How to cope with nightmares? Befriend them and take charge. Nightmares have a story to tell. Fear can distract us from hearing the message.
We all have them. Nightmares can leave us frightened and disturbed, sweating and out of breath. We may scream, cry, kick, grind our teeth, wet the bed and more – all in our sleep, when nightmares happen. We can feel shocked, traumatized and terrified, with our hearts racing and ears ringing.
Sometimes we remember what it was about, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know it is ‘only’ a dream when we are right in it.
It is understandable to be afraid of nightmares, because they are so uncomfortable and can shake us to the core, especially if we are alone, in the dark, too afraid even to breath, never mind turn on the light.
Nightmares can be about old stuff or recent events. Sometimes there is a theme. For years I kept dreaming about falling off some stairs with no railings into dark nothingness. The sensation of the fall was so real, it left me feeling dizzy.
Sometimes we can see a link to our lives, sometimes we don’t. I believe there is a link, and that it has been triggered, somehow, and that old or new fears are trying to get our attention through such dreams. The trigger can be as subtle as a smell, a word, a gesture, a sound, a look.
What to do?
I have tried keeping dream diaries, during the night or first thing in the morning, but, alas, I am not disciplined enough. It is not for me (yet?). But because I have nightmares or bad dreams (like most people), I needed to find a way of managing them; a way that makes sense and that works for me.
Here is how:
1. Welcome nightmares and bad dreams:
I decided on a new attitude towards my dreams and nightmares:
- They are not working against me.
- They are working for me.
- They are here to help and not to hurt me.
- Their job is to convey a message and my job is to make sense of it.
Every evening I go to sleep with a thought about my dreams. Instead of worrying, I welcome them and I am open to whatever message or feeling they might bring.
2. Prepare a nightmare comfort routine:
Often nightmares can leave us in a state of shock, frozen and terrified. Our body and mind is hyper alert. We must calm our body and our mind.
Put something in or near your bed that gives you comfort – a toy, a piece of clothing, any item that you can touch.
When you wake up frightened, touch the item, and ideally place it on your tummy or chest. Those are our vulnerable areas. Keeping them safe gives us a greater sense of comfort, than just holding the item in our hand. You are safe.
Relax into that feeling of comfort, allow it and calm your breathing. Hold your breath and count down – three, two, one. Breathe out. Breathe in – one, two, three. Repeat as necessary. You are safe.
Move your toes, feel your body on the mattress, your bedding on your body, your head on the pillow. You are doing well. You are safe.
Turn on the light and remain lying calmly in your bed. Have a look around. You are safe.
Have a warm drink. Either get up or have a flask by your bed. You are getting stronger by the minute. You are safe.
Have a smell of something nice – a perfume, a flower, an essential oil like lavender. You are safe, yes? Good.
With this comfort routine you have attended to all your senses. In time you will find that you will feel safe and that you will trust this process of creating a feeling of safety.
3. Accept what has just happened.
With your body and mind sufficiently calm, accept the nightmare. Think or say out loud something like:
“That was a frightening dream. Phew, that was not easy. But I am ok now. I wonder what that was all about.”
4. What was it all about?
The essential part right now, is to accept that what has happened has a purpose.
It is helpful to have a think about what message there might be for you. You can either ponder that now or later, whatever feels comfortable for you.
I may have a nightmare about a person or a situation that frightened me in the past. Why do I have this dream now?
Is there anything or anyone in my life now that could or does trigger a similar fear?
Is the dream a warning, that something may be repeated and that perhaps I need to make different choices in my life?
Or could it be that something has triggered a memory of a situation or person that I am not yet done with?
I may still harbour anger or resentment or (unrealistic?) fear? If so, perhaps it is time to deal with those emotions once and for all?
Do not worry, if you cannot make sense of your dreams. That is ok, too. Feeling safe and not frightened is the main thing.
Keep an open mind, and in time you may get an idea.
These steps are not a guaranteed blue print, but a guide, which you can adjust and change using your own gut feeling of what will work best for you. Be creative.
But the underderlying change in attitude to your dreams and nightmares is essential.
You need to want to make the change and trust it will improve your experience of nightmares.
With time you may find that you do not need to follow all these steps, as you will have been able to reduce your fear and dislike of nightmares.
I still have the occasional nightmare. As I do not respond with fear to the ones I have, there is more positive energy left for a quick recovery from the experience and an open mind for what I may choose to do, as a result of the dream.
Nightmares can take a lot of energy from you.
Remember, they are not our enemy.
You can befriend and take charge of your nightmares. They do not need to be in charge of you.
Karin Sieger is a psychotherapist and writer. She specialises in supporting people through anxiety, bereavement and life-changing illnesses like cancer. Her blog is Between Self and Doubt. You can follow her on Twitter and can sign up for her newsletters here. For more information visit KarinSieger.com.