You suddenly realize that you need to take a test – but you haven’t studied at all. As you stare at the exam, full of what looks like gobbledygook, everyone starts laughing. You’re not wearing pants.
Then you wake up.
Does this sound familiar? It very well might, because nightmares are very common – up to 90% of adults have had a nightmare at some point. Frequent nightmares are less common (but no less scary), affecting an estimated 6-8% of the adult population.
A helpful warning
Nightmares aren’t just a sign that you’re afraid of forgetting to study or somehow omitting an important article of clothing. They are very often a warning sign that something has gone wrong with your physical or mental health – giving you the chance to course-correct.
What causes nightmares in adults?
There are a lot of potential reasons you’re experiencing nightmares, but here are three common causes:
- Stress. Nightmares can be a sign that your stress is interfering with your sleep quality. It’s a vicious cycle – the more stressed out you are, the less you sleep, and the less you sleep, the more stressed out you are.
- Drinking or eating right before bedtime. The nightcap is a myth. While alcohol might make you feel drowsy, it can also interfere with sleep patterns. Late-night snacks are another possible cause of scary dreams. Eating right before bed heightens your metabolism and body temperature, which “can lead to more brain activity, prompting more action during rapid eye movement sleep, or REM,” Dr. Charles Bae, MD explains.
- Depression. Nightmares are strongly linked to depression – in fact, research suggests that nightmares may be a way to diagnose the early onset of depressive symptoms, and that early treatment of nightmares may in fact reduce the likelihood of developing depression.
Getting rid of nightmares
One of the best ways to eliminate nightmares is to get a deeper, more restful night of sleep. Easier said than done, of course. Best practices include:
- Turn off your devices. The blue light from your smartphone, laptop, tablet or TV disrupts your brain waves and keeps you awake. This is why, ironically, a marathon night of Netflix can make it difficult to chill. Do not take your phone to bed – we suggest giving it a bed of its own.
- Avoid eating and drinking for two hours before bedtime. Sure, the midnight snack can be tempting. However, it’s best to cut yourself off at dinnertime so your body can slow itself down for a more restful night of shuteye. Eating earlier in the day is better for your health overall, too.
- Exercise in the morning or afternoon — not at night. Exercise is great for stress reduction and mood boosts – but don’t go to the gym too close to bedtime. According to Rafael Pelayo, M.D. of Stanford’s Sleep Medicine Center, late-night workouts can mess with your body’s thermodynamics. In other words, you’ll boost your metabolism and tell your body to burn more fuel, when really you should be shutting the engine off for the day and winding down.
- Create a sleep sanctuary. There are always going to be times (hopefully not too often) when you just can’t disconnect. Those restless evenings where the more you toss and turn, the more awake you become. In these situations, try soothing yourself to sleep with proven sleep methods, including sleep massage, lavender oil, and hot baths. You may be surprised at the positive results.