Nightmares can feel so real that they leave you sweating and screaming, with a racing heart and haunting images seared into your memory. But is there a way for dreamers to stop these bad dreams?
While research in this area is limited, some recent studies have claimed that people who are proficient at lucid dreaming (the ability to be aware that a nightmare is happening and can control it without waking up) may hold the key to the mystery of our sleeping lives.
Nightmares are considered normal experiences for humans and are especially common among children. Medical professionals don’t tend to consider occasional nightmares to be an issue, but if you experience frequent nightmares that affect your waking life, there are some options that could offer you relief. Persistent horrifying dreams can be symptomatic of a sleep disorder called “nightmare disorder.” This terrifying affliction can originate from trauma, stress, the use of certain drugs, or a combination of all of the above.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, medications and therapies supported by intensive research are necessary to treat nightmare disorder. The organization examined the available research on the treatment of nightmare disorder in a review conducted in 2010, as published in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
Dr. Rachel Salas, a specialist on sleep disorders and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, noted that nightmares are complicated, and researchers are having a hard time understanding them.
Many dreams take place in the sleep phase known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This phase creates dreams in which people do things they “don’t normally do,” such as flying, Salas said. Scans illustrate that the brains of people in REM sleep look very much like the brains of people who are awake.
Typically, people begin REM sleep about 1.5 hours after falling asleep, and a body drifting into REM patterns looks a lot like a body waking up – you start breathing more rapidly (sometimes with irregular patterns), your heart rate rises, and your blood pressure increases. It might appear like the body is preparing to move, but our bodies have evolved ingenious tricks to keep us from disturbing our own sleep.
“When we go into REM sleep, our muscle activity decreases, otherwise, we’d act out our dreams,” Salas said.
Turning off nightmares
Lucid dreaming is easy for some, but there haven’t been enough studies to validate the process as a therapeutic practice. However, a 2019 review published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal revealed that lucid dreaming could be used as a remedy for those who experience constant nightmares.
If you’re interested in experiencing lucid dreaming, you can try the “wake back to bed” strategy, as recommended by Dr. Sérgio Arthuro Mota-Rolim, a postdoctoral researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil.
Your first step is to set an alarm for 30 minutes before your usual waking time. Instead of getting up when the alarm goes off, think about having a lucid dream as you drift back to sleep.
While there is no assurance that this method will work, it increases the odds that you’ll have a lucid dream. Dr. Arthuro also suggested thinking or talking about lucid dreaming the day before, as dreams appear to be built from the data we give them throughout the day.
Arthuro explained that if you are aware that you’re in a nightmare, the easiest way to ‘turn it off’ is to wake up. However, some research suggests that it’s better to stay in the nightmare and get rid of your fear by realizing you are asleep and in no real physical danger. Some participants from Arthuro’s study even reported changing their nightmares into delightful dreams.
The fact that lucid dreams aren’t easy to slip into makes their therapeutic use challenging. An average person will have less than ten lucid dreams in their lifetime, while many people have never experienced one. Limited research has been done on lucid dream therapy because researchers are still probing the most effective ways to generate lucid dreams. For example, in 2014, sleep scientists reported that utilizing specific frequencies of electrical stimulation can boost the probability of a dreamer becoming aware that they’re dreaming.
Lucid dreaming is one of the most effective methods to control nightmares, but there are other options. If nightmares are disrupting your sleep, putting you at risk of injury, and affecting your waking life, Salas recommends seeking medical assistance.