WHY AM I HAVING NIGHTMARES?

What causes nightmares, anyway?

Nightmares tend to crop up when we’re stressed, anxious, depressed, on certain medications, or when our sleep is being consistently interrupted (hello, parents of a newborn!). Occasional nightmares are normal, but consistent nightmares can be indicative of a larger problem.

The most common mental health disorder associated with nightmares is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), whether it be from traumatic life events or military service. (In fact, frequent nightmares have become a criteria used to diagnose PTSD.)

What’s happening in your brain?

To understand nightmares, we need to look into human sleep patterns, especially REM sleep. A Harvard neurobiology article describes  REM sleep in layman’s terms: when you’re deeply asleep you have rapid eye movement (REM), irregular heartbeat, and your breathing rate increases.

REM sleep signals begin with the pons, which is an area at the base of the brain. The pons shuts off neurons in the spinal cord to suspend movement, all the while sending signals to the thalamus, which then boomerangs them to the cerebral cortex because that’s where the brain learns and organizes information.

REM sleep isn’t continuous–it’s a cycle that repeats through the night, only making up 20 percent of your total slumber–but it is in REM sleep that nearly all vivid dreaming takes place.

When do nightmares become a problem?

The occasional nightmare is normal, but here are some symptoms that may be indicative of a nightmare disorder:

What can I do about recurring nightmares?

Name your fear. Identifying and managing the biggest stresses in your life can go a long way toward your peace of mind. Ask yourself: what are your biggest worries? What can you do about them right now? Are you willing to make those changes to address the problem?

Evaluate your lifestyle. What you take into your body can affect your quality of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation discourages drinking, smoking, or eating large meals late in the day. They also caution against ingesting large sources of caffeine as it acts as a stimulant for your brain. The highest sources of caffeine are in energy drinks, coffee, chocolate, diet drugs, soft drinks, non-herbal teas and some pain relievers, such as Excedrine.

Rewrite the ending. The Harvard neurobiology article describes a treatment called image rehearsal therapy (IRT). It’s a cognitive therapy where individuals with recurring nightmares write it out, then give it a positive ending. They rehearse this rewritten version before going to sleep.

See an APRN, doctor or specialist. If you believe you are having medication-induced nightmares, you may need the dosage adjusted. If you have persistent nightmares or sleep terrors, you may need to have a sleep study done to identify a problem.

If you think your nightmares are linked to anxiety, depression or past trauma, counseling can be helpful in identifying and managing those fears. Please let me know if I can help you.

You Might Also Enjoy...

YOUTH AND SUICIDAL THOUGHTS

Suicides among teens ages 15-19 are the highest they’ve been since 2000, says a new study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Here’s a snippet from an NBC analysis of the study: The new study found that in 2017, 6,241 teenagers and adult

HOW TO FALL ASLEEP QUICKLY

This is second in a two-part series about sleep. Click here to read part one. Last week I wrote about how poor sleep can negatively affect your mental health. If you’re thinking, “It’s not my fault, I just can’t fall asleep at night!” then try this metho

HOW POOR SLEEP AFFECTS YOUR MENTAL HEALTH

I can’t stress this enough: part of managing your mental health includes getting enough sleep. I’ve written about this here before: in my career I’ve seen how poor sleep can lead to suicidal thoughts, memory issues, even weight gain. According to an artic

SOME ADHD MEDS INCREASE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS

New evidence is emerging that some medications for ADHD put teens and young adults at risk for developing psychosis. According to this study of more than 200,000 people ages 13 to 25, one out of 660 people had an episode of psychosis in a few months afte

SUMMER BREAK WITH YOUR HIGH-NEEDS CHILD

As thrilled as kids are with summer break, it can be difficult on parents to muster the same enthusiasm. You’re all out of your routine and it can take time to get used to a new schedule, and get used to each other. If you have a child with developmental

THE NEED FOR MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT IN SCHOOLS

A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) makes a case for more mental health professionals–including nurses and social workers–in schools. From the report: School counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists are frequently