Here’s what you can do to have fewer nightmares
The best documented treatment against nightmares is actually something you can do yourself. You just need a little creativity and a few minutes.
The most common treatment for nightmares is to imagine a happy ending or a positive twist in the unpleasant dream.
This treatment method is called imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) and is the best documented treatment against nightmares, according to Ståle Pallesen, professor at the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Bergen.
Recently, researchers have found a way to make this treatment more effective using sound.
Nightmares as a health problem
Pallesen believes it's difficult to know exactly how many people suffer from nightmares, but says that a survey he participated in found that just under 3 per cent of Norwegian adults had nightmares at least once a week.
But we need a better treatment effect, Pallesen argues.
He says that the analyses show a reasonably good effect for IRT, but that there are always some who do not respond to treatment. And the effect is not very high either, Pallesen tells sciencenorway.no.
“Therefore, further developing and refining this method can be important in order to reach more patients with better treatment which works for each individual patient,” he says.
Some people dread bedtime
According to Pallesen, the vast majority of people have nightmares once in a while. It is when you are bothered by them often that it can become a big problem.
“If you experience frequent or severe nightmares, you may become reluctant to sleep. You wake up stressed, so it can be difficult to fall asleep again and if you think about it during the day it can affect your mood negatively,” Pallesen says.
Frequent nightmares can therefore negatively affect both sleep quality and mood.
Pallesen says that to be diagnosed with nightmare disorder, the nightmares must have negative consequences during the day. This could be anything from mood to your ability to function in different contexts, for example at work or school.
“If it has lasted over time, especially a few months, and it affects how you function during the day or significantly impairs your sleep at night, then I think you should seek treatment,” Pallesen says.
Onlinepsykologene (Online psychologists) suggest, among other things, exposure therapy for nightmares. This is based on known psychological principles.
Briefly explained; you face your fear. The goal is to understand that it is not dangerous.
Here's how to do it:
- Chart your nightmares for two weeks. Write down how often you have them, how unpleasant they are on a scale of 1-10, and how many different types of nightmares you have. Continue the survey after two weeks to check for changes.
- Write down the worst, or most frequent nightmare, in as much detail as possible as soon as you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Bonus points if you make a voice recording where you talk about what you just dreamt.
- Revisit the nightmare during the day. Find the voice recording or the sheet on which you wrote about it and read through it a few times.
- Close your eyes and imagine it as vividly as possible. Engage the senses, see the nightmare, hear the nightmare, smell the nightmare, taste the nightmare. And don't skip the scariest parts.
Onlinepsykologene recommend doing this for half an hour every day for a minimum of four weeks, or until you have fewer nightmares.
The most important thing is that you do it systematically.
Be careful to write down the date, the time you start and end the fear visualisation, and the discomfort before, during, and after the exposure session, on a scale of 1-10.
How to overcome nightmares
As mentioned earlier, the most common and best-documented method of reducing nightmares is to rewrite the nightmare into a more pleasant story.
Pallesen absolutely believes this is something you can accomplish yourself.
“IRT is simply rewriting your dreams,” he says.
This is how you can do it yourself, as explained by Professor Ståle Pallesen:
- First you have to train yourself to visualise things. Imagine different scenes and events in general.
- Then you imagine a nightmare that bothers you, and you write about it.
- You then visualise the rewritten version for 5-20 minutes every day.
“It isn’t any more complicated than that,” Pallesen says.
And if you are troubled by several nightmares, he recommends tackling a maximum of two a week.
“If you have four recurring nightmares, you can take two one week and two the other week,” he says.
But there are also other tips.
Some studies suggest that sleeping position affects the likelihood of having nightmares.
If you lie on your left side, the chances of having nightmares may be greater. If you lie on your stomach, you may be prone to dreams of being held tight or suffocated, supposedly because it is more difficult to breathe when you are lying on your stomach.
Have a serious talk with yourself
Nightmares can also be seen in the context of how you feel in everyday life.
What does the dream mean and how are you feeling? Do you see a connection?
If you see a connection, it may be a good idea to address the parts of life that the negative dreams reflect.
“Many believe that dreams regulate emotions,” Pallesen says.
Many believe that you get nightmares because the brain is unable to regulate the fear associated with something negative.
“If for some reason your brain is unable to fully process and suppress the feelings you experience in your dreams, then you will have nightmares,” he says.
How are you?
Roar Fosse, researcher at the Clinic for Mental Health and Substance Abuse at Vestre Viken Health Trust, believes there is a connection between how you feel and what you dream about.
“Negative dreams often reflect how you feel in life in general. If you have a lot of negative experiences, stress or trauma, you may have stressful dreams such as nightmares,” Fosse tells sciencenorway.no.
Fosse believes that the natural place to start would be to address these things during the day and work on them.
Maybe it's time to start talking to someone about your problems, exercise, write a diary, or meditate? Or perhaps take a trip to a psychologist? Or contact friends?
An example of dreams being linked to experiences are trauma-related nightmares. If you have experienced something traumatic, it is common to have nightmares afterwards. And if the nightmares do not subside over time, it is recommended to process the trauma.
The nightmares usually go away after treatment, according to Onlinepsykologene (Online Psychologists) (link in Norwegian).
It is nevertheless common to distinguish between trauma-related nightmares and so-called idiopathic nightmares, which are nightmares that occur for no known reason.
Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik.
Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no