Dreams are classified, according to experts, as “the stories the brain tells during sleep — a collection of clips, images, feelings, and memories that involuntarily occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of slumber.” While that sounds almost idyllic, we know that dreams are not always pleasant. Nightmares are also common for most people and, in some cases, can be recurring.
Fortunately, nightmares are fairly benign for the most part. In fact, some professionals believe they can even serve as a message. Below, we chatted with experts about recurring bad dreams and broke down everything you need to know about them. Read on to find out why they happen, what they might mean and when they could be a sign of something more serious.
Why You’re Having Nightmares (And What They Mean)
“A nightmare is connected to and trying to help you with an unpleasant situation in your life,” Lauri Loewenberg, a certified dream analyst in Apollo Beach, Florida, said. “A recurring nightmare would likely be caused by either an ongoing difficult issue that is yet to be resolved … or a recurring behavior pattern that leads to a recurring difficult issue.”
Most dreams aren’t literal, but some themes or symbols may come up that can help you decipher what your nightmare is trying to tell you, Loewenberg said.
“For example, if you keep getting yourself into relationships with toxic people, you are likely to have recurring nightmares about snakes,” she said. “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.”
Negative self-beliefs, such as “I’m not lovable,” “I’m worthless” or “I’m not good enough,” can also end up manifesting in your dreams, said Anthony Freire, an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing specialist and founder of The Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling in New York. “And the more we hold on to these negative beliefs about the self, the scarier or more nightmarish the dream becomes,” he said.
Another common cause of nightmares ― especially recurring ones ― is trauma. These “tend to not be symbolic in nature, but rather a replay of the traumatic event. These are typically post-traumatic stress nightmares,” Loewenberg said.
Recurring nightmares can also be caused by health issues or medications, but they’re usually less common.
How To Make Nightmares Stop
In order to rid yourself of even the worst recurring nightmares, be prepared to identify and address the root causes. “Processing the underlying reason behind the nightmares would likely make them dissipate,” Freire said.
Depending on how intense your nightmares are, you could try one or more of these techniques:
Consider writing in a journal about both your nightmares and your real-life experiences during the day, Tracy Vadakumchery, a practicing pre-licensed mental health counselor and cognitive behavioral specialist at The Feel Good Center in New York, recommended. Doing so may make it easier to connect the dots and locate closure, she said.
Rewrite The Dream
Writing can also be powerful if you’re specifically focusing on the content of your dream. Try changing the outcome of your nightmare when you’re awake, Loewenberg suggested. This is especially effective with nightmares that are a result of past trauma.
“When doing this technique, be sure to write down all the details of the nightmare you can remember,” Loewenberg said. “Then, when you get to the end or the most frightening part of the nightmare, rewrite it.”
Avoid Screens Before Bed
“Watching TV or movies before bed will likely just make you dream a different version of your unresolved emotional business by combining it with any vivid scenes from a movie,” Freire said, adding that you should allow yourself “a good hour before bed to not keep your brain hyperactive with screens.”
When To Get Professional Help
If addressing your recurring nightmares on your own doesn’t work, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
“If the nightmares occur more than two times per week and/or are accompanied by severe distress and impairment in functioning, it is time to check in with a professional,” said Nicole M. Ward, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma. “Impairments in function can include falling asleep at work, avoiding sleep and/or having frequent conflict within their personal or professional relationships.”
You should also think about seeing a therapist, Freire added, “if nightmares are keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep, and the accumulation of loss of sleep is causing other symptoms such as: fatigue, memory loss, anxiety, heart arrhythmias, etc.”
So don’t let bad dreams get in the way of good sleep.