5 Ways to Hack Your Nightmares

Instead of replaying a bad dream in your head, give it a new script.

Posted Dec 27, 2015

Source: arosoft/Shutterstock

Bad dreams can spoil your day before it even begins. Sometimes, that nightmare experience can haunt your waking mind, leaving you wondering why you dreamt those horrors. Sometimes you wake up wondering why such a silly experience—showing up to a class or meeting unprepared, or, worse, naked—could trigger such paralyzing fright. We fear our bad dreams and don’t know what to do about them. The surprising thing is that psychology doesn't really fully understand dreams, either. (A century ago, dream analysis was a popular, but ultimately ineffective, method of psychotherapy.) Because dreams are impossible to study directly—we can only go by a dreamer's report—and because our society pays remarkably little attention to sleep and dreaming, we actually know little about what dreams are, or what they do for us.

However, there are some proven ways of taking away the power of bad dreams:

  1. Know they don’t necessarily mean ANYTHING.

    According to modern science, dreams are not prophetic, connected to the future or to other worlds, nor are they revealing of one's true self. As far as researchers have determined, dreams appear to be a side effect of the process by which our brains encode long-term memories. When researchers interrupt or prevent dreaming, they find, they impair memory and learning. Basically, you the dreamer are just an accidental bystander as your mind moves your recent experiences into longer-term memory. So the scary dreams you experience are often just a distorted experience, as if you watched a television replay of your day's experiences through a stained glass window. When you wake up sweating and upset from bad dreams, then, tell yourself that they are just your brain’s way of putting away memories.
  2. Bad dreams can ruin your day, but only if you let them.

    Most dreams fade from memory within a short time of waking. But when we ruminate on them and spend a time worrying over them and what they mean, we not only cement them more deeply in our memory, but we also increase the chances of them coming back again. If you find yourself brooding over a nightmare, remind yourself that it was just a dream, a confused process of your mind, and move on with your day. The more you stress over a bad dream, the more energy you give it. And remember: Dreams are just your mind replaying your day’s experiences. If you spend time today worrying about your bad dream, you are making that part of your day’s experiences and telling your mind to remember—which means the dream may come back tonight when you sleep.   
  3. Master your nightmares with another script.

    Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is a method in Cognitive Behavioral Treatment which teaches people to script new dreams. IRT helps people plot new ways for their recurring bad dreams to go. Instead of replaying the bad dream over and over, imagine how you would rather have it go. Rehearse that script mentally instead of remembering and worrying over the nightmare and you make this new mental experience part of your day, and thus something your mind will encode into memory. You are also taking fuel away from the nightmare, like stealing oxygen from a fire. By ignoring the nightmare and replacing it with other thoughts, you teach your brain that the new script is more important than the uncomfortable dream.
  4. Sleep hygiene is an important part of having healthy sleep and good dreams.

    If you find sleep a frustrating, challenging and stressful experience, then when you finally fall into an exhausted slumber, you are more likely to have stressed and uncomfortable dreams. Being mindful of caffeine and alcohol, paying attention to creating an environment conducive to sleep, and teaching yourself how to sleep well are all things more likely to make dreaming a more pleasant experience.
  5. Sometimes, nightmares can be associated with traumatic symptoms of PTSD, or are a facet of other problems.

    Cognitive behavioral techniques such as IRT are often able to lessen the frequency and emotional impact of nightmares. But sometimes, additional strategies, such as the use of medication, can be useful to help people gain enough emotional distance and relief from their nightmares that they can begin to regain control over them. Some medications, such as Prazosin and Clonidine, have demonstrated efficacy in reducing the frequency of nightmares in people with some diagnosed psychiatric disorders. If you find yourself struggling with recurring nightmares, and/or repeating traumatic and painful experiences, and techniques such as IRT aren’t working for you, it might be time to talk to your doctor.
Franciszek Żmurko, via Wikimedia Commons
"In Delightful Dream" by Zmurko
Source: Franciszek Żmurko, via Wikimedia Commons

Uncomfortable and stressful nightmares can often be a window into our dream world—but not in a wild, Nightmare on Elm Street or Inception kind of way, in which nightmares reveal new layers of reality. Instead, bad dreams can help us to pay mindful, thoughtful attention to the ways in which our daily behaviors and mental experiences impact our lives, both awake and asleep. Learning to hack your bad dreams can teach you ways to be more in control of many aspects of your life, whether awake or asleep.

[I'm not convinced by the concept or strategy of "lucid dreaming." Research supporting it is rather poor, and there appears little strong evidence that it is a viable therapeutic strategy. If we frame dreaming as a side effect of memory encoding, then the idea of lucid dreaming doesn't make a lot of sense. I tell my patients not to waste their time on it. If you can lucid dream, bully for you: Have fun flying in your dreams. For the rest of us, these real-world strategies are more effective.]

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