There’s nothing worse than going to bed, expecting to be transported to a land of unicorns and fluffy kittens, and instead you’re being chased by sharks or you find yourself on stage, giving your TED Talk, wearing… nothing. Nightmares can really mess up your sleep and leave you exhausted the next day. But why do you even get nightmares? And how do you stop them?
See also: 11 sleep myths you probably think are true.
What are nightmares?
First of all, let’s break down what they are: a nightmare isn’t just a bad dream that you vaguely remember the next morning. Instead, it’s a vivid dream that causes you to wake up feeling upset or anxious. You may even break out in a cold sweat or feel your heart pounding. It could be a struggle to fall asleep again after a nightmare, with all your thoughts spinning trying to digest what you saw.
What causes nightmares?
Most people get nightmares occasionally during the second half of the night, when they’re in deep, rapid eye movement — or REM — sleep. In fact, nightmare scenarios are among the most common dreams. However, if you find yourself asking, “Why do I keep getting nightmares every night?” the answer may be that you’re suffering from a rare disorder known as nightmare disorder. Also known as dream anxiety disorder, the sleep disorder frequently features scenarios where the individual experiences their safety being jeopardized.
Why we get nightmares — or dream at all — is still a mystery to neuroscientists and sleep experts. According to the Mayo Clinic, though, there are some factors that seem to trigger them:
- Stress and anxiety
- Sleep deprivation, insomnia and sleep disorders
- Depression and other mental health disorders
- Health conditions like heart disease or cancer
- Certain medications, including antidepressants and blood pressure drugs
- Scary books or movies, especially before bedtime
The jury’s still out on whether what and when you eat really can give you nightmares, but folk belief has it that dairy and spicy foods and eating heavy meals late at night will bring out the monsters that mess with your Zzz’s.
How to prevent nightmares
So how can you prevent nightmares? Being aware of what triggers your nightmares is the first step. Are you stressed at work? Try speaking to your manager to develop strategies that will reduce that stress. Are you dealing with unresolved trauma? Therapy — including lucid dreaming therapy where you’re actively aware that you’re dreaming — can help you work through that. Are your nightmares a side effect of medication? Speak to your healthcare provider about alternatives or taking your meds in the morning.
Here are more strategies to try:
- Avoid scary books and movies before bedtime. This is especially important preventing nightmares in little kids.
- Don’t avoid going to sleep. According to Psychology Today, deliberately depriving yourself of sleep means less REM sleep. The brain then compensates with an REM rebound later on, leading to more intense dreams — and nightmares.
- Lay off the booze. Alcohol inhibits REM sleep and keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep, leading to an REM rebound.
- Caffeine is a stimulant that will inhibit REM sleep, too. Remember that anything containing chocolate, green tea and even decaf coffee contains caffeine, so avoid these before bedtime.
- When you wake up from a nightmare, make sure you’re fully awake before going back to sleep. This will prevent you from going right back to the nightmare.
- There aren’t specific foods that prevent nightmares but you can try foods and drinks that have a calming effect and will promote deep sleep. These include complex carbs, tryptophan-rich lean proteins, unsaturated fats and calming herbs like chamomile, basil, sage and lavender.