Why You Keep Having Nightmares and What to Do About It, According to a Dream Analyst

Photo: Getty Images/Basak Gurbuz Derman

Even if you’re a fully grown adult, having a nightmare can be a truly disturbing experience. The vivid imagery your mind dreams up while you are snoozing can often feel far too real. So much so that it creates a major adrenaline rush—complete with a racing heartbeat and a puddle of sweat. While it's normal to have one from time to time, if you’re finding that the nightmares are robbing you of your beauty sleep on the reg, it might be something that’s worth looking into. Here, Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, dream analyst and author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life, explains some possible causes and treatment tips you can try to put an end to the dreadful dreams. 

1. There’s an issue you’re not dealing with

Although wearing your blue-light blocking glasses and going to bed early are great sleep rituals to practice, according to Loewenberg, one of the most common causes for nightmares has nothing to do with your actual sleep hygiene. “In my practice and research, I have found that nightmares are typically caused by difficult, ignored, or miss handled issues,” she says. “A nightmare is disturbing because it is connected to and trying to help you with an unpleasant situation in your life.” 

Therefore, if the nightmares are recurring, chances are they're connected to an ongoing unresolved issue, behavior, or pattern. This gives you something to think about. “For example, if you keep getting yourself into relationships with toxic people, you are likely to have recurring nightmares about snakes,” Loewenberg says. “Or, if you have a recurring behavior pattern of avoiding confrontations or difficult problems rather than facing them, you are likely to get recurring dreams of being chased.”

2. You experienced past trauma

Past trauma can also induce post-traumatic stress nightmares. The difference with these types of nightmares, Loewenberg says, is that they won’t be symbolic but rather appear as a replay of the traumatic event. 

3. You have an existing health issue

Although it is less common, a health issue or a certain medication you’re taking can also be to blame for the recurring nightmares. “I once had a client who suffered from MS and had recurring nightmares of being attacked by demons,” Loewenberg says. “Once I told her to start journaling her day along with her dreams at night, she was able to figure out that she would get these dreams the night before she would have a particularly painful day.” 

4. You watched a scary movie

Mom was right, per usual. Scary movies can definitely also cause you to have not-so-fun dreams. “The subconscious tends to ‘borrow' elements from the day and incorporates them into the storyline of our dreams at night,” Loewenberg says. “Images, conversations, events, or experiences that impacted us the most that day have greater odds of being recycled into our dreams.” 

That said, there can still be some symbolism involved. It’s not totally random. Your subconscious mind chooses to present certain symbols from the movies or tv shoes for a reason. “For example, the axe murderer in the movie you watched may resonate with your subconscious because you are currently trying to or in need of 'cutting off’  or ‘dismembering’ someone from your life,” Loewenberg says. 

How to curb your nightmares

1. Resolve the underlying issue

Sounds obvious, but if you have an inkling that the nightmares are tied to an ongoing issue, the best thing to do is to take steps to resolve it instead of avoiding it. “Do not allow difficult issues to linger. Confront them and handle them as soon as possible,” Loewenberg says. “Difficult issues from the past can still cause nightmares in the present because they were never handled correctly or we never learned how to process the aftermath in a healthy manner. The more proactive you are in dealing with difficult issues and negative behaviors, the less bad dreams you'll have.” 

2. Talk to your doctor

If you suspect that a medication or a health issue is causing the nightmares, Loewenberg recommends going to go see your doctor to talk about possibly changing or altering your prescription. The same goes for trauma-related nightmares. It’s best to seek the help of a professional who can help you navigate the issue. And if you can, look for someone who incorporates dream work into their practice. 

3. Keep a day and a dream journal

To help you pinpoint what underlying issues may be causing the nightmares, Loewenberg suggests keeping a day and dream journal. “Remember that your dreams are a continuation of your thought stream from the previous day,” she says. "This is why it is important to journal your dreams along with your day.”

Loewenberg suggests listing your day's activities on one side of the page. Include things that happened as well as the thoughts that were replaying in your mind, conversations you had, things you watched or read, and any emotions that you experienced. The next morning, use the other side of the page to write about the dreams you had that night. Make sure you take note of not just what happened in your dreams and nightmares but also any conversations, thoughts, or emotions that you experienced in the dream.

4. Try to connect the dots between your day and your nightmares

Once you’ve gathered the information, you can more easily pick up on patterns and correlations between what happened during your day (i.e. emotions, events, thoughts, struggles, conversations, behaviors) that might be triggering the nightmares. But don’t just stop after one day and night, make this a ritual. The longer you do it, Loewenberg says, the more connections you’ll make. 

“For example, you may realize that every time you get the dream where you are attacked by a bear, you spoke to your mother the previous day,” she says. “Now that you have pinpointed the root cause, it is time to address it. Why does talking with your mother make you feel under attack? How much of that are you allowing? How much of that can you actively change?” Once you address the issue, the nightmares should subside. 

5. Rewrite the nightmare

Once you’ve addressed the root issue head on, it’s also helpful to rewrite the nightmare. Loewenberg says this ritual is especially helpful if the nightmares are related to past trauma. 

To do this, simply write down as many details as you can remember about the nightmare and just as it gets to the scary part, rewrite the ending and feel free to get as creative as you’d like. 

“Remember you are giving yourself these nightmares therefore you have every right to change them,” Loewenberg says. “Give yourself the power in the dream. Make sure you conquer the villain or rescue yourself or whatever the case may be. It is also important that you do this re-writing exercise every night for at least a week. You can switch up how you take control. By doing this, you are essentially reprogramming your subconscious and letting it know things have to change.” 

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