How To Overcome Bad Dreams
Here are two strategies you can use to get your sleep back on track.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 14, 2022
Many people struggle with bad dreams, nightmares, and disrupted sleep. It's a common thing to go through, even for psychologically healthy individuals. Fortunately, there are a variety of things you can do to fix the problem.
In this article, I'll talk about where bad dreams come from and what you can do to get your sleep back on track.
Why do we dream?
Dreams have been a topic of debate in psychology for as long as the field has existed. You'll probably know that some psychologists, like Sigmund Freud, viewed dreams as the consequence of repressed thoughts that only surface during our unconscious, sleeping life. This is why our dreams can be sexual, violent, or taboo in other ways — our dream life allows us to play out the storylines and experiences that are off-limits by everyday standards.
Other psychologists offer a different take on dreams, suggesting that they are simply the consequence of a random firing of neurons that occurs while we are sleeping. While we may try to imbue onto our dreams some story or context, they lack any real meaning. To me, this idea seems a bit far-fetched, and I'll get to why in a bit.
Evolutionary psychologists, on the other hand, view dreams as an adaptive phenomenon. They argue that our dreams help prepare us to meet the demands of the day ahead. Have you ever dreamed about a big presentation you had coming up? This, according to evolutionary psychologists, is preparing you for success in the same way our ancestors may have dreamed about where to forage for food, set up their camps, or build their fires.
I tend to view the Freudian and evolutionary perspectives on dreams as the most likely and practical explanation for them. I dislike the idea that dreams are simply a random occurrence because I believe they are, at least to a certain extent, a window into our current psychological state. When we are anxious or depressed, we are more likely to have bad dreams. When we are happy, we have good or at least neutral, unmemorable dreams.
Sure, we all have the occasional bad dream or nightmare. But, when our lives are in balance, these types of dreams are less likely to occur and we are better equipped to shrug them off.
How to combat bad dreams
So, what should you do if you have been having frequent bad dreams or nightmares? Well, this is probably a good indication that something in your life is out of balance. It might be a good idea to seek out mental health support to address the issue. Talking to someone about your anxiety can go a long way toward improving it. In fact, you may find that this alone can quell your bad dreams.
Another way to overcome recurring nightmares or bad dreams is to utilize comfort objects, such as a calming voice to listen to, a teddy bear to hug, or a soothing scent to smell. Comfort objects can be used to help us fall asleep and they can also be used when you wake up from a nightmare. This can help you integrate your emotions from a disturbing dream to achieve a greater sense of emotional security and safety.
Another thing to do might be to journal the dream and/or illustrate the dream in detail, especially if you're having a recurring bad dream or nightmare. Then, think about how you can change the dream's ending. Next, each evening before bedtime, narrate the new dream aloud for about 10 minutes. This process of recording, changing, and rehearsing is the premise of evidence-based nightmare recovery therapies.
The most important thing when dealing with bad dreams is to create a sleep environment that makes you feel as safe and secure as possible. Bad dreams flow from our anxieties. When we do things to reduce our anxiety, our sleep quality will improve.