While a good dream can start the day blissfully, a bad one can leave you rattled for hours – wondering exactly why your mind came up with that particular dream, and figuring out how to stop it from happening again.
As unpleasant as bad ones can feel, dream psychologists believe dreams can reveal a lot about our mental wellbeing. Thankfully, there are some tried and tested tips on how to reduce nightmares.
If you’re sick and tired of struggling with sleep or bad dreams, here are five tips to help you through.
Manage stressors in your everyday life
Professor Mark Blagrove, a leading expert in sleep and dreaming at Swansea University’s Department of Psychology, says one way we can make our dreams less stressful is by de-stressing our lives.
“If people are having a distressing waking life, it may present in their dreams,” Prof. Blagrove said.
Whether that means starting on a mindfulness or meditation journey, journalling about what’s bothering you before bed, or reaching out for help from family and friends is up to you.
Whatever you can do to help mitigate stress will likely translate to better sleep all-around.
Prof. Blagrove also recommends trying to reduce the number of things bothering a person immediately before they put their head down. “Let go of the things that are really vexatious for people at the moment,” he says. “Let it go in the half an hour before sleep.”
Be more in tune with your dreams
Dream psychologist Ian Wallace says: “Ignoring the key psychological ‘clues’ our dreams are trying to tell us could have unhealthy consequences, preventing us from addressing anxieties and stresses in our waking life.”
Mr Wallace says there are common themes that often crop up time and time again, and we should be looking out for them.
“For example, people who are very successful and real perfectionists often have dreams that they’re unprepared for an exam. These are often the last people who would be unprepared for anything, but if you look at it as a symbol, an exam is essentially a way of judging something. People who have this type of dream are endlessly examining their abilities.”
If you start recording your dreams, you’ll generally start to see themes emerging. “Usually these will be in tandem with large emotional arcs in your life,” adds Mr Wallace.
What’s really important is that you take notice of any trends. “It’s no good just letting these dreams go by, because if you don’t listen to the messages, you’ll begin to have recurring dreams.”
This is when you see the same symbols come back again and again, which can happen for months, years and even decades. “Essentially, in recurring dreams, you’ll keep sending yourself the same message until it gets through; until you take action in waking life.”
Stick to a sleep routine
The standard recommendation for people who are not sleeping too well is to stick to a set sleep and wake-up time rather than trying to recoup sleep they may have lost by sleeping in. So, that means if you wake up at 7am five days of the working week, you ought to try to stick to it at the weekends.
“The body clock will wake you up and get you ready for bed, by starting to decrease the body temperature when ready for bed,” says Prof. Blagrove. “If you have a chaotic sleep life, then that body clock isn’t so robust.”
Use the hour before bed to do relaxing activities that reduce stress and calm the mind. Try to stick to no screen time for at least an hour before bed, read a book or journal instead. Try taking a warm bath or shower, do some stretches or try a relaxing meditation.
It’s also a good idea to avoid food and alcohol close to bedtime, as research shows both can negatively affect sleep.
Try a magnesium supplement
In order to fall asleep and stay asleep, your body and brain need to relax.
On a chemical level, magnesium aids this process by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for getting you calm and relaxed. It also regulates the hormone melatonin, which guides sleep-wake cycles in your body.
By helping to quiet the nervous system, magnesium may help prepare your body and mind for sleep.
Not having enough magnesium in your system can cause troubled sleep and even insomnia. Studies in mice have shown that optimal levels of this mineral are needed for normal sleep and that both high and low levels can cause sleep problems.
Rescript your dreams
If you have a certain nightmare over and over again, your subconscious may be trying to tell you something important. “Nightmares are the brain working through emotions,” says Prof. Blagrove.
Read more: Explaining weird dreams in lockdown
Thankfully, there are some tried and tested tips on how to reduce nightmares. “Share your dreams, tape record them and tell someone later if necessary,” Prof. Blagrove says. “The other option is to think about the whole nightmare, and think about what change you’d like to make, and imagine the changed element for 10 minutes.
“It’s called re-scripting or image rehearsal therapy – the altered version stops your brain during the night automatically going back to that distressing version.”
You could try this just as you are drifting off too. Bring to mind a really good dream or memory and imagine yourself right back there, and set an intention to continue this dream.
You can also specifically ask your dreaming mind to solve a problem or reflect on an aspect of your life that you would like some input on. Thinking about these things just before sleep may increase your chance of dreaming about them.
Do you have recurring dreams or nightmares? Do you keep a dream journal?
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