We've all woken up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat with images of a scary nightmare still in our minds. And sometimes we even had to take a few moments to calm down and remind ourselves that it was all just a bad dream, that it wasn't real, already dissolved in the dark of the room. Nightmares are a very common occurrence, sometimes they can awaken us from sleep, sometimes not, but they really happen to everyone and at all ages and generally there is nothing to worry about. However, it can happen that nightmares become recurring and happen for several nights in succession, disturbing the quality of sleep and worsening daytime life. What to do in these cases? Let's look at the advice of science, but first, let's try to understand the causes of nightmares.
Nightmares and bad dreams, what they are and consequences
Good night and sweet dreams is the ritual formula that we say to someone who is about to go to sleep, wishing to spend some restful and, perhaps, pleasant hours with joyful dreams. However, this is not always the case and sometimes dreams can take on scary if not even frightening connotations. Sometimes they are just bad dreams that don't make us wake up, because their emotional impact is not enough to call us back to the waking state, sometimes they are real nightmares that, on the other hand, always make us wake up as the threat created, however not real, it is considered too big. Here we wake up with accelerated heartbeats, in a sweat bath and out of breath. In reality, it is still not clear whether nightmares and bad dreams are the same thing or not, but most likely they are, just with different intensities and, in any case, they both fall under parasomnias, which are sleep disorders (Abdul Razzak et al, Res Psychother, 2021). The result of these parasomnias, especially if nightmares and bad dreams are frequent, are emotional stress, cognitive difficulties, fatigue and sleepiness during the day (Abdul Razzak et al, Res Psychother, 2021).
Nightmares and bad dreams, the cause is also stress
But why are there times when it happens to have nightmares more frequently and why are dreams sometimes so vivid that we remember them in the days to come? This is often associated with a period of severe stress and anxiety that we are experiencing (Abdul Razzak et al, Res Psychother, 2021). When we live alert to a problem, real or not, then sleep is also lighter as it is as if the body is ready to wake up quickly and make us escape. So even what we dream then remains more in the head and we remember it more easily. Not only that, it is believed that nightmares are a way to help us deal with real life problems and fears, or, according to other interpretations, they are a way to recharge ourselves with the energy needed to overcome moments of anxiety and stress while awake. Energy is not used because we are sleeping, this creates anxiety and the bad dream that can make us wake up. Therefore, in most cases nightmares and bad dreams should not cause concern and are not related to pathological causes (Abdul Razzak et al, Res Psychother, 2021). However, it is possible, during the day, to make small improvements to reduce the frequency of nightmares and thus improve the time of night's rest.
Nightmares and bad dreams, a lack of vitamin D and calcium?
Anxiety and stress can promote disturbed sleep and nightmares. But vitamin D and calcium deficiencies can also play a role. In fact, their decrease increases the risk of musculoskeletal pain and an imbalance in the production of melatonin, the hormone that participates in the regulation of sleep-wake rhythm, thus paving the way for anxiety and bad dreams (Abdul Razzak et al, Res Psychother, 2021). We can fill up on vitamin D by exposing ourselves to the sun, always with the necessary precautions, or by including foods in our diet such as mushrooms, especially if wild as they are exposed to UV rays that have stimulated the synthesis of vitamin D, fatty cheeses, fish such as mackerel, tuna, herring and anchovies. Calcium, on the other hand, is found in dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheeses, some vegetables, such as cabbage and broccoli, and foods, such as cereals, fortified with calcium.
Nightmares and bad dreams, chamomile is a valid help
A chamomile tea is the grandmother's remedy before going to sleep, to calm down and promote a good rest. And indeed, as always, popular wisdom is right in this case too. Aqueous extracts of chamomile, such as those we take when we drink chamomile flower infusion, have been shown to reduce nightmares, anxiety and insomnia (Srivastava et al, Mol Med Report, 2010). Chamomile in the form of an essential oil to be inhaled has also proven to be useful against nightmares. In this case, Roman chamomile is excellent, which you can spread around the room or pour onto a handkerchief to keep next to the pillow (Cui et al, Front Pharmacol, 2022).
Nightmares and bad dreams, other herbal teas
Not only chamomile, other herbal teas can also help, calming anxiety and stress, improving relaxation and the quality of sleep and keeping nightmares at bay. For example, magnolia bark contains substances that increase the activity of GABA receptors in the brain and consequently promote a state of relaxation. Rhodiola rosea contains more than 140 active compounds that counteract stress, anxiety and depression while tea leaves, especially green tea, provide L theanine, an amino acid that induces calm and relaxation (Nisar et al, Cureus et al , 2019).
Nightmares and bad dreams, here is the yoga technique
A yoga breathing technique, called Sudarshan Kriya, has been shown to counteract the onset of nightmares in people who had suffered trauma and great stress (Walker et al, Med Acupunct, 2017). The technique consists of three phases, to be performed one after the other in a cyclical way. Sit cross-legged or in another comfortable position. Slightly contract the glottis, in this way the breath will form a sound similar to the waves of the sea. Inhale and exhale slowly through your nose. Inhalation and exhalation have the same duration. After a few minutes, relax the muscles of the throat. Now the technique changes pace, to a faster one. In fact, it is required to inhale quickly and vigorously and then exhale equally quickly, and forcefully, always through the nose. At first, take no more than ten breaths, then you can increase to 20. Then, after a few normal breaths, inhale and hold for a few seconds. When you exhale, pronounce the syllable Om aloud, prolonging its sound until the exhale is exhausted. Inhale calmly and repeat two more times (Zope et al, Int J Yoga, 2013).
Imaginative repetition against nightmares
Finally, there is a technique, called imaginative repetition, which has given excellent results in the case of recurring nightmares, even those caused by post-traumatic stress (Nappi et al, Behav Ther, 2010). The technique consists, during the waking phase, of calling to mind the nightmare that terrifies us during the night. You are asked to visualize the nightmare but rewrite the ending in a pleasant way. The exercise consists in visualizing the new dream several times during the day with the pleasant ending. Not only that, researchers at the University of Geneva have observed that if a neutral sound is heard during daydream visualization, such as a piano chord repeated every ten seconds, and if this sound is played again during sleep, then the imaginative repetition technique becomes even more effective, significantly reducing the frequency of nightmares (Schwartz et al, Current Biology, 2022).