science of us

How to Recover From a Night of Bad Dreams

Photo: Masaaki Toyoura/Getty Images

I haven’t slept very well this week (I blame a very enjoyable concert which forced me to miss my bedtime by three full hours), and perhaps as a result, have had some pretty gnarly nightmares. And I do not use the word “gnarly” lightly, or perhaps ever at all before now. My dream last night was so upsetting that I actually don’t want to describe it, for fear that will somehow make it come true, but I’ll just say that it involved a family member’s extremely gruesome health emergency. (I was watching Making a Murderer part two before bed, which certainly didn’t help.)

Thankfully this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me too often, but when it does it’s jarring, and leaves me emotionally drained and anxious all day — even though I know what I dreamt isn’t “real.” I tend to feel guilty about dwelling on something I only imagined, but according to Alice Robb, author of Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey, out later this month, it’s normal to experience real, bodily effects after traumatic dreams. “Emotions and stress experienced in dreams can have very real emotional and physiological consequences,” she says. “There are even a few reported cases in which nightmares seem to have contributed to heart attacks.” (Oh, great.)

Fortunately, there are some strategies people can employ to reduce their nightmares’ frequency and harm. In the long-term, Robb suggests learning to lucid dream, or even just practicing lucid dreaming techniques during the day. In her book, she writes: “If people can learn to become conscious in their dreams, they can wake themselves up or even banish their dream-foes.” She describes a 2006 experiment done by psychologists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in which the researchers asked some participants to practice lucid dream induction techniques on their own, gave private lucid dreaming lessons to others, and then left a third group untreated. Both groups that practiced lucid dreaming techniques saw fewer nightmares as a result: “Patients who learned in private sessions started out with an average of 3.6 nightmares, and that number went down to 1.4,” Robb writes. “[and] the improvement didn’t depend on achieving lucidity; several people who never managed to become lucid in their dreams still had a reduction in nightmares.”

Not to brag, but I lucid dream all the time, and am often able to exit my nightmares this way — I first figured it out as a kid, when I realized that, to escape whatever was chasing me, I needed only to find a yellow circle and climb through it. As an adult, I mostly just … recognize that I’m dreaming, and either wake myself up, or change the narrative. (I also have this thing where, when I dream of flying, I’ll start to “sink,” and then have to sort of propel myself back up by reminding myself I’m dreaming? This is probably interesting only to me, sorry.) But with certain nightmares — those involving the injury to or death of a loved one — that option never seems to pop up.

In those cases, Robb offers two more (unofficial) techniques.

Write down your nightmares.

“I find that writing down a nightmare in the morning is helpful,” says Robb. “Dream recall is sharpest right when you wake up, and I like knowing as many details as I can — rather than having that hazy feeling of ‘WTF happened last night to make me feel this way?’” Dream journals are often recommended as a means to greater self-intuition, but they can be more utilitarian, too. In Robb’s usage, the journal is a place to preserve the memory, so that when you still feel upset or exhausted hours later, you can turn back to your description and remember why. Putting the dream on paper rather than leaving it in your head can be a way to validate the feelings it may give you.

Talk about your nightmares.

If writing your dreams down isn’t your scene, or even if it is, sometimes it’s helpful to — yes — talk about your dreams with a willing listener or two. “I’ve found that talking about frightening dreams with my friends can help defray their emotional impact,” says Robb. “For example, the other day, I dreamed that I was at a party for law-school students and pythons, and because I wasn’t in law school (dream logic), it was my job to keep watch over the pythons. I woke up terrified! But then I sent it to the group text and my friends lol-ed and I appreciated that it was kind of funny.” It IS funny, but I can also see how it wouldn’t have been to Robb. And while this might not apply to every nightmare, talking (or texting) about it can still be helpful. Again, it makes the dream feel real enough that your reaction is legitimate, and it gives your friends or partner a chance to support you, in whatever way your dream might warrant.

How to Recover From a Night of Bad Dreams