How to Deal With Nightmares?

We have all had dreams of us being murdered, chased by monsters or even losing our loved ones. All of these dreams have haunted us every now and then and left us sweating and restless. Such dreams are usually called Nightmares.

Having nightmares occasionally is natural and is nothing to worry about, but regular nightmares can interfere with our sleep routine and may need professional attention.


Studies indicate that nightmares are common phenomena among children with high levels of anxiety or stress. Seven-year-old Rahul Desai (name changed),dreams of someone beating him, thus disturbing his sleep every night. Seems familiar? This is a nightmare and the intensity of reactions to this can be severe. Before we move on to find the ways to cope with nightmare, let us understand what a nightmare means.

What is a nightmare?

A nightmare is a dream occurring during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that brings out feelings of strong, inescapable fear, terror, distress or extreme anxiety. They typically occur in the latter part of the night and usually awaken the person, who is able to recall the dream. They can be related to physiological causes such as a high fever, psychological ones such as unusual trauma or stress, or commonly for no apparent cause.

People often consider night terrors to be nightmares. These are two different things. Nightmares tend to occur after several hours of sleep — screaming or moving about is very uncommon; the dream is usually elaborate and intense, and the dreamer realizes soon after waking up that he or she has had a dream or rather a nightmare. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during the first one or two hours of sleep. Here screaming and thrashing about is common. It is difficult to wake the person dreaming, and usually, they remember no more than an overwhelming feeling or a single scene, if anything.

Nightmares and night terrors arise from different physiological stages of sleep. Children who have night terrors may also have a tendency to sleepwalk and/or urinate in bed. The causes of night terrors are not well understood. They may be associated with stress in adults. A consultation with a physician may be useful if the night terrors are frequent or especially disturbing.

What causes nightmares?

Nightmares are a common phenomenon among students, especially during examinations. Nightmares may be a way of relieving stress. Sometimes major changes, such as changing base or the illness or death of a loved one can cause stress that leads to nightmares. Today, competition is intense and students are required to be on their toes all the time. The resulting stress is often a cause of nightmares. Other common causes of nightmares include:

  • Anxiety
  • Illness
  • Death of loved ones
  • Eating just before going to bed
  • Side effects of certain drugs
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Abrupt withdrawal from alcohol

Finally, some people experience frequent nightmares that may appear unrelated to their life. These people tend to be more creative, sensitive, trusting and emotional than average.

Coping with nightmares

A recently proposed treatment consists of imagery rehearsal. This approach appears to reduce the effects of nightmares and other symptoms in acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you are under severe stress, seek help. Talking about it is a good solution. A regular energetic fitness routine, using aerobic exercise if possible, will help. You will be able to sleep well. Practice some relaxation therapies to reduce muscle tension; this will also help decrease the level of anxiety.

Following these simple things can also help:

1) Get into a healthy sleeping routine
2) Avoid long-term use of tranquilizers, caffeine and other stimulants.
3) Try to follow fixed sleeping hours
4) Unless you’re sick or didn’t get enough sleep the night before. It is advisable to avoid naps during the day
5) Avoid eating or exercising just before bedtime.
6) Use a night lamp
7) Keep your door open
8) Sometimes it helps to keep a dream journal, a notebook in which you describe the dreams you can recall. Tracking your dreams — good and bad — and how you felt before you went to sleep can give you a better sense of how your mind works at night

In case you feel that medication is the cause of nightmares, consult your doctor for alternative prescriptions.

Remember, nightmares are not ‘real’ and cannot harm you. Dreaming about something scary does not mean it will happen to you. Everyone has nightmares now and then.

Important: If nightmares occur more often than on a weekly basis or for a prolonged period, seek professional help. Consult a psychiatrist or counsellor.

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