Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
It’s not always possible to completely prevent bad dreams, but setting the stage for good sleep can help ensure you snooze more soundly and feel better-rested. Sleep hygiene involves ensuring both your habits and sleep environment are ideal for quality rest.
Your sleep space can have some bearing on your resting state. Ideally, bedrooms should be cool, dark and quiet. Temperatures in the 60s to low 70s are considered best. Remove or turn off light sources like TVs, VCRs, and alarm clocks, and consider light blocking shades if you live in an urban area or sleep past sunrise. White noise machines or earplugs can be helpful for drowning out bothersome noise.
In terms of habits, keeping a regular bedtime and waketime throughout the week is a key part of supporting your internal clock, as is daily moderate exercise, daily sunlight exposure and a regular evening relaxation routine.
Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can all affect sleep in different ways, and are best avoided the hours before bedtime. Keeping bedtime snacks light and avoiding spicy foods or those that cause indigestion is also recommended.
Talk or Write It Out
Some psychologists believe talking about dreams and getting social support to put them in perspective is key to reducing anxiety following nightmares. This might take the form of talking out dreams with a therapist, discussing them with a partner or in a group setting, or via independent journaling.
If you wake up shaken from a nightmare and can’t get back to sleep right away, it could be helpful to get out of bed and write the dream down, and even change its course.
Image Rehearsal Therapy is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that involves recalling the nightmare and then writing out a new, more positive version and rehearsing this new scenario daily to displace the original nightmare theme. IRT is a well-researched type of therapy, and is a treatment recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for chronic idiopathic nightmares and PTSD-related nightmares.
Deal with Daytime Stressors
Other approaches can focus on routines or working on areas of your life that could be contributing to stress or fear. The American Psychological Association’s 2013 Stress in America poll found that stress was associated with poorer sleep, and that poorer sleep was also associated with higher stress
When you’ve had a tough day, take a few minutes to de-stress before bed. Try a warm bath, relaxing music, yoga or other techniques to see what helps you most.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another method recommended by AASM for nightmares. It involves gradually tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles all over the body to reduce stress and tension. It can be done in a clinical setting, or at home via a guided audio track.
Avoid watching or reading things comprised of common nightmare fodder close to bed. That scary movie, suspenseful book or unsettling news broadcast could wind up in your midnight playlist.
Better choices for winding down if you are looking for more peaceful sleep are lighthearted shows, calming music, coloring/sketching, or neutral reading on subjects like self-improvement or hobbies. Remember, electronics like TVs and tablets steal sleep, so it’s best to turn them off at least 30 minutes before bed.
Play Some Video Games
One study of former American and Canadian male soldiers without PTSD found that those who played video games often had less threatening dreams and were less passive in their dreams. Researchers speculate that process of desensitization, fighting and winning associated with video gaming may carry over to the dream world.
However, a follow up study found that these protections may not extend to women. Researchers looked at a group of college students that previously experienced trauma and related dreams.
While male high-level gamers who had experienced trauma were less affected by nightmares, female high-level gamers actually had the most difficulty with nightmares. They speculate that the genres of games, whether they are played socially, and whether the player experiences sex-role conflict also factor into gaming’s ability to provide nightmare protection.
Get Help If Needed
Sometimes, nightmares can become more than just occasional disruptions, becoming a significant source of sleep anxiety. Nightmare disorder is a clinically recognized sleep disorder, classified by frequent and persistent nightmares that regularly disrupt sleep, cause bedtime anxiety and affect daytime behavior. They can also be a symptom of PTSD, which can have a dramatic effect on quality of life.
If you feel like nightmares are making it difficult to get a good night’s sleep often or feel anxiety around falling asleep due to bad dreams, it is worthwhile to discuss it with your doctor and/or a psychologist. They can assess if there are underlying conditions to resolve and prescribe the right treatments and medications when applicable.
Most importantly, don’t feel embarrassed to bring the issue up — nightmares aren’t childish. They can have a significant impact on your waking life, and social support along with healthy lifestyle habits can play an important role in minimizing their impact.
This article originally appeared on the Amerisleep blog.