trauma healing

7 Ways to Stop Nightmares and get More Restful Sleep

Nightmares keeping you up? You’re not alone. Throughout my life, I’ve had more than my fair share of nightmares – the kind that jolt me awake with my heart racing and make it nearly impossible to go back to sleep. I’ll spare you the details of any one nightmare in particular, but suffice to say they are extremely vivid, deeply disturbing, and always leave me feeling very unsettled.

Nightmares are common in people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can be disruptive not only to quality of sleep, but quality of life by creating fear or anxiety around going to bed. Fortunately, my nightmares have diminished in frequency and intensity over time, but during periods of high stress, I still occasionally wake up with my heart pounding and my palms sweating.

My nightmares are sometimes replays of a specific trauma, but more often than not they are replays of the emotions (fear, panic, etc) associated with a traumatic experience. The after-effects used to linger for hours (sometimes even days), but now I’m able to shake off my nightmares pretty quickly, get back to sleep, and more importantly, I no longer have a fear of going to sleep.

If you struggle with nightmares, here are 7 things that can help you calm your nervous system and release physical sensations of tension and stress in the aftermath of a nightmare (and even help stop nightmares in the future), so you can get more restful sleep.

1. Mindful breathing

Stress is a common trigger for nightmares. Slow mindful breathing throughout your day and especially before bed can help you de-stress. If you wake up after a nightmare with your breath caught in your throat, practicing a few rounds of deep breathing can also help you fall back asleep.

Slow and controlled breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help lower blood pressure and induce a natural state of calm. Two of my favorite breathing techniques are 2-to-1 Diaphragmatic Breathing (also known as Relaxation Breathing) and Box Breathing (also known as four square breathing). Learn how to do 2-to-1 Breathing here and Box Breathing here.

2. Meditation

Meditation is a perfect companion to mindful breathing and can help rewire your brain toward less stress and deeper presence. Trauma pulls us into the pain of the past or projects us into the fear of the future and nightmares are often an amplification of these unmetabolized feelings. If you’re having trouble falling back to sleep after a nightmare, listening to a guided meditation can help. Yoga nidra is a particular style of meditation that helps your body deeply relax and induce a state of “yogic sleep”.  I offer a guided yoga nidra practice in my Stress Relief Breathing & Meditation Bundle here.

3. Grounding Practices

Nightmares can dysregulate your nervous system and leave you feeling physically shaken. The simple act of physically feeling your feet on the floor before bed can have a very grounding effect. Placing your bare feet in contact with the natural earth (also known as Earthing) can also help you feel calmer and more rooted in your body (and there’s actual science behind it! You can read more about Earthing here). If you can’t get outdoors, you can also purchase Earthing products specifically for sleep, like Earthing Mattress Covers, sheets, and pillow covers here .

4. TRE ® Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises

TRE® was created by Dr. David Berceli as a way to help the body let go of deep, chronic patterns of stress, trauma, and tension through safe tremoring. Tremoring is a natural process our bodies innately have the capacity to do as a means to somatically release overwhelming experiences. It is helpful to practice with a skilled provider, but once you have learned the exercises, it’s an effective modality you can use safely and successfully on your own.  Many people who have experienced flashbacks and PTSD related nightmares report sleeping more soundly through the night by practicing TRE.  If you’re interested in learning TRE, you can sign up for the waiting list for my Primal Alchemy Method Mentorship Program here.

5. Create a Calming Pre-Bedtime Ritual

Creating a calming pre-bedtime ritual can help put your body and mind at ease before sleep and may increase the likelihood of sleeping more soundly through the night. Your ritual may include brewing a cup of soothing chamomile tea, meditation, gratitude journaling, self-massage, or any other self-care practice that feels supportive to you. Staying away from blue light emitted from electronic screens (TV, iPhone, etc) at least two hours prior to bedtime can also help support natural sleep rhythms.

6. Dream Dump

A dream dump is the idea of getting your dream out of your body and mind by discussing your dream (as long as you remember it and it doesn’t feel triggering to recall it) with a safe and trusted person (a friend, loved one, therapist, counselor) who can safely hold it without making you feel crazy, judged or damaged. If you don’t have a safe person to share it with, you may choose to write it out in a journal instead and then rip up the pages as a way to release it.

7. Create a New Ending for the Dream

This is personally one of my favorite ways to prevent nightmares and support yourself in feeling more grounded and empowered.  Dr. Justin Havens calls this The Dream Completion Technique™ and claims it can stop nightmares after just one night.

To practice the technique recall the last nightmare you had and the point in which you woke up.  Then think about what you’d like to happen next that would help you feel empowered, in control, at ease, happy, or at peace. In essence, you’re creating a new direction for the dream that’s brief and simple and helps to re-write the emotional effects of it in your body and mind.

For example, if you’re being chased by a tiger in your dream and you wake up in a cold sweat right as the tiger pounces, you may complete the dream by envisioning that once the tiger pounces it turns out it was actually just a big, friendly, fluffy dog that was simply excited to see you. Instead of being torn to shreds, the dog covers you with loving licks and happy tail wags. Or perhaps, the tiger stays a tiger, but you are successfully able to fight it off and get away to safety and your town hails you as a local hero.

If you’re interested in learning more about Dr. Havens Dream Completion technique, he has a short video you can watch here on YouTube.

Did you find any of these techniques helpful? Please leave a comment below.

Wishing you a peaceful and restful night’s sleep.