a (rather irrational) function of our brain chemistry, and the somewhat haphazard evolution that led to human self-awareness.

On preview, sleevener's approach is a good one. Can you identify any environmental triggers that seem to cause the nightmares?
posted by muddgirl at 8:59 AM on January 24, 2007

What muddgirl said. That's what I was trying to say--your S.O. is waking up a lot, so she is having a lot of dreams. Reduce the number of dreams, you reduce the number of nightmares automatically.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:17 AM on January 24, 2007

A lot of times bad dreams are brought on by anxiety. Are there psychological causes? Of course therapy may be recommended.

Chemically, bad dreams are often tied to an overactive aminergic system (sleep is mediated by the cholinergic-aminergic system). Does your partner have anxiety or worry issues during the day? Reducing the noradrenaline levels in the system is what helps this. The only substances that do this are beta blockers, and you likely won't be able to get them for this kind of use. However there are two accessible things I can think of that would help:

They are (a) alcohol (in strong moderation, like half a 'drink' or less just before bed); (b) and kava tea. As far as alcohol, only a little will do the trick; it tends to suppress REM sleep and influences the cholinergic-aminergic system. However the body doesn't like being deprived of REM sleep, so experiment only and stop immediately if other problems develop or the problem gets worse. As far as kava, this I think will be more effective. I've used it myself and it's potent stuff... though it's not listed as such, to me it -feels- like it has beta blocker (noradrenaline antagonist, i.e. calming) properties, though it mainly works on GABA receptors (same as what Ambien, benzos, and alcohol work on). I'd definitely try kava, though some herbal tea places don't carry it and you may have to order online. It has been cited as causing liver problems in heavy chronic use but no one I know that's used it, or myself, has had problems.

The other idea that I strongly suggest is exercise. Not being active does mess up the cholinergic-aminergic balance. Exercising might help regulate the noradrenaline production/uptake so that this happens during the workout rather at night. If your SO is already getting strong aerobic-type exercise, then never mind.

I would wager that some doctors will try a cookie-cutter approach and just throw you on one of those overused psychiatric drugs (Wellbutrin, Paxil, etc). I would be extremely wary about doing this, since they work on different neural systems. There is a gamble they might work but they can cause other problems, too. I would experiment with the above ideas before trying any prescription drugs.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:17 AM on January 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've had nightmares all my life, so I sympathise. Extensive searching turned up little comfort: apparently creative types are prone to nightmares. That's me, and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of solutions. Things that helped me:

1-Getting treated for sleep apnea. I'd hoped this would be the end of my nightmares. Ha.

2-Twice a month I treat myself to a mild sedative before going to sleep, especially on Sunday, when I'd really like to be fresh for Monday. I don't remember my dreams at all when I do this.

3-Changing my attitude toward nightmares has helped quite a bit. Instead of seeing them in context, as horrific, wild stories, I pull them out of their frightening frame and think of them as manifestations of my mind being creative. Just neurons firing in their ever-so-special way. I've even had fewer nightmares since I adopted this attitude, as it effectively takes the sting out.
posted by frykitty at 9:22 AM on January 24, 2007

I love experiments... what if she eats half a pint of b&j before bed? Something with choco in? Try it three nights running... I'm guessing it could help...
posted by ewkpates at 9:39 AM on January 24, 2007

Let her try controlling her nightmares. When she is in a nightmare, possibly half asleep, and half awake, she should consciously do the thing that she is afraid off. For example, if she is in a nightmare where she is being pushed off a cliff, she should just go jump off the cliff willingly. This usually results in the context of the dream changing.
posted by markesh at 9:42 AM on January 24, 2007

What I read/watch/talk about just before sleep has a huge impact on my dreams. I know two people who do focussed meditation just before sleeping that helps improve their mood. From what they've told me, one focuses on individual happy moments for about 20 minutes (it took a while to build up to 20 minutes. Started with 5.) while the other focuses on positive outcomes to troubles while listening to soothing music, then plays the music on repeat while sleeping.

Myself, I just watch what I put into my brain before sleep.
posted by Ookseer at 9:44 AM on January 24, 2007

It would probably be useful to know if this is a long term problem, or a recent thing. Either way, there are many many different answers/suggestions you may get to this question, ranging from changing diet or habits, to seeing various professionals.

'Sleep hygiene' is a good place to start - stuff like not drinking caffiene, exercising, or having a large meal within a few hours of sleep.

Some consider bad dreams due to latent psychological issues, some general health issues, or some mixture of both. My general-purpose suggestions are; regular exercise, gentle meditation practise, reduce stress where possible and talk about problems with someone close, even if they seem 'silly', minor or embarrassing. Also generally making time to relax (like taking a walk or going to the countryside for a day) is rarely bad advice. Similarly try to make a little time before bed to lie quietly, relax and practise simple breathing exercises (such as counting the breaths from 1 to 10, over and over).

If the problems continue for some time, you may want to investigate sleep disorders; things you may need see a specialist about. I would say anti-anxiety (or similar) medication should be your last avenue of inquiry. Depending on your wifes opinions and experience on lucid dreaming practise, there are techniques designed to 'rewrite' bad dreams (example), but I don't know much about these techniques or your wife, so I'm not in a position to recommend them.

FWIW, a lot of answers to this question are speculative, based on an assumed understanding of the process and function of dreaming. The only real method of attacking the problem is to try different things in turn, starting with whatever seems reasonable to you and your wife and continuing in a trial and error manner, trying to monitor the effects of changes.
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:51 AM on January 24, 2007

The best way to build control over your dreams is to begin writing them down. As in every day when you wake up, immediately write down as many details as you can remember. You have to be strict about doing it every single day. Over time you will be able to remember more and more, and eventually once your waking mind has fully integrated with your sleep-state mind, you'll find you have more control over the content and direction of your dreams than before.

I do this, and it works very well. On the few occasions when I have nightmares, it is very satisfying to be able to write them out and pick them apart later-- the demystification helps me resolve the fear I felt. Sometimes I awake in the night to write something down. I rarely spend any time trying to interpret the dreams-- simply recording them is enough for my brain to understand what is happening to itself, and what to do about it.
posted by hermitosis at 9:52 AM on January 24, 2007

I agree with those who suggest working on anxiety. In the toughest point of my depression, I had constant bad dreams. I still do when I'm feeling overwhelmed in my waking life. Part of it is definitely that I have trouble sleeping through the night most nights. My doctor gave me a prescription to help me fall asleep & stay asleep (Ativan) when my anxiety is particularly bad. I recommend talking to her doctor about this.
posted by tastybrains at 9:55 AM on January 24, 2007

Just a quickie suggestion but does she smoke? When I used to smoke right before bed I noticed that my dreams were much more vivid and not always in a positive direction. Since I've quit, I don't have this particular problem.
posted by jessamyn at 9:55 AM on January 24, 2007

Your girlfriend's situation sounds a lot like mine. While I haven't found anything that has eliminated the problem, a few things seem to moderately reduce the number of nightmares I have. When I play soothing sounds, a rain CD in my case, I sleep more soundly. I also tend to sleep better in a cooler room, so I keep a fan with a side-to-side motion pointed at me on a low setting. Finally, I've tried some of the lucid dreaming techniques mentioned upthread to steer my nightmares into still-bizarre but less terrifying directions. I can't do this consistently, but when I came it really helps.

I wish her luck with this. I'm really glad you posted this question. I will be experimenting with the suggestions here.
posted by diamondsky at 10:07 AM on January 24, 2007

I've found the alcohol tends to increase my weird/creepy dreams (as does PMS, but I'm not sure there's much to be done about that one).

I recently read a suggestion for getting rid of nightmares. Right before you go to bed, tell your subconscious, "Look, I understand that you're trying to tell me something, but the [explosions, creepiness, X images] aren't working. I don't know what they mean. Can you use other images? Or try in another non-scary way?"

Which sounds a little goofy, but (1) it can't hurt and (2) I think treating your brain as something that's doing something that you can influence or control might be a step in the right direction anyway (as others have pointed out with the meditation or lucid dreaming suggestions).
posted by occhiblu at 10:32 AM on January 24, 2007

I have moderate to serious anxiety problems with related, lifelong insomnia and vivid, tense, anxiety-related nightmares (One greatest hit is the dream that my teeth crumble and fall out. I have that one a few times a month).

It's frustrating because, although I'm normally the sort of person who has a lot of control over her dreams, these dreams are intense and totally outside of my control. They are sometimes so bad that, like your wife, they themselves become a cause of anxiety in my waking life. They also make the insomnia worse because I become afraid to fall asleep.

I have noticed this: when I'm on a rigid schedule (to control my insomnia) and am sleeping without a sleep aid, the dreams are worse. When I'm in a particularly busy or stressful period and I'm taking ambien to help me sleep, the dreams are rare.

I don't know if the ambien is changing my brain chemistry/sleep cycle or if I'm just having a weird version of the famous ambien memory loss, but either way, I have to say it's nice.

You might consider talking to your doctor about it. If the ambien worked for her in the same way, it might be nice to have around for nights when she really just needs a break.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:15 AM on January 24, 2007

FWIW, a lot of answers to this question are speculative, based on an assumed understanding of the process and function of dreaming. The only real method of attacking the problem is to try different things in turn, starting with whatever seems reasonable to you and your wife and continuing in a trial and error manner, trying to monitor the effects of changes.

I agree with this 100%. However, don't let all the experimenting cause more stress or excitement, becuase that'll hurt her sleep even more.
posted by muddgirl at 11:55 AM on January 24, 2007

Does she leave the radio or tv on when she sleeps?

My wife has vivid dreams every night. The tone of them though depends on what's playing on the television. If it's something nice...the dreams will be nice/happy. If the show is about war or some such...the dreams will suck.

My wife can't fall asleep without something going on the background, thus why our tv is on the first place. It's an alternate idea if nothing else.
posted by bartinpc at 11:58 AM on January 24, 2007

Let her try controlling her nightmares. When she is in a nightmare, possibly half asleep, and half awake, she should consciously do the thing that she is afraid off. For example, if she is in a nightmare where she is being pushed off a cliff, she should just go jump off the cliff willingly. This usually results in the context of the dream changing.

I used to be plagued by dreams of vampires pursuing me through an abandoned mall (shut up) when I was in my mid-teens. Someone told me about markesh's strategy. Just before sleep I would think about the dream, but I would change the ending, so that I ended up killing all the vampires. After only a few days of this, I found myself in the dream, but this time, aware that I was dreaming. I remembered the ending I had rehearsed, I made it happen, and I literally never had the nightmare again. Now almost everytime I have a nightmare, I am able to take some conscious control and overcome the fear.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:16 PM on January 24, 2007

Thank you for your responses so far. She was pleased to see all of them, and I imagine we'll be going through them systematically.

As for the further details some of you requested: She has always been a light sleeper, but the bad dreams have only become a nightly event in the past couple of years--(she is 28 years old). She does not smoke, and she also doesn't usually drink very much alcohol. (She isn't averse to it, just doesn't often find the opportunity to drink.) Lastly, she doesn't leave the radio or tv on while sleeping--thank god, I'm sure I couldn't sleep through that!

Again, I really appreciate your posts, and will happily provide any details you think are lacking.
posted by voltairemodern at 12:20 PM on January 24, 2007

talk to a doctor. i have horrific violent nightmares and it has to do with having post traumatic stress disorder. it might be underlying problems causing them. in the meantime, i find just dissmissing them as nightmares helps a lot. dont think about them too much, when you wake up... just know its a nightmare and go back to sleep.
posted by butterball at 12:25 PM on January 24, 2007

I've had bouts of miserable sleep for most of my life. The latest has been over a year. I have been to psychiatrists, sleep doctors, you name it. What seems to be the cause of all my current issues is minor nerve pain in my back -this all started happening right after I started seeing a chiropractor for a bit. As the sleep doctor put it, my back isn't in enough pain for me to be aware of it while awake and occupied, but when I relax & sleep, my body is aware of it and wakes me. It is more the waking and remembering the dreams during the interrupted sleep than having more nightmares in my case. You may want to have your partner get the pain thing checked out.
posted by kellyblah at 12:39 PM on January 24, 2007

This may be a long shot, but I have noticed a correlation between my nightmares and mild physical discomfort. The two situations that seem most frequently to trigger nightmares for me are:

(1) Eating spicy foods shortly before going to sleep (this is easy to avoid), and
(2) One of my limbs winding up uncovered by my blanket when the room is relatively cold.

My (mostly uneducated) theory has always been that the discomfort is not enough to wake me, but is enough to prompt my sleeping mind to come up with some explanation for the unpleasant sensations that are reaching it. The result is a nightmare.

My non-professional advice is to try to figure out if there is some correlation between the nightmares and some mild source of physical discomfort. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but banishing the nightmares could be no more difficult than watching evening meals and wearing pajamas.
posted by lionelhutz5 at 1:17 PM on January 24, 2007

I tend to have nightmares if I get too hot while sleeping. Switching from the down comforter to a lighter blanket helped.
posted by belladonna at 4:29 PM on January 24, 2007

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