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How to Cope With Nightmares

Don't let them stress you out.

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Nightmares are more than pesky; they’re nasty, they disturb our sleep and can cause us a lot of trouble ― in some cases, trouble to the point of truly bizarre (or comical, depending on how you look at it). Just how bizarre?

Well, Californian lady and bride-to-be Jenna Evans appeared in the news recently when she told reporters of how she had managed to swallow her engagement ring during her sleep. Yes, you’ve read correctly: she swallowed her engagement ring.

Ms. Evans had been having a bad dream in which her fiancé and she were in a dangerous situation. In the dream, her fiancé told her she had to swallow her engagement ring. Only his dreamworld self will know why, but those were his instructions.

When Ms. Evans woke up the next day, the ring was missing. She had no doubts about where it was. The ring was right there in her stomach, as an X-ray proved to stunned doctors, who then determined the best course of action would be for a gastroenterologist to remove the ring.

Although she saw the funny side of her predicament, she’d likely not want to repeat her actions. No one wants to relive a nightmare because nightmares are ugly and can cause us distress, so why do we have them? What can we do about them?

What causes the nightmares?

Several reasons have been cited for the causes of nightmares, some more believable than others. Among the ones you may consider less believable are spicy foods or cheese, which seem closer to superstition than to fact. More reasonable is the explanation that eating late at night can step up metabolism and cause the brain to become more active.

Drugs and medications can also trigger nightmares, as can the withdrawal from them. Illness and other circumstances that can disturb our sleep pattern, such as jet lag, sleep deprivation, and a changing sleep schedule can also be culprits for our nightmares.

Negative emotional experiences during the day are another big reason. Two different processes can intensify the nightmares that follow them. One is the process of thinking over and over a negative experience, which keeps the pain of the experience fresh in our minds. The other is imagining the worst potential outcome from an experience. The experience might be bad, but envisaging the worst causes the magnitude of the experience to far to exceed its original negative impact.

Perhaps linked to negative emotional experiences being responsible for our nightmares is the idea that stress and anxiety cause them, too. Nightmares can come on after especially unpleasant events, including trauma or the death of a loved one, and, unfortunately for the dreamer, they go a step further and are even more horrible.

Nightmares don’t all have to be a complete product of the mind, though. Breathing problems can stir them up. If you have the misfortune to suffer from narcolepsy or sleep terror disorder, you may also experience nightmares.

What can you do about them?

A brain is an active place and you can’t control every little thing that goes on in there when the lights go out and you drift off into the land of nod. You can, however, take steps to minimize your dreams from mutating into something on the darker side. Here are a few suggestions:

Observe good sleep hygiene

Your bedroom must be a tranquil place with the right furniture and ambiance for you to rest comfortably. It’s not a place to work and you shouldn’t watch TV very close to bedtime. It’s purely about resting. When you go to sleep, make sure the room is dark and cool (but not so cool that you feel too cold to sleep).

Stay away from stimulants

Coffee and alcohol are never good before bedtime. You might think the alcohol will help you sleep, but it won’t; what it does is trap you in the early phases of sleep and force you to wake up later as it starts to clear from your system, making you need to go to the toilet.

Clear your head of the day’s annoyances

You want to go to bed in the most positive state possible (except for being completely delirious with happiness or excitement, of course, which might prevent you from sleeping!). If you’ve had a rough day or you’ve had something on your mind, shoo it from your thoughts before you climb into bed. That’s easier said than done, but you can take steps to change how you’re feeling. Focus on everything good that’s happened during the day. If nothing good has happened, find some way of seeing the positive side of the day’s events.

Practice some self-awareness

When we’re in the thick of daily activities, we’re not always thinking about how we’re behaving. We’re just reacting to the circumstances without a second thought. We need to stop and think. If you find yourself starting to go over a negative event in your head or imagining the worst, stop yourself. Redirect your thoughts to something more positive. Catching and controlling negative thoughts and emotions during the day will make it easier for you to keep them on a leash at night-time.

What if the nightmares are frequent?

If the nightmares are frequent, speak to a doctor and/or a mental health professional. If you’re going through a stressful situation, it can help to speak to a family member or a friend and if the nightmares are severe, you might find it more appropriate to consult a mental health professional. This could be necessary in the case of severe trauma. A professional can help you cope with the events that have upset you and find possible solutions.

Another approach you can try, especially in the case of recurring nightmares or a nightmare from trauma, is ‘image rehearsal therapy’. This empowering approach encourages you to seek control of your nightmare(s). You recall the nightmare as accurately as you can and write it down; change some of the details of the nightmare, such as the ending, the storyline or the theme and any other details ― after all, it’s your nightmare; and then during the day, rehearse in your head this new script, which incorporates the positive changes, for a few minutes. This trains your mind to replace the old nightmare with the new one. You can ask for help from a mental health professional on this approach.

Note that if you’re on some form of medication or use drugs, you may have to come off them to deal with the nightmares. However, it could be dangerous to suddenly stop taking them and the withdrawal itself can trigger nightmares. You should consult a doctor first, who can advise you on the best steps to take.

No one likes to wake up at night because of a nightmare. We dislike waking up frequently because of nightmares even more. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can take steps to control your nightmares and stop them from disrupting your sleep and, possibly, your life. Be brave and take back control.

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