But First… Ever Wonder What Triggers a Nightmare?
Nightmares can be triggered by medications, oddball genes, degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, last night’s tamales, traumatic events in the present, never-healed wounds from the past that a recent event has unmasked, and gut-level threats to health, safety, and the very sense of who you are.
Those who put a lid on expressing how they feel in response to stressful events during the day are likely to be taken for a ride by those emotions in the form of nightmares at night. And some, particularly people who are open and sensitive, may have a “thin” boundary between what’s real and what’s a dream-which means that their waking life is more than likely to stir up their night life and cause some pretty hairy dreams.
“A nightmare is a dysfunctional dream,” explains Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., director of the sleep disorder service at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. Instead of integrating the day’s events and feelings with older, stored memories and defusing negative emotions-which is what some researchers feel a dream is supposed to do-the emotions your brain is processing overload your circuits, prevent their integration into older memories, and jerk you from sleep.
Facing Bad Dreams
Am I Dreaming?
Recognize that the dream is bad while you’re having it. This may sound impossible to do, but it’s not. Simply resolve that you’re going to do this before you fall asleep. It may take a few tries, but you’ll get the hang of it.
Identify what in the dream makes you feel bad. What are the feelings or events involved?
Stop any bad dream. Believe it or not, you can do it-often simply by recognizing that it’s bad.
Rewrite the Ending
Change the ending. Turn what’s negative into something positive. You may have to wake up to do it, but eventually you’ll be able to tell yourself to write a better ending as you sleep.
Keep a Dream Diary
Write down your dreams every morning. All your dreams, not just the nightmares. Then periodically review the ones that trouble you. Try to figure out why they’re upsetting.
When Nightmares Are a Sign of Danger
“Major depression usually wipes out dreaming altogether,” says Dr. Cartwright. “Depressed people usually have no recall of dreaming, no dream content, no story. If they do, it’s very short, very bland, with no feeling at all.
“As they recover from depression, however, their ability to dream comes back, and their dreams get more elaborate and full of emotion.” Unfortunately, those recovering from depression can sometimes overshoot and be flooded with negative emotion.
“That’s when suicides can occur,” cautions Dr. Cartwright. So it’s very important that anyone who is depressed report nightmares to their doctor immediately.