Nightmares related to anxiety are a very real thing. Interestingly, despite the common and severe worries that those with anxiety often suffer from every day, not everyone with anxiety is going to develop nightmares. Some actually have very restful sleeps, only to wake up and start experiencing anxiety-related stress.
But nightmares are still fairly common, as anxiety affects the mind. The good news is that there are strategies that can reduce nightmares and improve more restful sleep. We'll discuss those tips in this article.
Types of Anxiety and Nightmares
Nightmares are complex, because they're not only caused by anxiety - they can also cause anxiety in themselves. Those that have nightmares may often find themselves losing sleep and experiencing stress and anxiety throughout the day. They may feel scared to go to sleep or worry that they are going “mad”.
It's important to start to understand what dreams are and why your anxiety may cause nightmares. There are many different theories as to how and why we dream and researchers continue to explore this fascinating topic. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that, contrary to popular belief, dreams do not actually have a “meaning”. What you make of your dream is just as important, if not more so, than any “dream interpretation” you can read about.
Using scanning techniques, it’s been found that several areas of the brain including the pons are particularly active during deep sleep, sending out various signals. Some of these signals may relate to memories and sensory experiences. It has been suggested that parts of the forebrain try to make sense of all of these signals, and the result is connecting them up into a kind of story. Dreaming is thought to be the end product of this process.
So it's no wonder that so many people with anxiety have nightmares - they suffer from so many fearful thoughts that their brain can only turn those thoughts into some type of fearful story. Although this isn’t the case for everyone, having lots of anxious thoughts and experiences often gives lots of material for your brain to form a nightmare.
It's also important to remember that for some people, nightmares may be linked to traumatic or otherwise frightening experiences. Sometimes when we deliberately avoid thinking about difficult experiences they can pop up in dreams. It is thought that this may relate to the brain trying to process and make sense of the memories.
For some people this trauma can also be part of how they have developed anxiety. For some people these aspects may be related, and for others less so. If you think past events are having an impact on your life now this may be useful to discuss with a therapist.
Seeing Your Dreams How They Were Meant to Be Seen
Regardless, the first thing you need to do is remember that your dreams do not necessarily have any meaning. There's no reason to get stuck in analysing your dreams and worrying about why you’re having them. This is likely to cause you more stress. Instead, try to maintain an open mind and resist the urge to label the dreams or yourself.
Make sure you understand this mindset, because a surprising number of people with anxiety have a tendency to make decisions based on their dreams. That's not to say that you cannot - indeed, some of the world's most amazing ideas for inventions came from dreams - but you need to be able to recognize that there may well not be a message within your dream.
How to Stop Nightmares
Stopping your nightmares can be a bit tough, because again your nightmares may not be directly anxiety related. But there are some strategies you can try that often have an effect on how you dream. Consider the following tips:
- Write Out Your Thoughts Before Bed Sometimes a recurring negative thought can become a nightmare if it's left unchecked. Luckily, your mind has a tendency to let go of things if you write them down, because it knows they're on paper somewhere permanently. So when you have nervous thoughts before bed, make sure that you write them out in some type of journal so they're gone from your head when you sleep.
- Fill Time With Happy Things What you do during the day can also have an effect on nightmares. When you have severe anxiety it can be hard to take part in enjoyable activities. Even if you don’t immediately feel like it, try to do what you can to fill your day time with activities that are more likely to create pleasant memories. For example, stop watching dramas, reality shows, and horror movies, and try your best to watch comedies and cartoons instead. Switching activities in this way will ensure that your days are spent with more positive thoughts, which in turn should become more positive dreams.
- Create Upbeat White Noise If you can fall asleep with a bit of noise, consider adding some type of upbeat sounds in your bedroom. Some people choose upbeat music, but another choice may be a humor podcast or something with happy and laughing voices that you keep on a very low volume while you try to sleep. Sometimes the quiet of night can create an environment that may be a bit more prone to negative nighttime emotions, and so upbeat noises in the background may help.
- Exercise Exercise has a powerful effect on sleep. If you exercise enough during the day you'll sleep easier and your brain will release neurotransmitters that can have a very beneficial effect on your mood. Exercising is thought to make a big difference in your ability to create memories as well, and possibly improve the way your mind translates those stories.
- Have a Relaxation Strategy When you have a nightmare, it's often hard to fall back asleep. If you find that you rarely sleep after waking up from a nightmare, come up with a game plan. You can initiate this plan the moment you wake up that helps you become more relaxed. For example, some people find that leaving the bedroom and walking into someplace comfortable like the living room helps. Others give themselves a bit of TV to help take their mind off the nightmare. Some even find that lovemaking with their partner can make a big difference. There are plenty of strategies you can try that will improve your mood more quickly and possibly help you fall asleep as well.
These are all potential ways to cut back on your nightmares, and possibly improve your ability to sleep. But in the end, the best thing you can do is try to gain understanding of the root of your anxiety and learn strategies for managing it.