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It is common to have restless sleep due to nightmares now and then. Sometimes, we laugh it off, but other times, these dreams can be more disruptive and disturbing as they force us to relive past traumatic emotions and episodes. Dreaming and analysing those dreams has intrigued mankind for hundreds of years. But for some, nightmares pose a serious issue that may prevent them from getting the much-needed sleep. Sometimes, they are also an indicator of an underlying emotional problem that may not be easy to confront.

Regardless of the cause, nightmares can be terrifying, especially when they make us feel out of control. But the good news is that there are certain steps that we can take in our waking hours to reframe our thoughts and put a stop to them for good. Why do nightmares occur? Can they be prevented? How to stop having nightmares for a more restful sleep? Learn about all these queries in this article below.

Different factors contribute to a higher risk of having a nightmare. These include the following:

High-Stress Levels

Traumatic, problematic, or sad situations that induce fear and stress can provoke bad dreams in many. People with chronic stress are also more likely to develop a nightmare disorder.

Mental Health Disorders

People with an underlying mental disorder are more likely to have bad dreams than those with sound mental health. Some common mental issues reportedly leading to nightmares include generalised anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.

Certain Medications and Drugs

Using certain illicit or prescription drugs that negatively affect the nervous system may lead to vivid dreaming.

Withdrawal from Certain Medications

Medications that work by suppressing REM sleep can induce nightmares in a person trying to wean them off.

Sleep Deprivation

Prolonged sleep deprivation sometimes causes an individual to experience a REM rebound, i.e., a situation triggering vivid dreams and nightmares.

Positive Personal History

A history of having recurring nightmares in childhood and adolescence can lead to nightmare disorder in adult life.

Genetics

Though not fully understood, some people may have a genetic predisposition to bad dreams. This association might be due to the genetic risk for mental health issues tied to nightmares.

If you are wondering how to stop nightmares, follow the tips mentioned below:

Develop Insight

Start building insight into the experience serving as a contributing factor to your nightmare. One way to do this is by finding common patterns in each episode and writing them down in a journal. Each time a nightmare wakes you up, note down the content of your dream in as much detail as you remember. Go through all your journal entries once a week to find any recurring themes.

Process Underlying Issues

Once you catch a common theme or pattern in all your bad dreams, it is beneficial to start working to address it. Sometimes, it is possible to overcome the trigger on its own with simple lifestyle tweaks. However, don’t be afraid to contact a therapist and get professional help when things get more complicated or out of control.

Rewrite the Narrative

If your nightmares are relatively straightforward, you can dull their blow by rewriting their narrative. For this purpose, take the description of a particular dream and redefine it by changing its content. For example, if your dream is about an exam where you know none of the answers, change the story with a cheerful ending and visualise it this way.

Use Herbal Remedies

Sometimes, a herbal remedy for nightmares can work better than anything else. Some common ones include using a valerian root supplement, drinking chamomile tea at night, or using a lavender-scented cream on your skin.

Listen to Sleep Sounds

Download an app for sleep sounds and turn them on the minute you go to bed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these sounds prevent bad dreams and improve sleep quality.

Take a Break

If a nightmare wakes you up in the middle of the night, take a small break from sleep. Shift to a comfy couch for a few minutes and listen to soothing sounds. Doing so will disconnect you from the bad dream and help you go back to sleep with a clearer head.

Nightmares can be an extremely unpleasant but a completely normal experience for anyone. For those with a nightmare disorder, these dreams are more frequent, longer in duration, and stress-inducing. This disorder can make sleep a stressful activity instead of an opportunity to take a break and rest. As a result, sleep deprivation occurs that quickly deteriorates mental and physical health, making it imperative to seek treatment for nightmare disorders. Fortunately, many well-researched therapies are available to improve the symptoms of this disorder and help them recover.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is one of the best ways to get rid of bad dreams and nightmares in children and adults. It is rooted in the notion that a person’s thoughts, behaviours, and feelings share a connection. By addressing these negative and self-defeating thoughts, a person can learn how to cope better with their emotions and their repercussions.

The application of CBT has been so successful in managing nightmare disorders that several other therapies used for this purpose draw from its principles.

Image Rehearsal Therapy

Image rehearsal therapy utilises the principles of CBT to track the images and content of unwanted dreams. The person with a nightmare disorder works closely with a therapist to analyse this content and edit it as per the individual needs. The person then spends around 20 minutes daily thinking about their dreams’ edited version. By thinking more about the rewritten nightmare, they gain a better sense of control over their nightmares.

Relaxation Skills Training

Relaxation skills hold a crucial role in the management of a nightmare disorder. These skills allow an individual to calm their mind and body while managing the stress related to nightmares. Some of the most common relaxation skills that a therapist may recommend include:

  • Guided imagery
  • Body awareness
  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Mindfulness

While some of the relaxation skills mentioned above may seem awkward or uncomfortable to perform, they can make nighttime less stressful.

Exposure and Systematic Desensitisation

Exposure therapy encourages individuals to face the content of their nightmares instead of altering or avoiding them. Unlike other feared stimuli, like skyscrapers or spiders, counsellors cannot directly expose their clients to their nightmares. So they use mental imagery to help clients face their bad dreams and eventually get over them.

On the other hand, systemic desensitisation is a type of exposure where an individual is slowly exposed to a stressful thought or dream instead of all at once. This slow pace allows them to acclimatise themselves to the dream and overcome it in a controlled and safer way.

Medications

While therapy is mostly enough to get rid of nightmares and their associated symptoms, some people may require medication. Some effective medicines commonly used for treating a nightmare disorder include:

  • Nitrazepam: A benzodiazepine drug that treats insomnia and short-term anxiety
  • Triazolam: Another benzodiazepine that experts routinely use to manage insomnia
  • Prazosin: A drug that works by limiting the communication between different parts of the central nervous system, eventually leading to more extended periods of sleep

Sometimes, a doctor may recommend using other medications, especially when a nightmare is secondary to a mental health disorder like PTSD. At the same time, they may stop certain medications that worsen a nightmare disorder, such as venlafaxine and clonazepam.

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