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Mental Health

Expert Advice: How Do I Stop Having Bad Dreams?

Meet Mr. Sandman on your own terms.

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Most of us having occasional bad dreams. But nightmares do more than just wake you up in a cold sweat — they also disrupt your sleep patterns and can keep us from getting a good night’s rest. Here, our experts provide several easy ways to regain peace of mind in the dreaming and waking world.

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Meet our expert panel

  • Karen Frazier, author of more than a dozen books on personal development including The Dream Interpretation Handbook, is a life coach who teaches dream interpretation, energy healing, and personal development. 
  • Dierdre Barrett, PhD, author of The Committee of Sleep and Pandemic Dreams, is assistant professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
  • Samantha Fey, author of The Awake Dreamer, co-hosts two podcasts, “Enlightened Empaths” and “Psychic Teachers,” and teaches about dreaming, meditation, and intuition. More at SamanthaFey.com.

Look for surprising clues

To pinpoint why you’re having anxiety dreams, ask yourself which associations resonate with you in waking life, says expert Deirdre Barrett, PhD, recalling a man who dreamt of walking into a bar, only to find the patrons were cardboard cutouts. When Barrett asked him what he associated with cardboard cutouts, he mentioned Home Alone (the decoys Kevin uses). “Suddenly, he realized his dreams were telling him that he was lonely — just knowing this put him on the path to making deeper connections.”

Let your mind wander

Studies show daydreaming for a few minutes a day leads to more pleasant dreams at night, says expert Samantha Fey. Letting your mind wander boosts creativity, helping your subconscious solve problems during the day so it doesn’t work as hard at night. “When I walk my dog, I note what I see, hear and feel — this lets my mind relax and take its own path.”

Discover patterns

A common recurring dream is driving downhill as our brakes fail, hinting that we feel out of control, notes expert Karen Frazier. Another dream that’s becoming more typical is someone quietly breaking into your home. “This speaks to a silent anxiety we may be suppressing,” says Fey. “But bad dreams are like little kids trying to get our attention — if we ignore them, they only grow louder until we take the time to address them.”

Step into a time machine

Simply going over the events of your day primes your mind for better dreams, reveals Fey. “Reviewing your day backward — starting with what happened at night, then moving into the evening, afternoon, and morning — calms your nervous system, improving dream quality.” Also soothing, adds Frazier: Making an intention for your dreams before bed, like, “Tell me what I need to know,” will help you meet the sandman on your terms.

Picture a happy future

Our subconscious can’t process negative words, so if you tell yourself, “I won’t have bad dreams tonight,” the only thing your brain hears is “bad dreams,” says Fey. “We instead have to prime our mind with positive visualizations. If you want to take control of your money, picture a check in hand; or if you’d like to find love, visualize your dream partner.” Such imagery spurs problem-solving dreams and inspires us to seek joyful outcomes in life.

Find inspiration

Jot down what you can recall when you wake up. “Everything from colors to fragments of song lyrics are meaningful,” says Fey. “If your house is awash in white, say, it could mean you want a fresh start.” It’s vital to face your dreams, she urges, citing the story of a man who kept dreaming he was being chased. One night, he finally turned around, only to discover that the figure following him was himself, urging him to let go of fear. Indeed, our dreams are messengers, and we only need to listen to them.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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