Nobody likes to have one bad dream, let alone many. But chronic bad dreams are no joke, and they can be a real, ahem, nightmare to contend with on a regular basis. Trust me, I've definitely gone through periods of time when I'm having nightmares a few times a week, and they're usually connected to something else that's going on in my life. It's practically impossible not to wonder how nightmares affect your brain at that point, because all that symbolic, internal stress really can't be good for your mental health, right?.
Believe it or not, there's actually been some research and speculation that bad dreams are actually positive for the psyche. Nightmares can apparently boost or signify creativity, and they're also thought to be a relatively low-impact way of working out psychological stresses, especially if they're connected to a stressful or traumatic event relatively shortly after the event happens. But if the nightmares go on for too long, or they happen too frequently, that's when it can become really disruptive to your emotional and mental health.
After about a month of consistent nightmares following a difficult event or stressor, that's when things can start causing real trouble for your well-being.
As Anne Germain, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Center at the University of Pittsburgh, told CNN,
We think nightmares are so common that they have some purpose to process stressors.
But Germain added that there's a major catch to this, and that if the bad dreams happen more than about once or twice month, it's not good:
There are plenty of data supporting the idea that nightmares that become chronic are very detrimental to well-being. Sleep is disrupted; we think about dreams during the day and become distressed.
Other research on the subject shows that people who have chronic and lasting nightmares are significantly more anxious during their waking hours and have, not surprisingly, much more difficulty sleeping.
For example, a 2009 Australian study published in the journal Dreaming looked at more than 600 high school-aged individuals who described their lives and their experiences with nightmares over a year's time, and also provided researchers with information about their day-to-day stress levels. The goal was to see if the study participants' nightmares had any relationship whatsoever to their everyday experiences with stress, and more specifically, if the bad dreams helped them process or minimize their anxiety.
According to Scientific American, the findings showed that those in the study who were experiencing disturbing or distressing dreams on a regular basis suffered even more internal anxiety than those who were going through real-life difficult events, like their parents getting divorced, for example.
The study also found that having regular nightmares didn't translate to less tension or anxiety, but rather more day-to-day stress.
An important question that remains, however, is if there's something underlying going on (like pre-existing emotional turmoil or mental health conditions), or if the nightmares themselves are the main cause of anxiety, and end up repeating themselves as a result.
So, having said all of that, what should you do exactly if you're experiencing chronic nightmares yourself?
First things first, you might want to see if there are any simple, quick-fix causes you can address.
Think about new stuff you're eating, watching, or doing before you head to bed for the night that might indirectly be amping up your anxiety levels.
Nightmares can also be the result of something particular and easy to pinpoint, too, like a breakup. If that's the case for you, consider some healthy coping mechanisms you could try, like seeing a therapist, taking some time to journal before bed, or talking with a trusted friend about the situation.
And another possible trick to try for your bad dreams?
Another possible strategy for tackling bad dreams comes from Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand. During a previous discussion with Elite Daily, he explained that one way to try and ensure a better snooze is to imagine something really, really wonderful before you go to sleep at night. Maybe it's a fond memory that makes you feel really good to reminisce on, or an exciting vacation you're planning to take.
A more direct approach to conquering a chronic nightmare, Dr. Mayer says, is to "play the bad dream out with a different and good ending, one where you end up victorious." Sounds like pretty good advice, if you ask me.
Remember, if you're consistently being plagued by bad dreams, you aren't alone in your struggle. I totally hear you, and trust me, I've been there. So listen when I tell you this: Never be afraid to reach out to a trusted friend or doctor for some help to figure out what's going on with you. It's worth it for a good night's rest and peace of mind.