How To Stop Nightmares and Night Terrors

7 Min Read | By Laura Barns

Last Modified 22 February 2024   First Added 29 July 2014

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

If you often suffer from nightmares, you’ll no doubt want to learn how to stop having them. The good news is that there are steps you can take to stop bad dreams. We understand they can be disturbing and distressing in one way or another, and sometimes lead to sleeplessness. Read on as we explore how to stop having nightmares.

Why do I keep having nightmares?

One of the first steps we should take when trying to prevent nightmares is to look at what causes them and why you’re having them. In simple terms, they’re caused by the work of our unconscious minds releasing fears and tensions whilst we are resting.

According to the NHS, “There are many possible causes of adult nightmares, but they’re often linked to stress, trauma or an existing mental health condition. They can also occur after taking certain types of medication, such as antidepressants.”

Are nightmares and night terrors the same thing?

Despite what you may think, a night terror is very different from a nightmare. A nightmare is a frightening or distressing dream which is usually triggered by something which has evoked similar feelings during the day.

Nightmares take place during REM sleep and end with you waking completely from your sleep state. Night terrors, on the other hand, happen during deep sleep and do not typically end with you waking. Instead, you remain partially asleep and show signs of stress, such as thrashing your arms or screaming.

Here’s how the NHS identify the difference:

Night terrors and nightmares are different and happen at different stages of sleep. During a night terror you may talk and move about but are asleep. It’s rare to remember having a night terror. Nightmares are bad dreams you wake up from and can remember.

It’s worth noting that night terrors are quite common in children with an estimated 1-6% experiencing them. They can cause an increased heart rate (tachycardia), increased breathing rate (tachypnoea) and sweating, so it can be difficult to return to a relaxed sleep after an episode.

They usually last anywhere between a few seconds and a few minutes, but it can take a lot longer to fully recover from the effects. A quick heads up, adults can also experience night terrors and will have the same symptoms.

How to avoid nightmares

There are things you can do to try and avoid bad dreams. Here, we share a few simple ways to naturally prevent those sleep-depriving nightmares.

1. Sleep comfortably and rest easier

Uncomfortable beds or sleeping positions can sometimes contribute to creating nightmares, so it’s important that both your mattress and bed are in good condition. The more comfortable your bed and bedroom are, the more likely you are to enjoy peaceful, nightmare- free sleep. Also, if you are prone to nightmares try not to sleep on your back, as this position has been known to encourage nightmares.

2. Watch what you eat and drink

The food you eat could be the cause of your nightmares, particularly if you eat dinner very close to bedtime. Cheese for supper is another snack that can cause problems. However, contrary to popular belief, it’s most likely to cause vivid and strange dreams, rather than nightmares.

You should also avoid high-energy drinks, soft drinks, alcohol, coffee or tea, in the evenings. These contain caffeine that will keep you awake long into the night. Read more on this topic in our article on the best bedtime drinks.

3. De-stress and relax your mind

Leave the stress outside the bedroom. Doing a sporting activity two or three times a week will help to release any tension that you could be carrying home. And if you’re not the sporty type, have a little walk outside in the evening to help clear your mind. Reading a good book is another option that can help you unwind and de-stress, but for obvious reasons, avoid horror stories, thrillers, and anything else that will stimulate your imagination or could lead to bad dreams. To help, check out our article on how to fall asleep fast and find the technique that suits you best.

4. Keep to a routine

Being overtired can lead to nightmares so try and restrict your late nights to the weekends and treat yourself to an early night every now and again. If you aim for a regular sleep pattern and hit the sack every night at the same time, this too could greatly reduce the occurrence of nightmares.

5. Something smells nice

Keep fresh flowers in your bedroom, or sprinkle some aromatic oils like lavender on your pillow. Research has shown that pleasant fragrances can have a positive effect on your dreams and maybe keep the nightmares at bay.

6. Talk through the problem

Another way to avoid nightmares is to confront them. Whether it’s a work-related scenario or a memory that goes back to your childhood, talking through your bad dreams with a friend, partner or relative could reduce anxiety and help you come to terms with what’s disturbing your sleep pattern.

The Most Common Nightmares and Their Meanings

What to do if you see someone having a night terror

It can be tempting to intervene or wake a person up if they are suffering from a night terror, but this can heighten the stress. As the individual is not fully awake they may not recognise you, so you might add to their fear.

People who suffer from a night terror rarely remember the incident when they wake up, so acting distressed or shaking them out of the experience will only unsettle them more when they come around. When they wake up, they may feel disorientated or embarrassed, but they are unlikely to remember the full experience or what they ‘saw’ that made them scream.

The NHS advises to stay quiet, wait until they calm down and only step in to help if they are in danger of hurting themselves. For example, if your child sleeps in a cabin or bunk bed, you should probably stay near the edge in case they are at risk of falling.

They also say:

‘After the episode has ended, it’s safe to wake your child. If necessary, encourage them to use the toilet before settling them back to sleep. If your child returns quickly into deep sleep, they may have another episode. Making sure they’re fully awake before they go back to sleep can break this cycle.’

The same guidelines apply to adults. However, if you’re an adult who suffers from regular night terrors you should see your GP, as they could be caused by a specific traumatic event. If this is the case, counselling or other psychological treatments could help.

How can you prevent your child from having night terrors?

Since night terrors are often caused by anxiety during the day, the first thing to address or rule out the day after a night terror is any worries your child might be having. Addressing what the upset is and talking through it may enable them to sleep more soundly and eradicate the likelihood of further episodes. But always ensure that you discuss the night terror in a way that won’t scare them, as this could just add to their anxiety, keeping the cycle going.

The bedtime routine is also extremely important. Give your child a warm bath and read them a soothing story before bed to put their mind at rest. It is also advisable not to have a TV in your child’s bedroom, as they could potentially switch on to a show that will give them nightmares or further fuel their anxiety. Inhibiting any noise or light disruption which can delay melatonin production will give them a better chance of a sound sleep. It’s also worth investing in a kid’s bed to change your little one’s attitude toward sleep.

Read More: Melatonin And Sleep

Helping your child from becoming overtired can also lessen the chances of night terrors. This can be done by maintaining a long enough sleep every night and prohibiting the number of physical activities done during the day.

 

How to have good dreams

According to dream expert Lauri Loewenberg “we tend to dream about what’s on our mind the most”. Therefore, to try to influence good dreams, we must concentrate on controlling our thoughts and mental well-being throughout the day. One of the best methods to influence our dreams is to practise good sleep habits and surround ourselves with pleasant, happy ideas before going to bed.

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