You're asleep, right? You can hardly be expected to control your actions, much less your thoughts. But if bad dreams are ruining your sleep (and affecting your waking moments), you can work to eliminate or minimize them, according to psychologists and sleep experts.
How nightmares work
"One way of thinking about dreams is that they're part of the same problem-solving processes that we use during the day time," Gregory White, a California-based clinical psychologist and psychology professor at National University, told U.S. News and World Report. "If you're really distressed, you're more likely to have distressing dreams."
In turn, a night of bad dreams can leave you feeling depressed or angry the next day, and repetitive sleep loss can cause a slew of negative side effects, from poor performance to obesity. Long-term sleep loss can even lead to mental illness.
Tore Nielsen, a professor of psychiatry, who directs the University of Montreal's Dream and Nightmare Laboratory, told U.S. News about his research, which showed excessive numbers of nightmares are frequently linked to mental health problems including anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression and even a higher risk of suicide.
"Fortunately, there are effective treatments for nightmares," he added, like rehearsing the "bad dream script" with a more positive ending, or treating nightmares and anxiety disorders simultaneously.
Know the ordinary causes
According to Psychology Today, nightmares occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and result in feelings of extreme fear, horror, distress or anxiety. "This phenomenon tends to occur in the latter part of the night and often awakens the sleeper, who is likely to recall the content of the dream," according to PT, which detailed these common causes:
How to fight nightmares
Writing in Physchology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne looks at recent nightmare research and recommends the following steps for those suffering from nightmares:
In addition to these steps, Gregory White suggests breathing exercises. While holding on to the memory of the bad dream, take a deep breath and then release it very slowly "so that you decondition" the anxious feeling you've associated with the dream. He also recommended getting out of bed quickly, since movement tends to disrupt the ability to remember dreams.
And if you've taken all these steps and still feel distressed? It may be time to seek help. "For anything that's consistent or very troubling and you're not getting far from it," White said, "go see a therapist."