I’ve struggled with awful nightmares for years.
From screaming in my sleep to waking up in a cold sweat, and most terrifying, sleep paralysis, it’s been an ongoing problem for as long as I can remember.
The most frustrating thing is that I’m doing everything that medical professionals, mental health professionals, and even self-help sites suggest.
- I wind down before bed with a chamomile tea.
- I apply Lush Sleepy lotion to my hands
- I put lavender spray on my pillow
- I regularly change my bed sheets
- I make sure my bedroom is calm and uncluttered
- I think about nice things before I go to sleep
The list goes on, but you catch my drift.
I have sought help from my GP (who referred me to a consultant at the hospital) and the Community Mental Health Team, but the nightmares persist. The general consensus is that my mental health issues are most likely the cause and I’m doing everything I can to engage with mental health services to try to get the nightmares under control.
Of course, this isn’t going to happen overnight – I understand that.
In the meantime, I have developed some coping strategies to help me deal with the ongoing nightmares. These strategies don’t stop the nightmares altogether, but they do help me to reduce the distress I experience in the aftermath.
If your nightmares are severe, persistent, and/or affecting your quality of life, it may be appropriate to make an appointment with your GP. There could be underlying issues such as a sleep disorder or a mental health condition that requires specific treatment.
Nevertheless, I hope that you find these coping strategies useful to reduce some of the suffering you may be experiencing in the interim.
There are six steps in this process, and although I have placed them in a deliberate order that works for me, you may find that you prefer to reorder them or even skip steps completely if they don’t apply to you. There is no set way to cope with nightmares, this is just the process that helps me. I hope you find it of some value, even if it sparks your own totally different ideas.
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Step One: Fairy lights
The first step is a preemptive one. When I wake up from a nightmare in the dark, my distress is exacerbated because I often dream that there is something (or someone) sinister in my room. I keep my fairy lights on all night so that when I wake up, I can clearly see that there is nothing in my room to be afraid of. This helps me to calm down more quickly and get back to sleep.
My fairy lights produce warm white light and I chose this colour because while they are bright enough for me to see, they are still relatively dull, so the light doesn’t prevent me from getting off to sleep in the first place.
You could also try a specific night light, but I’ve found fairy lights create a cosy atmosphere that helps me feel more relaxed as well.
Step Two: Break the link
When you wake up from a nightmare, make sure you wake up properly. I find that if I don’t do that, I fall straight back into the nightmare and the cycle repeats. This cycle can be rapid, with me waking up in a panic multiple times within just a few minutes.
Fully opening my eyes and shifting around in bed to get comfortable again usually helps me to break that link to the nightmare and stops my brain from taking me straight back into it.
Step Three: Self-soothing
Waking up from a nightmare, my brain has snapped into overdrive and activated my fight-or-flight response so I’m ready to fight or run away from this dreamt-up attacker.
This response would be crucial if there actually was a threat in my bedroom… but there isn’t. However, in that moment, my brain doesn’t differentiate between a real threat and a dream threat. I’m still I’m hyper-alert, my heart is racing, and I’m heading into a panic attack.
So, for me, the next port of call is a breathing exercise.
I don’t do anything fancy or elaborate, I just take some deep breaths and visualise my lungs easily filling with air. This visualisation helps because when I panic, I can’t breathe, and when I can’t breathe, I panic more.
Getting my breathing regulated first also helps me to just focus on getting the air into my lungs, thus not replaying the nightmare in my mind and letting it fade away.
Step Four: Write it down
Contrary to my last point, I do still sometimes struggle to not replay the nightmare in my mind after I’ve woken up. I can get stuck in a loop of dissecting the events of the dream, even though logically, I know it wasn’t real.
To counter this, one method I find useful is to write out the dream in full detail. Some people do this in a notebook, but I usually just grab my phone and use the Google Keep app where I store my notes. I write out every single detail that I can remember, and in doing so, I find that it helps to take the wind out of the sails of the thoughts and images in my mind.
By writing everything out, even though I know I’m not going to read it back, it helps to almost trick my brain into thinking “okay, it’s written down now, I wont forget it, and I’ll deal with it tomorrow”. This seems to pacify my need to remember what happened and let it go for the rest of the night. Then, in the morning, when things feel calmer and I have some distance from the emotions of the nightmare, I delete the note from my phone.
Step Five: Distractions
If by this point I’ve completed steps one through four, and I’m still feeling distressed, I move onto distractions. This usually includes scrolling through Pinterest on my phone and listening to ASMR or an audiobook.
It’s difficult to stop thinking about something by telling yourself to stop thinking about it. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as Ironic process theory.
First studied by social psychologist Daniel Wegner in 1987, the very basic gist of the theory is that if you tell someone not to think about a pink elephant, all they will be able to think about is a pink elephant. Actively trying not to think about a particular thing, actually makes that very thing come to the forefront of our minds.
Step Six: Get up
Ideally, by the time we reach step five, we will be able to go back to sleep until it’s time to get up. However, that’s not always the case.
Sometimes, lying in bed, wide awake and upset with no sign of relief, is more torturous than getting up earlier than I’d planned. If I’ve completed all five previous steps and I’m still awake and distressed an hour later, I find it better to just get up.
Getting out of bed, leaving my bedroom, and doing something that requires some level of focus (like making a cup of coffee, reading the news, or doing some colouring) is sometimes the only way that I can redirect my mind away from the nightmare and onto something else.
If I’m struggling more than I can manage, I may text a friend in a different timezone or phone a family member who has offered in advance to take my call in the night if I need them. If you don’t have access to a friend or family member at night, hop on Twitter and see who’s up. Someone from around the world will be online and willing to chat.
Of course, just getting up early isn’t ideal as a long-term plan, as it’s important that we are able to get a regular, healthy amount of sleep in order to function. If we are getting up after only a few hours of sleep on a regular basis, we may start to notice negative effects on our health.
Nevertheless, this step can be used to help with those particularly difficult nights. Doing this occasionally shouldn’t incur any lasting negative effects and can really help to intercept spiralling.
Sunrises are beautiful too.
As I said at the beginning, if you’re struggling with severe and persistent nightmares, I’d definitely recommend talking to your GP – they may be able to offer some form of treatment or therapy, if appropriate.
And in the meantime, I hope you find some or all of this six-step plan useful as a stopgap or to supplement any professional support you access.
How do you cope with nightmares? Feel free to share your tips in the comments below.
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