We’ve all had a nightmare or two, some more vivid than others. Your heart races, you feel disoriented and it takes a moment to catch your bearings. Nightmares are more common during childhood and become less frequent with age. About 50 to 85 percent of American adults say they have an occasional nightmare. Women report having them more often than men. But, while having nightmares once in a while is nothing to worry about, it becomes a concern when it prevents you from getting enough sleep and functioning properly during the day. Nightmare disorder, which is quite rare, requires attention as it can lead to stress, depression and even suicidal thoughts.
A nightmare is an unpleasant or frightening dream, nothing more. However, nightmare disorder is classified as a parasomnia, which is a sleep disorder that involves abnormal behavior, emotions, and movements when falling asleep, while sleeping, between sleep stages, and while waking up. Nightmares usually occur in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the stage when dreams are more vivid. The muscles of the body are paralyzed to prevent you from acting out your dreams. What sets nightmare disorder apart is that it prevents you from getting sufficient sleep. You also have nightmares more frequently and the experience is a lot more intense.
Nightmares can be caused by a number of things such as poor sleep hygiene, stress, anxiety, and trauma, the latter of which can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Watching distressing or scary content before bed can also cause nightmares. Insufficient sleep, certain medications, and substance abuse are risk factors too. People who have mental health problems and other sleep disorders or parasomnias can also experience nightmares.
Nightmare disorder is distinct in that the person suffering from it actually loses out on sleep. Dreams are vivid and can cause anxiety and distress to the point where you fear falling asleep or are unable to do so. Awakening from the nightmare, having a rapid heartbeat and experiencing intense emotions are also symptoms of the disorder.
Nightmare disorder has the potential to lead to complications. Since you lose out on sleep, you may have daytime sleepiness, moodiness, and depression. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, nightmares may trigger negative thoughts that could reinforce suicidal behavior in people with PTSD. This should be taken into consideration when treating the disorder so that a more targeted treatment plan can be drawn up.
Medical treatment is not necessary if nightmare disorder doesn’t interfere with your quality of life. However, if it’s severe, treatment is aimed at reducing stress and anxiety. People with PTSD-related nightmare disorder may be given medication and may undergo imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT). This is a cognitive behavioral treatment that aims to reimagine nightmares so that they seem less threatening and frightening if they occur again. If you have a nightmare disorder that’s not a result of PTSD, there are home remedies you can try to reduce the frequency and make nightmares seem less frightening.
Too much stress is dangerous, not just to health but to the quality of sleep. It’s associated with negative thoughts and emotions that can actually keep you from falling asleep. If you’re stressed and do sleep, there’s a higher chance of having bad dreams. Fortunately, stress can be managed in several ways. You can keep a stress diary to jot down your thoughts, learn to manage time so that you aren’t bogged down with too much work, and practice yoga as it focuses on relaxation and mindfulness.
If you like settling down to a movie before bed, choose what you watch carefully. Comedies and light-hearted movies/TV shows will calm your mind more than a thriller or horror flick. The same goes for reading in bed. Try to choose books that aren’t distressing so that they don’t make their way into your dreams.
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Poor sleep can cause nightmares, which in turn can cause poor sleep. It’s a cycle that continues unless you learn to practice good sleep hygiene. This involves having bedtime rituals that are relaxing and conducive to sleep such as reading, writing, meditating, etc., and going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each night/day. It helps your mind associate these habits with sleep so that when bedtime nears, you fall asleep more easily.
Along with these tips, you should turn your bedroom into a place of peace. Keep it free of mess, turn the lights low and block out noise so that there are no distractions when you sleep. You should also use the best mattress available such as Nuvanna so that you’re comfortable. It’s designed to promote better sleep through its triple-layer construction. The first layer regulates temperature with the help of phase-changing gel particles while the middle layer isolates motion and allows you and your bed partner to move without disturbing each other. The bottom layer supports all parts of the body and keeps the spine aligned to eliminate back pain.
You may not be able to avoid nightmares altogether but you don’t have to fall victim to them often. Medical treatment for PTSD-related nightmares and home remedies for general cases can help you dream better and sleep through the night. If you’ve been having nightmares lately or you suffer from nightmare disorder, there’s no reason you can’t take charge and gradually turn things around.