Although nightmares can be very unpleasant, they’re usually just part of life as long as they happen sporadically. It’s a different situation if they occur more frequently and start disrupting your life. No matter how much they trouble you, there are ways to make them less of a torment.

What is a nightmare?

The word mare is Old English and refers to a mythological demon who torments people with frightening dreams, which really says it all.

Nightmares tend to happen as we emerge from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the sleep phase when we do most of our dreaming. Since the periods of REM sleep become longer as the night progresses, you often find that nightmares happen in the early morning. Unfortunately, it seems we are more likely to remember nightmares than more pleasant dreams. 

Children have nightmares much more often than adults, and there is evidence that adolescent girls are the ones who are hardest hit by disturbing dreams.

Same old story

Researchers at the University of Montreal have found that physical aggression is the theme of about half of all nightmares. According to the study, there are ten more standard sceenplays for nightmares, including disaster scenarios, insect encounters and interpersonal conflicts. But sometimes the storyline is more subtle, simply involving a vague feeling of threat or an ominous atmosphere.

Fear is perhaps the emotion most associated with nightmares, but we are just as likely to have feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or sadness. Whatever the emotion, it often takes a while before we are able to shake it off after waking up.

Exactly why we have to endure these tormenting experiences hasn’t been established, but there are several theories. Some scientists believe that nightmares allow our minds to process challenges we face during the day or reflect on previous experiences. Others think that nightmares are evolution’s way of preparing us for future threatening situations. Too little research has been done to know for sure.

Find the culprit

If nightmares interrupt your sleep on a regular basis, it’s considered a disorder and the recommendation is to see a doctor. Apart from being unpleasant, nightmares can lead to sleep deprivation, which in turn can have a negative impact on your overall health and lead to insomnia.

Frequent nightmares can be triggered by many different things, ranging from severe stress, migraine, sleep apnea and depression, to medication, substance abuse, psychiatric illness and trauma (PTSD). Dealing with the underlying cause is very likely to help you sleep more soundly.

Scare your nightmares away

If you only have nightmares sporadically and you know of no apparent cause, you may choose to leave it at that and endure the occasional terrifying night. You can also decide to elevate the quality of your sleep to a level where you just might be able to avoid bad dreams altogether. If this sounds appealing, there are a number of actions you can take. 

Check-list for sweet dreams

  1. Sleep in comfort. An ergonomic bed can do wonders. Keeping your bedroom tidy and inviting can also help.
  2. Aim for a regular sleep routine. Don’t stay up too late and go to bed at around the same time every night.
  3. Don’t bring work to bed. Create a pleasant atmosphere free from stressful elements. A nice fragrance or even fresh flowers can have a soothing effect.
  4. Wind down before you go to sleep. A good book tends to be a better bedtime story than a dramatic TV series.
  5. Don’t drink and sleep. Avoid coffee and alcohol, as well as other stimulating beverages like energy drinks, soft drinks and black tea before sleeping. Skip nicotine as well.
  6. Don’t eat and sleep. A good recipe for sleeping soundly is to avoid having dinner right before bedtime. You don’t want to get your metabolism going, as it has a tendency to activate the brain.
  7. Talk about it. If something’s troubling you, try talking it through with someone so that you can put it behind you before you go to bed.
  8. Exercise daily. Regular physical activity makes for sleeping more soundly. An evening walk is a good way to end the day.