Are nightmares interrupting your sleep on a regular basis? It’s one of the worst feelings to wake up terrified.

Blog | Courtenay Monfore | Licensed Professional Counselor | Trauma Stress Anxiety Therapy | Charlotte NC

Some adults experience threatening or scary dreams that leave you crying out in your sleep, thrashing around in your bed or waking up in a blind panic, soaked in sweat and with your heart pounding in your throat. As an adult, you might feel like you’re the only person you know who gets them. Nightmares aren’t just for kids, they’re actually very common in adults. Nearly 70 percent of adults have nightmares – with an amazing 30 percent of us reporting that these terrifying dreams jerk us out of sleep as often as once a month.

Which adults are more prone to bad dreams than others? Several studies have found age, personality type, and trauma can influence the frequency of nightmares for dreamers. Many of the clients I work with have nightmares and don’t understand why or where they’re coming from. If you’ve been going through a bout of nightmares lately, or been experiencing them for a while now, it’s worth figuring out what’s causing them so you can reduce their occurrence.

Nightmares Versus Night Terrors

Both nightmares and night terrors cause people to wake up in fear and feel a bit disoriented. Night terrors typically occur in the first few hours after falling asleep. Because night terrors do not occur during REM sleep, most people do not remember them; they are experienced as feelings and sensations, not dreams, so people do not recall why they are terrified upon awakening.

Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that rattle you awake from a deep sleep. They often set your heart pounding from fear. Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place. Since periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, you may find you experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

The subjects of nightmares can vary from person to person. There are some common themed nightmares that many people experience; such as not being able to get away fast enough or being in an out of control vehicle.

What’s Causing the Nightmares?

People have nightmares after having a late-night snack because the brain sends a message to increase our metabolism to be more active. Some medications, or withdrawal of medications, are also known to create nightmares such as antidepressants and narcotics as well as non-psychological medications such as blood pressure meds.

Gnerally though, nightmares are a sign of overload, either from recent life experiences or earlier adverse childhood experiences. As author Raosaling Cartwright writes in her book Crisis Dreaming, “Nightmares are a cry for resolution for finding a way to incorporate the terrible experience into our lives. Occasional nightmares are normal,” she adds. “But not nightly, and not over and over again.”

PTSD and Nightmares

If you’ve gone through a traumatic event, such as an attack or accident, you may have recurrent nightmares about your experience. This could look like someone who went through a natural disaster such as a hurricane. This person might have dreams about high winds or floods. They may dream about trying to escape the water or being in a shelter that does not feel safe. A survivor of a hold-up might have nightmares about the robber or about being held at gunpoint.

Not all nightmares that occur after a trauma are a direct replay of the event. About half of those who have nightmares after trauma have dreams that replay the trauma. People with PTSD are more likely to have dreams that are exact replays of the event than are survivors without PTSD.

Nightmares are a very common complaint for those living with PTSD. Some studies report up to 80 percent of those with PTSD experience nightmares that have them reliving or re-experiencing the traumatic event for months or years after the actual event took place.

Nightmares have a profound impact on people living with PTSD. Nightmares are more  common and occur more frequently, sometimes several times a week.

The differences in sleep amongst those with PTSD related nightmares (compared with those who do not have PTSD) are tangible. They have:

-increased REM sleep activity

-decreased total sleep time

-increased number and duration of nocturnal awakenings

-decreased slow wave sleep (or deep sleep)

-increased periodic leg movements during both REM and NREM sleep

In short, their sleep is less efficient and associated with a higher incidence of other sleep related breathing disorders.

Banishing Nightmares

If you have discovered that your dreams are caused by distressing feelings from the past that have been triggered by current events, here are some ways to keep your bad dreams at bay:

Recognize that you’re having nightmares – Nightmares are incredibly uncomfortable and emotionally painful. Generally we want to avoid that feeling and thinking about it can bring that painful feeling back. If you’re reading this, then you may already have done this step. But it’s important to give yourself a reality check and acknowledge that they are happening and initiate resolving it. Sometimes simply by recognizing the dream, meaning bringing awareness to yourself that you’re having the dream and that you want it to stop will decrease the nightmares and naturally resolve itself.

Habits –  Keeping a regular evening relaxation routine, bedtime and wake-time throughout the week is a key part of supporting your internal clock. You may find that including yoga and meditation in your evening routine is also helpful. Furthermore, as tempting as it may be, sleeping in at the weekend is likely to reset your sleep cycles, and so can affect your week day sleeping.

Bad habits – Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can all affect sleep in different ways, and are best avoided in the hours before bedtime. Sources of caffeine include coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, non-herbal teas and even some pain relievers.

Writing – In the same way talking can help reduce nightmares, writing can also be a help. Some recommend that if you wake up anxious from a nightmare and can’t get back to sleep right away, to get out of bed and write the dream down, and even change its course (Image Rehearsal Therapy).

Therapy- talking about your nightmares can put them into perspective (key to reducing the inevitable anxiety following nightmares). This might take the form of talking out dreams with a therapist and/or using Brainspotting to address the issue.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a process (similar to yoga nidra and some mindfulness meditations) where you gradually tense and relax different groups of muscles all over your body to reduce stress and tension. This is ideal to do just before you drift off to sleep.

Fear It goes without saying but avoid watching or reading things that scare you, or are related to your PTSD triggers before you go to bed.

Video Games A study found that the male PTSD sufferers who played video games frequently had less threatening dreams and were less passive in their dreams. Speculation is that the process of desensitization, fighting and winning associated with video gaming can carry over to your subconscious, and so your nightmares/dreams too. Subsequent studies have found however, that video games are not as effective for females in reducing nightmares.

Exercising daily often helps people sleep deeply, but for maximum benefit, work out about 5 to 6 hours before going to bed.

Smoking Due to nicotine withdrawal, smokers tend to sleep very lightly and often wake up in the early morning – which could be during your REM sleep, and resulting in waking up during a nightmare. Where possible, it goes without saying that giving up smoking would be the best course of action here.

Sleep until the sun rises It’s not always possible, but if you can, wake up with the sun, or use very bright lights in the morning. Sunlight helps the body’s internal clock reset itself daily and so an hour of morning sunlight can assist normal sleeping patterns to develop.

Sleep Deprivation Unfortunately, nightmares can be a vicious cycle as insomnia and fatigue also increase the chances of frequent nightmares. Using the tips above should hopefully break this cycle, and allow you to gradually reduce the nightmares you experience.

Call for a free consultation to get started on addressing your nightmares.