What is a dream? According to the dictionary, dreams are a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person`s mind during sleep. Some people say that dreams are bedtime visions, others say they are a display of subdued desires (or fears), while others argue that they don’t actually exist.
Both adults and children experience bad dreams. Nightmares and bad dreams are a sign that something needs to be addressed especially when you are awake.
There is a difference between bad dreams, nightmares, and sleep terrors. Bad dreams are unpleasant dreams that cause fear but do not necessarily awaken you.
Most people will remember all or part of the dream. Nightmares, on the other hand, can be repetitive or even chronic dreams, where the individual awakens feeling anxious, terrified and sometimes experience shortness of breath and cold sweat.
Sleep terrors are severe nightmares that leave the individual feeling extremely terrified. People have been left feeling immobile which is what we call sleep paralysis.
What causes bad dreams?
The two major causes of bad dreams are stress and trauma.
With the demand placed on us every day, it is possible to feel overwhelmed, worried and anxious some or most of the time. If one experiences unchecked or extreme mental or emotional strain for a prolonged period of time without any help or intervention, they are most likely to experience difficulties in sleeping or even nightmares depending on the severity of their experience.
When people undergo tragedies-either sudden or prolonged- they may become prone to frequent or repetitive nightmares which are unique to the cause. Tragedies such as the death of a loved one, prolonged illness, undergoing or witnessing a terrifying event are examples of such causes.
Other factors that may cause or increase the probability of experiencing a bad dream include;
- Heavy consumption of alcohol – although known to be a sleep inducer, researchers warn that heavy and frequent consumption of alcohol can work against the quality of your sleep. It reduces the REM (Rapid Eye Movement), a period during which people dream. Alcohol can also cause muffled breathing which can, in turn, trigger sleep apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep).
- Lack of body exercise and mind relaxation –tense muscles and a mind that is not relaxed will tend to carry the burdens of the day into sleep mode affecting your sleep negatively. The mind tends to follow the line of thought it was on when you were awake, into dreamland.
- Illness – especially one that is characterized by high fevers or abnormal body temperatures may disrupt your sleep and cause nightmares.
- Prescription drugs – some drugs that we use to treat ourselves when our bodies are sick can have side effects that cause bad dreams. Talk to your doctor immediately if this happens.
- Illegal or hard drugs – drugs such as cocaine or ecstasy among others can cause hallucinations when you are sleeping or even when you`re awake. Hallucinations change one`s perception of reality and can cause fear, nervousness or even paranoia.
How to rid oneself from bad dreams
Identify the cause
Seek to find out the cause of your nightmares. Identifying where it all started is the first step into recovery. If the nightmares are caused by extreme trauma or stress such as PTSD, severe anxiety or depression, talk to your doctor who will be able to recommend a prescription or an over-the-counter sleep aid pill to help tackle the nightmares.
Avoid harmful practices
Eating food too close to bedtime or taking caffeinated drinks late in the afternoon or right before going to bed increases your metabolism, keeping you awake for longer and should be avoided.
Other harmful practices include; watching horror films, reading in bed, use of electronic gadgets such as phones and computers. Instead of these, establish your bed as a place for sleep and rest only.
Exercise your body and relax your mind
Regularly exercising the body helps you fall asleep faster, sleep longer and deeper. Practice to tense, hold and release your muscles during the day and again right before bed for a relaxed body.
Start with the shoulders and work your way down. Make time for people or things that make you happy and think happy thoughts. Focus on positive events and let your mind drift into sleep on a happy line of thoughts. These exercises have been proven to help people relax and minimize bad dreams by up to 80%.
Shift your focus
Bad dreams can cause extreme fear. The more you allow yourself to worry and dwell on that fear, the more likely you are to experience them again. Refuse to dwell on them when you are awake. Instead, shift your focus to positive events that bring you joy.
No matter how hard it may be, try to catch and stop yourself from spiraling out of control into negative thoughts. As much as most nightmares are caused by real-life tragedies, keep your problems in proper perspective by training yourself not to exaggerate any cause and by not blowing things out of proportion. Dwell on happier memories and concentrate your mind on such.
Visualize a safe space
Identify a physical or imagined space where you feel safe and spend some time there before going to bed. If the place is imaginary, use all your senses to visualize it. Release any tension you might be experiencing by practicing meditation techniques to help you relax.
Rewrite your dreams
To counter bad dreams, people have experimented by writing down their dreams as they remember them, then rewriting and changing details of the dream by replacing terrifying details with better things. For example, you can replace monsters with fluffy kittens or rewrite the entire dream and spend time visualizing your new dream to replace the old one.
Stick to a sleep schedule
Make and stick to a particular schedule where you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Make sure that you are tired and ready to sleep immediately you get to bed. You could also place plants that help you sleep in your bedroom to make it a more sleep-friendly zone. See my recommendations of plants that help you sleep better here.
Research says that only 2-3% of the things we worry about actually happen. Therefore do not give worry a chance for it only steals your joy and peace and consequently robs you of your precious sleep. If it is too much for you to handle, you should visit a psychiatrist and seek an expert’s opinion.