Constantly having nightmares can be very stressful on mental health. It disrupts your sleep; your mind doesn’t get the rest it needs and you could wake up feeling down, tired or sleep-deprived, which in turn affects your day-to-day activity. But why do these unhelpful dreams sneak their way into your head and are they a sign that something bigger is going on in your life? It can be particularly difficult to deal with a barrage of nightmares if you aren’t aware of any mental health issues that you’re suffering, because you might not have tools to deal with these issues. We find out what having consistent nightmares can be an indication of and how to manage them (so that you can finally get a good night’s rest). What causes nightmares? Nightmares usually occur during REM sleep – similar to dreams – and although they can be a sign of an underlying issue, they’re not always this complex. According to WebMD, having a snack late at night can trigger nightmares as it boosts your metabolism and tells your brain to ‘be more active’. Taking medication or coming off medication can also stimulate nightmares, as can alcohol withdrawal. You get less REM sleep when you drink, and although it may seem tempting to have a nightcap, reduced REM sleep also means your mind’s ability to process dreams is impaired – so you might not be able to deal with what you’re dreaming about. Interestingly, sleep-deprivation in itself can also lead to nightmares, meaning you’re effectively stuck in a loop of bad sleep. A study from 2016, which measured the role of insomnia, nightmares and chronotype (essentially your biological clock) in relation to mental illness revealed that 8% to 18% of the population is ‘dissatisfied’ with their quality of sleep, and between 6% to 10% suffer with some form of insomnia disorder. The same study showed that a disruption in sleep patterns ‘commonly presents prior to acute psychiatric difficulties’, such as a manic episode, paranoia or ‘transition to major depression’. (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk) Lola, 21, is currently going through a phase of sleep disruption – she’s only sleeping a few hours per night and when she does, her sleep frequently consists of nightmares. ‘After every night’s sleep, I wake up and remember the wholly vivid nightmares I’ve just had’, she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘They vary from being a mash-up of several short intertwined dreams about people, some good that I don’t want to wake up from, but mostly horrible ones. ‘Sometimes they involve people from my life, sometimes faceless figures, which makes it even more creepy. Mostly I will wake up intermittently throughout the night. ‘I’ve had dreams of my teeth crumbling out of my mouth and anxiety nightmares, where I spend the entire time feeling anxious within the dream. ‘When I wake up, I’m worn out and extremely tired, which makes me not want to get out of bed – it’s paralysing. I’ve pretty much had nightmares my whole life, but they never used to be as frequent as they are now. They definitely happen more when I’m stressed or anxious, but I’ve never spoken to anyone about them because I’m so used to it.’ When should you seek help for your nightmares? Just like mental health problems are very individual, so are nightmares, and having the occasional one doesn’t automatically mean you also have a mental health problem. Therapist Sally Baker tells Metro.co.uk it’s how these affect you that could be a sign of something troubling underneath the surface. ‘Occasional nightmares are completely normal and many people experience them,’ she said. ‘It is how you feel about having those nightmares and the judgements you make about them that indicates how you are feeling about yourself and can give you insights into whether you are feeling emotionally balanced and okay, or may need to seek professional help. ‘Dreams and nightmares are one of the ways the sub-conscious mind processes emotional challenges, so recurring nightmares can be a clue that your mind is struggling to cope with real life negative emotions or events. ‘The nightmares may even vary with different narratives but if they engender the same feelings on waking from them such as heightened anxiety or feeling of dread you are definitely struggling to process.’ How can you deal with constant nightmares? Hayley, 30, has suffered from night terrors for years and tells Metro.co.uk these are similar to nightmares, but completely ‘take over’ her mind. ‘It’s hard to deal with them, as I’m not sure when they will happen,’ she said. ‘I can go for nights without anything and then bam, suddenly I’m screaming in my sleep. The main difference between nightmares and night terrors is that night terrors completely take over. I also remember them a lot more vividly than nightmares. ‘They’re always the same – someone is trying to kill me. ‘Counselling helps and communicating what happens in my night terrors helps too, as it allows me to process and understand what’s happening in my head. ‘For example, whenever they happen, it’s always in the flat I lived in with my mum and I have a lot of negative emotions and memories in that place that I’ve never addressed. ‘The night terrors have actually allowed me to understand this and address these fears directly. ‘I often find if I’m relaxed or I’ve done a workout in the evening, this will rest my mind but ironically, my night terrors seem to be worse when things are going great – it’s a cruel twist.’ Sally also recommends speaking with a therapist about your nightmares, especially if you experience persistent after effects or if they’re anxiety-inducing. ‘If you are left with heightened anxiety or depression after recurrent nightmares, you can work with a therapist to resolve the negative emotions even when you are not sure what is bothering you,’ she said. ‘Be your own detective and focus on the feelings you’re left with, not the storyline of your nightmares as that will be more helpful in finding out what is at the root of your scary or disturbing dreams. ‘Also ask yourself what you may have been ignoring in your life or overlooking. ‘Your intuition or your gut reactions are always on your side and are your best friend, so ask yourself what have you been overriding in your life that in your heart of hearts you’re not really sure about.’ MORE: HEALTH You Don’t Look Sick: ‘I have MS but I get told to give up my train seat’ Will a CBD spree of workouts, croissants, and high tea get rid of your stress? Teenager uses coffee to colour her hair after dye left her looking ‘like a monster’ Having singular nightmares are usually not a sign of mental health problems. But if you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and suffering from nightmares or even night terrors, it’s worthwhile speaking to a medical or mental health professional about it. Don’t ignore your sub-conscious mind – it can be just as telling as your conscious one.
The best recipe for a good night’s sleep? A delicious meal (say, this cacio e pepe pasta) served alongside a glass of pinot or two. You know, nothing crazy, but just enough booze to make us feel pleasantly drowsy. And we’re not the only ones. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 20 percent of Americans use alcohol to help them fall asleep. But is our nighttime vino habit helping or hurting our sleep?
So, here’s the thing—while alcohol might make it easier to fall asleep, it can actually mess with your sleep cycle, thereby decreasing the quality of your snooze. Here’s how: Alcohol reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is the stage of sleep where you dream and it’s thought to be the most restorative phase. Mess with this part of the cycle, and you’ll likely feel groggy and unfocused the next day.
Another way too much booze messes with your shut-eye? It could cause you to wake up in the middle of the night—either due to those extra bathroom trips or by affecting chemicals in your body. Per the Sleep Foundation, “after drinking, production of adenosine (a sleep-inducing chemical in the brain) is increased, allowing for a fast onset of sleep. But it subsides as quickly as it came, making you more likely to wake up before you’re truly rested.”
It’s not all bad news, though. One or two drinks appears to have minimal effects on sleep, according to research (especially if it’s with dinner, which gives your body enough time to metabolize it well before you turn in for the night). Just don’t polish the entire bottle off by yourself, OK?
Insomnia is a cycle that can feel impossible to break once you’re in it. Annoyingly, it doesn’t have a ‘one-counting-sheep-size-fits-all’ solution for everyone, and it can become overwhelmingly stressful, affecting all aspects of a person’s life.
But it may be the case that discovering the type of insomnia you suffer from could help you to better treat it. Recent research from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, published earlier this month in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, found that there are actually five types of insomnia.
By analysing information gathered from 4,000 people via an online survey, which asked about sleep habits, personality traits, moods and emotional responses, researchers were able to determine the following five types of insomnia:
Traits include high levels of distress (stress and anxiety), and low levels of happiness.
Traits include moderate levels of distress, and normal levels of happiness and experiences of pleasure.
Traits include moderate levels of distress, with low levels of happiness and experiences of pleasure.
Traits include generally low levels of distress, but long-lasting insomnia is usually triggered by a stressful life event.
Traits include low levels of distress, but insomnia isn’t caused by stressful life events.
The idea is that, equipped with more detailed knowledge of their type of insomnia, an individual might explore more personalised treatment – and this was something researchers found proof of success of in their study.
Reporting on the research, Live Science explained that people with insomnia type 2 and insomnia type 4 benefitted most by taking a benzodiazepine (a tranquilising drug). Those with insomnia type 3, on the other hand, did not see improvement from this type of medication. People with insomnia type 2 responded positively to CBDT or cognitive behavioural therapy, while people with insomnia type 4 did not benefit from this kind of treatment.
The study could pave the way for further research into this area with the intention of developing more specialised treatments. Research authors did note, however, that all participants voluntarily agreed to take part in a sleep-related study, meaning they may not necessarily be representative of an across-the-board population as a whole. It would therefore be necessary to look further into the sub-type theory before taking it as gospel.
On that note, I hope you sleep well tonight.
People with breathing difficulties, chronic pain, urinary and gastrointestinal problems, and high blood pressure, have higher levels of sleeplessness, than those without these conditions.2
Therefore, it is a good idea to consult the appropriate health professionals to address potential causes and complications of your sleeplessness, especially if you have chronic insomnia.
Today’s article, however, is about things you can do yourself to help improve your sleep.
I begin with perhaps the most obvious one, good sleep habits.
Sleep hygiene refers to behaviors and habits that promote good sleep. These can include:
Stimulus control includes techniques intended to re-associate bed with sleep:
Relaxation helps reduce physiological arousal. Try these shortly before going to bed:
If these methods do not give you all the help you need, you may also consider these three practices: Challenging your thoughts, paradoxical intention, and sleep restriction.
Sleep restriction is a practice that may help you sleep better, by initially limiting the time you spend in bed. To practice sleep restriction, you need to limit the hours in bed to the hours you have actually spent sleeping (though it is recommended to not go below five hours).
For example, if you slept only six hours last night (even if you were in bed for, say, ten hours), then remain in bed for only six hours tonight.
As your sleep improves and you spend more time actually sleeping, then you can increase your hours in bed.
Certain beliefs can worsen insomnia. For instance, some people assume that the consequences of not getting enough sleep is much more severe than it really is. Such beliefs result in unnecessary anxiety, making it even more difficult to fall asleep.
Not all anxious thoughts are sleep related. They may also be related to health issues, finances, relationship difficulties, etc. One thing that can help is keeping a journal and writing down the anxiety-provoking thoughts and concerns that arise during the night or right before sleep.
After a good night’s rest, it will be easier to return to these thoughts and concerns, to rationally assess them, or if need be, to do something about them (e.g., make a medical appointment, call the bank, etc).
This is one of my favorite mental techniques because it is so simple and yet can be quite effective.
The way it works is that instead of anxiously trying to force yourself to sleep (“I can get at least six hours…five hours…if I sleep now I can get at least four hours”), you try to stay awake as long as you can.
In other words, paradoxical intention does not oppose the anxious intention (of trying to force yourself to sleep), but guides it in the opposite direction (toward forcing yourself to stay awake)
If you are not convinced that this helps, recall the times that your favorite program was on, or when you had a lot of work to do, but sleep overpowered you. You were forcing yourself to stay awake, but eventually allowed sleep to happen.
So next time you can not sleep—and neither can stop trying to force yourself to sleep—simply intend to stay awake. But mean it. You can not fake it or the body will know. Then, if or when you really sense sleep coming over, you can allow yourself to fall asleep.
I hope you found at least some of these suggestions and reminders helpful.
As I once told a friend, good sleep is like a famous writer, a well-known dream weaver, one also happens to be reclusive and shy. Be ready to receive this wonderful guest, but at the same time, keep busy with your own work in the meantime.
Who knows, maybe you’ll get a visit tonight.