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How to Stop Nightmares from Anxiety

Alexandra Richards, DClinPsy
How to Stop Nightmares from Anxiety

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:

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.

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