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What is a nightmare and how to stop it?

Everything we need to know to get a good night's sleep

What is a nightmare and how to stop it? Everything we need to know to get a good night's sleep

We may have left the monster season behind us with the end of October, but the same cannot be said of nightmares. A 2020 study from Hong Kong found that around one in 20 people wake up at least once a week during the night because of a nightmare.

But what are nightmares and how can we get rid of them?

In the 1700s, nightmare was defined as: "the disease in which a person thinks in his sleep that he has a great weight on his stomach". Today we know that nightmares are disturbing dreams that we remember because they usually occur during REM sleep ("Rapid Eye Movement", which is the time of maximum brain activation during sleep) and that they therefore often wake us up.

What do nightmares depend on?

Nightmares are closely related to our daily lives and can depend on a variety of factors, such as:

  • Noise stimulation during sleep
  • Fever
  • Fears or stress 
  • Trauma
  • Lack of adequate rest
  • Sleep apnoea 
  • Medication 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux

According to researchers, nightmares are generally our body's response to mental and physical stress and, like all dreams, are used by our mind to process emotions and consolidate memories.

How do you stop having nightmares?

Since nightmares are a manifestation of the negative emotions in our waking life, dealing with the stressors productively, managing our mental health and emotions is the best way to permanently solve the problem and get to the source. But while we look for the causes, here are a number of activities that can be immediately helpful:

  1. Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Relaxing activities such as a warm bath, meditation, yoga, breath work or mindfulness exercises can help prepare the mind for restful sleep. 
  2. Practise good sleep hygiene. Bedtime includes practises that ensure peaceful sleep, such as having a cosy, quiet and dark bedroom and sticking to a set daily routine.
  3. Minimise your alcohol consumption. Like exercise, alcohol consumption affects our body's circadian rhythm. But instead of supporting it, alcohol does the opposite by interfering with our ability to respond to the light signals that keep this system in balance.
  4. Prioritise regular exercise. Exercise can have a direct impact on sleep and wake times, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  5. Avoid eating before bedtime. Eating stimulates the metabolism and brain and increases the likelihood of nightmares.
  6. Room temperature can play an important role. When we enter the REM phase, our body temperature drops, which makes us feel uncomfortable in relation to the warmth of the environment.
  7. It is a good habit to write down your dreams in order to learn to remember them. With nightmares, the most important thing seems to be to rewrite them to give them a positive ending.

Are nightmares healthy for our health?

According to studies, bad dreams have a certain benefit: They help us better manage and control anxiety in real-life situations, so we can respond better to challenging situations. Although nightmares can be frightening, they can be a sign that our brain is taking care of itself. By waking up from the nightmare, we give ourselves the chance to remember what we were dreaming about and to focus our attention on what we are also unconsciously afraid of. The emotions we experience in dreams help us to resolve some of our emotional disturbances and prepare us for future experiences. Nightmares are therefore a wake-up call that, if we pay attention to them, can help us avoid painful situations and cope with traumatic circumstances by making our lives easier.