It happened again last night – another bad dream. This time, my brain had decided to combine people I know with the creatures from a horror series I recently watched, and have them chase me around my own mind.
As is usually the case, it took a moment to claw my way back to reality. Just as the intangible shadow creatures had tried with my body, the nightmare itself refused to let go of my mind until I could shake it free.
Eventually, I was able to take a deep breath, tell myself that it was just another bad dream, and get up to make a cup of tea before going back to sleep.
Sound familiar? Nightmares are no fun – neither to experience yourself nor to see someone you care about having.
Fortunately, I don’t get them as often as I used to when I was younger. But on average I remember having a bad dream at least a couple of times a month, even in my forties. So it’s a sleep problem I’ve been keen to explore, and even keener to find a solution to.
In this article, I’ll be taking a look at both nightmares and night terrors, and sharing some of the good advice I’ve come across. First tip: don’t watch ‘The Haunting Of Hill House’ late at night!
The difference between nightmares and night terrors
Nightmares and night terrors are similar in some respects, but with some key differences:
A nightmare is a dream which causes strong feelings of distress, fear, terror or anxiety. Classic examples include being chased or attacked, running but not getting anywhere, intruders in the home, flashbacks to traumatic experiences, or even just bad arguments with people you care about.
Many adults still get nightmares, even though psychologists believe that children and adolescents experience them more often.
They tend to occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep, which is why they often happen later in the night.
People don’t usually move or make noises when having a nightmare. But when you wake up, you might remember it all too clearly, perhaps still feeling anxious or scared.
A key difference with night terrors is that you don’t usually wake up during an episode or even remember it. You may have some recollection of feeling scared in the morning though.
So it’s often someone else, particularly a child’s parent, who has to deal with the unpleasantness of the experience.
Usually occurring in children between 3 and 12 years old, they might suddenly start screaming, moving around in bed erratically, rolling, kicking or lashing out.
They could even sit upright and look awake during the episode, but they won’t respond if you talk to them or touch them.
It can be very disturbing to witness someone expressing terror like this. Fortunately thoug, the child will usually settle down after a few minutes.
Night terrors typically occur during the transition from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep into REM sleep. This usually occurs a couple of hours after falling asleep.
How parents can help children with night terrors
If you think your child is in the middle of a night terror, here are some practical steps you could try:
- Don’t try to wake the child up during an episode of night terrors. Just wait patiently with them until they settle down naturally.
- If the child is thrashing about, make sure they don’t hit themselves or injure themselves.
- Talk to them during the day to see if anything is particularly worrying or stressing them which you can then work on.
- Make sure they have a consistent bedtime routine.
- Make sure they get enough sleep and aren’t getting too tired.
- You can also take the advice from the next section about nightmares.
How parents can help children having nightmares
You are unlikely to be able to completely stop your child from having nightmares. However, you can take some steps to help them relax and feel like going to sleep is good if they are worried about having bad dreams.
- Ensure they have a regular bedtime and consistent bedtime routine.
- Spend time with them before bed doing something that makes them feel happy, secure and cozy. For example, a bath, reading a book, snuggling or talking about the day.
- Make sure their bed is comfy, cozy, warm (not hot), and peaceful. Having a favorite teddy bear or night light can help.
- Don’t let them watch or read anything scary before bed, or play any games which can be scary or make them anxious.
- Read one of many excellent children’s books written specifically to help kids with anxiety about monsters and the dark. Searching online will reveal many lists of great examples of these.
What you can do if a child wakes up scared from a nightmare
Unlike sleep terrors, children sometimes wake up from a nightmare and can understandably be worried about falling asleep again.
In fact, adults may also experience this after a particularly bad dream. You can try the following to help them settle back down:
- Talk about what happened, tell them it’s a bad dream, but reassure them that it wasn’t real and isn’t going to happen in the real world. This only needs to be a brief conversation, but just some words of comfort can go a long way.
- Let them know you are there, and that they are safe with you there.
- Let them know it’s normal to have a bad dream and that everyone has them sometimes.
- You can provide reassurance by checking everywhere in the room for monsters. Some say not to do this as is condones the worrying. My personal view is that it’s reassuring, as I remember my own dad doing it from time to time in a funny way. It made me giggle and relax, which is better than going to sleep feeling scared.
- Switch on some ambient lighting or night light.
- Make sure they have a favorite teddy bear, blanket or comforter.
- The next day it might also help to talk to them about it again. You could bring it into the art world with some drawing to make it seem less scary, or perhaps even some role play to make the monster or whatever it might have been seem silly, fun and less threatening.
If your child is having nightmares or night terrors to the extent that it’s disturbing their daily life, mood, development or health, it’s important to discuss it with a medical professional.
They might refer you to a sleep specialist who will hopefully find a way to help your family further. This can be particularly useful if the child is having recurrent nightmares, or is having them as a result of a traumatic event.
How to cope with nightmares as an adult
Having nightmares as an adult is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve had all kinds of bizarre and unpleasant nightmares over the years.
There are a few factors which might trigger nightmares, so you can start by having a think about whether these apply to you or not:
- Drinking alcohol, especially late in the evening.
- Too much caffeine, again late in the day might be worse.
- Taking recreational drugs.
- Smoking cigarettes before bed.
- Doing heavy exercise shortly before bed.
- Watching or playing a violent or scary film or computer game in the evening (I’m guilty of this one!).
- Eating late at night. Even small bedtime snacks can trigger nightmares.
- An illness that induces a fever.
- Breathing disorders in sleep, such as apnea. If you have any breathing problems when you sleep, it’s essential you consult a doctor about it.
In addition to the above ideas, here are some other points you might like to consider which could help:
- Some medications can cause nightmares. You can check the known side effects online or ask for your doctor’s advice.
- Stress, anxiety, and worry can cause sleep disruption. It might help to address this in your life, or even do simple relaxation exercises in bed.
- Major life events can be stressful. Moving house, relationship, money or work issues, and traumatic experiences can all trigger nightmares. Talk to family or friends, or seek professional help if you’re finding something in your life overwhelming.
- As with kids, having a stable sleep schedule can be helpful.
- Try to do some exercise every day, even if it’s just a walk.
- Keep the bedroom relatively cool if possible. Feeling too hot (or too cold) in bed can disrupt sleep.
- Keep a dream and nightmare diary. Recording what you experience can sometimes help to make it seem less out of control.
- Do some positive thinking or visualization while you lie in bed. Some people believe you can influence your dreams purely by telling yourself what you want to dream about.
If you feel like you’ve already tried all the self-help techniques and lifestyle changes under the moon, to no avail, here are a few more suggestions to consider.
Ask for a referral to a sleep specialist or sleep center
If your nightmares are interfering with your daily life and functioning, it might be time for specialist help. Your doctor can refer you to a sleep specialist if they think it’s necessary and possible.
Your doctor could also recommend taking medication, especially if there’s the possibility that a form of trauma is playing a role in your sleep problems. Talking therapy, such as imagery rehearsal therapy, might also be an avenue they suggest.
Imagery rehearsal therapy
Imagery rehearsal therapy has shown promise as a treatment for nightmares, especially for those who experience recurring nightmares with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It involves working with a therapist to try to change your dreams by visualizing them happening differently while you’re awake.
It’s also thought that it can help people who just have recurring bad dreams, even without the PTSD element. Although it’s better to do this with a therapist, it can also be tried alone.
There are three basic steps to trying imagery rehearsal therapy yourself:
- Write down a summary of the recurring dream, or the most recent nightmare you’ve had.
- Think of a way the nightmare can be changed to be less frightening. You should use your intuition to work out how to do this.
- Spend a few minutes every day visualizing your improved version of the nightmare.
Clearly, seeking professional advice is going to be helpful, as a therapeutic technique is rarely explained effectively in three bullet points!
Lucid Dreaming and embracing your nightmares
There have been some studies suggesting that lucid dreaming treatment (LDT) can be an effective way to stop nightmares.
The idea is that you train yourself to become aware that you’re in the middle of a dream or nightmare, and then either alter it or wake yourself up.
If that idea interests you, then even further than that is the idea of actually embracing you nightmares through lucid dreaming and using them as a tool for spiritual and/or psychological growth.
The following video, which was originally on a TEDtalk, explains this idea in an entertaining and fascinating way:
It’s not all bad!
Nightmares and creativity
It might not provide much comfort to nightmare sufferers, but there’s an interesting theory which suggests a positive side to nightmares – more creativity.
Researchers at the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal conducted a study of 28 people, comparing those who had regular nightmares with those who said they didn’t.
The team gave the participant a form of word association test before and after sleep. And they concluded that the nightmare sufferers displayed characteristics associated with creativity:
Nightmare sufferers may access broader than normal emotional semantic networks in the wake state, a difference that may lead to this group being perceived as more creative.
However, it’s not clear if nightmares really improve creativity, or if creative and emotionally sensitive people are more prone to nightmares.
Either way, it might provide some solace to know that your nightmares could be a sign that you have a creative mind!
Nightmares and fear rehearsal
Why do we even have to have nightmares in the first place?
Why hasn’t our brain evolved to stick to dreams about holidays on a deserted beach with self-refilling cocktails? Is adding giant flesh-eating mosquitoes really necessary?
Well, perhaps there’s a useful side to unpleasant dreams, as a team of Swiss and American researchers found in 2019.
They studied the brain activity of people while they were experiencing bad dreams. And they found that when the participants woke after having them, the areas of the brain responsible for controlling emotions when faced by situations that provoke fear were more effective.
In science daily, one of the study authors explained:
Dreams may be considered as a real training for our future reactions and may potentially prepare us to face real life dangers
This is in line with the classic theory about why we dream in general – that dreams are like a mental sandbox in which we can practice for real life. One caveat in the study was that bad dreams might be useful for this purpose, but more intense nightmares can be counterproductive.
Still, it’s almost reassuring to know my brain isn’t just torturing me at night, but trying its best to prepare me for future problems.
If only I could tell it I’m quite happy with my current level of preparation and don’t need any more practice!
What kind of nightmares do you or your child have? What do you find makes them more or less frequent? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.