nightmares

Nightmares are a common source of sleep loss.
– Denise Dixon, PhD @suffolkhealthpsy.com

Nightmares are a common source of sleep loss for many people. When we experience repeated and vivid nightmares, we may begin to avoid sleep at night. Sleep loss can then lead to even more vivid dreams or nightmares.

What a vicious cycle!

Many of us think that there is nothing that we can do, about nightmares.

Not True!

First of all, it is very important to remember that having nightmares once in a while is entirely normal.

But what about those repeated nightmares? And/or traumatic nightmares? Can anything help us with those?

Yes!

A technique called imagery exposure and dream re-scripting has been shown to reduce the amount of nightmares experienced. Many people have said that this technique has gotten rid of their nightmares completely!

 

Imagery (or Nightmare) Exposure

What is nightmare (or imagery) exposure? The technique is quite simple, and comes from cognitive behavioral treatment of anxiety disorders.

 

RELATED: 7 Easy steps to find the right psychologist for you

 

The concept of exposure is all about facing our fears head on. When we face our fears, instead of avoiding them, we take away their power over us.

Usually, our nightmares are very vivid representions our deepest fears.

 

 

 

By facing our nightmares, we learn how to control our fears, instead of allowing our fears to control us.

 

Nightmare exposure is used through a technique called dream (or nightmare) re-scripting.

 

Dream (or Nightmare) Re-scripting

Dream (or nightmare) re-scripting is a type of nightmare exposure. Nightmare re-scripting is frequently used to help people that have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to deal with traumatic nightmares.

nightmare
The bodies and brains of people with PTSD are essentially tricking them into believing that the past trauma(s) is (are) happening in the present moment. Traumatic nightmares are another form of “stuck” memories.

While we cannot go back in time, and change the past, we can help the brain process past memories to put them in the past, where they belong.

We can re-write traumatic (or non-traumatic) nightmares in any way that we want, so that we can gain a sense of control over upsetting events, experiences and/or images.

It doesn’t really matter if the events happened “in real life” or not. The goal is to gain a sense of control.

Sounds good, right?

 

Does Nightmare Re-scripting really work?

The short answer is yes!

 

A decent amount of high-quality research studies have shown nightmare re-scripting reduced the frequency of nightmares.

The catch?

Like any health behavior, we need to practice the technique in an organized, consistent manner, for at least one month, to gain any real benefits.

💡TIP: Jumping into nightmare re-scripting, with our most frightening nightmare(s) may cause us to quit, before we even start. Therefore, we may want to start with a less distressing nightmare. Being gentle and kind with ourselves will help us to gain confidence, and inspire us to forge ahead.

So, how do we go about nightmare re-scripting?

Denise Dixon, Ph.D.
Denise Dixon, Ph.D.

Dr Dixon is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in New York State. She sees children, adolescents, & adults, & specializes in evidenced-based treatments of various mental health problems. She is dedicated to helping people to find hope; discover their inner strength; and maximize their personal growth.

How to Get Rid of Nightmares: Staring into the abyss

nightmares

To conquer our nightmares, we need to stare into them. Denise Dixon PhD @ suffolkhealthpsy.com

 

We are now presented with several different approaches to getting rid of nightmares.

Read on, to decide which technique would work best for you.

 

Technique #1: Get rid of nightmares in 3 simple steps

Click on the slideshow below, to learn about this simple (3-step) technique to get rid of nightmares.

Step 1: Face Your Nightmares
nightmares
Grab a pen or a pencil. If you feel super inspired, get a set of colored pencils or pens. Write out your entire nightmare. The beginning, the middle, and the end. Use as many pages as you want. Every detail counts. What happened? What did you do? Who else was there? What did you hear, see, smell, feel, think? Get it all onto paper. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or if you can read it. This is just about getting it out of your head, and onto the paper.
Step 2: Turn the Page
nightmares
Yes, you read that correctly. When you have finished writing out your entire nightmare, take a deep breath, and then… Turn. The. Page. You want a fresh, clean sheet of paper for the next step, which is…
Step 3: Face your nightmare. Again. Then, Change One Thing
nightmares
You are going to repeat step one. Every detail. Only this time, you are going to change one thing. “What thing?” Whatever you choose! The color of your shirt. The hand that held an object. Looking right instead of left. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave (which you are, because you’re doing this!), the most frightening part of the nightmare! No detail is too large or too small. This is your script. Take control! Have fun! Play with it! Yes, play with your nightmares! You’re the boss! Rock it!
Step 4: Repeat as many times as you want
nightmares
Okay, so I may have lied about 3 steps. Well, not really. We can stop after the first 3 steps. But some of us want to really take charge of our nightmares. So, we know that repeating the process will help us even more. The more exposures to nightmares, without trying to avoid them, the sooner we see them disappear. Like magic. How cool, is that?

Technique #2: Getting rid of nightmares by drawing

What if we don’t like to write? Can we draw, instead?

Of course!

Step 1: Illustrate Your Nightmares
nightmares
We follow the same basic steps as writing out our nightmares, but this time we select a specific “scene” of the nightmare. Which scene? Whichever scene you feel like illustrating! Grab a pencil, or a set of colored pencils or markers. We may even want to use crayons! Draw your nightmare  Every detail counts. Try to show exactly what happened; what you did; who else was there; the sounds; sights; smells; feelings; thoughts. Some of use may want to illustrate our nightmares in a comic-book (graphic novel) format. Don’t worry about the quality of your drawings! This is all about getting the nightmare out of your head, and onto the paper.
Step 2: Get a new page
nightmares
Same as the first technique. When you have finished drawing out your entire nightmare, take a deep breath, and then… Get. A. New. Page. You want a fresh, clean sheet of paper for the next step, which is…
Step 3: Face your nightmare. Again. Then, Change One Thing
nightmares
Same as writing it out. You are going to repeat step one. Every detail. Only this time, you are going to change one thing. “What thing?” Whatever you choose! The color of your shirt. The hand that held an object. Looking right instead of left. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave (which you are, because you’re doing this!), the most frightening part of the nightmare! No detail is too large or too small. This is your scene. Take control! Have fun! Play with it! Yes, play with your nightmares! You’re the boss! Rock it!
Step 4: Repeat as many times as you want
nightmares
Okay, so I may have lied (again) about 3 steps. Well, not really. We can stop after the first 3 steps. But some of us want to really take charge of our nightmares. So, we know that repeating the process will help us even more. The more exposures to nightmares, without trying to avoid them, the sooner we see them disappear. Like magic. How cool, is that?

Technique #3: Digging in Deep (with 6 steps to get rid of nightmares)

We are going to follow the same steps (1-3) in either Technique #1 (writing) or #2 (drawing). Only this time, we are going to dig deeper with a series of questions.

Step 1: What was the worst part of the nightmare?
nightmares
Write (or draw) it out. Again, every detail. Remember that the first reaction to this question is to avoid or shrink from it. But we are facing our fears, to conquer them, once and for all! We’ve so got this!
Step 2: What was the emotional and physical experience of the nightmare?
nightmares
After writing or drawing out the worst part of the nightmare, it is time to turn our attention to the physical sensations and emotions felt during the worst part of the nightmare. Again, write (or illustrate) these physical sensations and emotions felt. Many people describe a tremendous sense of relief after this step. Most likely, because the real avoidance has been focused on the sensations and feelings, rather than the actual images of the nightmares. How interesting, is that?
Step 3: Reach for a better feeling
nightmares
If we had a magic wand or pixie dust, what feelings and physical sensations would we choose (to feel better), in the place of the negative feelings and physical sensations in the nightmare? We know what to do… write (or draw) it out!
Step 4: Time to call it a dream
nightmares
My grandmother loved Spanish sayings. Her favorite was the title of a story, “La vida es sueño, y todos los sueños, suenos son.” Translation: “Life is but a dream, and all dreams are dreams.” (Wasn’t that a catchy tune?) How does this saying help to address nightmares? By reminding ourselves that the nightmare cannot hurt us. It was a dream. Just a dream. Moving onto the next step…
Step 5: Now, change the entire story
nightmares
Now that we are feeling more freedom, we can really let loose! We realize that we are able to recreate whatever we want in our dreams. We call upon the better feelings and the knowledge that we were dreaming, to change the nightmare into any story that we would prefer. We change frightening parts to comical or uplifting; villans into heros; or we transform into the best version of our own superhero! Change the setting; change the actors; change the ending — we let our imaginations go wild, in our favor!
Step 6: Finally, visualize the new story
nightmares
We move from Hollywood screenwriter, to academy-award winning director! The final step is to close our eyes, and visualize the newly scripted dream. Every detail, and as vividly as possible. The more we rehearse this visualization, the more “real” it becomes in our brains and our bodies. This rehearsal will help to recreate the new dream in our sleep! We must diligently approach this process, with repeated (daily) practice, for it to work for us. It may happen quickly, or it may take some time. Practice makes permanent! Again, we have so got this!
Step 7: Entering Dual Awareness
nightmares
Now that we have re-scripted and rehearsed our dreams, it’s time to take it up, another notch! Enter Dual Awareness! Before going to sleep, we say to ourselves (preferably, out loud), “I will know that I’m dreaming, when I’m dreaming tonight.” We repeat this phrase each night, before going to sleep. At some point, in one of our dreams, “POP!” — it happens! Suddenly, we are aware that we are dreaming, within our dream! Now, the real magic begins… We can re-script and direct our dreams, as we are dreaming. We are now transforming nightmares into less frightening versions. We can even create pleasant dreams, from previously distressing nightmares. We have emerged into powerful creators of our dreams!

Technique #5: Good sleep hygiene helps to get rid of nightmares

In our previous post, we learned how to take excellent care of our sleep with good sleep hygiene.

 

RELATED: What is sleep hygiene, and why is it so important?

We know that repeated nightmares often leads to sleep avoidance. Sleep avoidance leads to sleep loss.

Sleep deprivation is associated with a phenomenon (I just love that word!) called “R.E.M. rebound.”

We dream during R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement, or Stage R) sleep.

R.E.M. rebound has been associated with vivid dreams, including nightmares.

So, good sleep hygiene is a good way to prevent nightmares, in the first place!

Don’t you just love easy?

nightmares

We can transform nightmares into dreams!
– Denise Dixon, PhD @suffolkhealthpsy.com

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES:

Please click here for links to references for this blog post, and here to access additional links and resources.

 

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YOUR TURN:

What do you think about this post? Do you think that you would try any of these techniques? Really looking forward to reading and responding to your comments! Thank you so much!

Do you have a suggestion for a blog post? I’d love to hear from you! Simply click here to tell me all about your idea. Thank you!

6 Comments

  1. Bhawna

    Hello Dr. Denise,

    I have been there, a Few years back, I don’t know if it was a paranormal thing or my mind playing tricks on me. I had a couple of bad weeks.
    I used to wake up around 3:00 AM every night. And It was hard for me to get back to sleep. Sometimes I would just lay still. because I was afraid of closing my eyes.

    But I started to deal with it. And I started to invest my time into something productive. By the time it went away. And now whenever I had a bad dream I remind my self it is just a dream.

    I also started drawing and writing short stories.

    Thank you for all the amazing tips. You have a really amazing blog. 🙂

    Have a good one
    Bhawna

    • Denise Dixon, Ph.D.

      Dear Bhawna;
      Thank you so much for your honest recanting of your experiences. It sounds like you have done an amazing job with confronting your fears – congratulations!
      And thank you for your very kind feedback. I’m so please to learn that you enjoy this blog!
      Cheers!
      Dr. Dixon

      • Bhawna

        Hey Denise,

        Yeah, you have a nice blog with some amazing information.
        Regards 🙂

  2. Ryan Biddulph

    Loving these tips Denise! Big fan of simply being with the nightmare and allowing the feeling charge to arise – however unpleasant – and then, to pass. Like the nightmare loses its power the moment I am with the fears fueling the horrors. Then the recurring bit ends. One time nightmare LOL….a good deal. Drawing out nightmares feels like it’d be particularly cathartic. Thanks for sharing!

    Ryan

    • Denise Dixon, Ph.D.

      Thanks for the terrific feedback, Ryan!

      You are espousing the basic principles of anxiety management – embracing, facing, and leaning into the uncomfortable feeling, until it releases. You sound like you are a natural, and a real master at these types of techniques! Thanks again.

      See you over at your Blogging from Paradise blog…

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