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Dealing with Nightmares (for both Adults and Children)

This week on my social media, I've been sharing some tips throughout the week on dealing with Nightmares. I also shared an infographic to help you to distinguish the difference between nightmares and night terrors.

To finish the week, I am sharing this blog with more detail on how to deal with nightmares - I will talk about children and adults who are suffering.

Nightmares disrupt sleep for everyone and how you respond to them can be a huge factor in whether they create long-term habit wakes for children. Some children can wake up screaming or come running into your bedroom after a nightmare. Of course, as a parent, your natural instinct is to want to soothe them which is understandable.

Some parents ask their child what happened and encourage them to share the dream, followed by reassuring them that it was simply not real and tell them everything is okay. Sometimes, the problem with this is by asking them to describe the dream and give detail, you're making the memory even more vivid and therefore they are more likely to remember the dream the following night and thereafter.

As adults, we may wake and remember a dream briefly, only to go to explain it later in the day and realise we can't remember it. This can often happen to children too and if it can happen with nightmares which is the goal.

You can reduce the impact of a nightmare by not asking them about their dream at all, of course you will still want to comfort them.

Initially, empathise with them "I am sorry you were scared but dreams aren't real and won't hurt you!" Give them a big hug and kiss and find some way to get their memory away from their dream - "We are going to do something special tomorrow, lets get you back to sleep so you're not tired!" Another option could be calming exercises such a breathing to calm their anxiety - square breathing can be great for this (breathe in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4 and repeat). It calms the nervous system and gives them something to focus on.

If they are really distressed you may want to read their favourite story to them before trying to get them sleeping again or talk about a memory they enjoy.

For older children or teenagers, it can be worth exploring the science behind why nightmares occur - again, this is not something to do in the middle of the night but the next day it can help them to make sense of everything by explaining how the brain organises daytime images and experiences and don't predict the future at all.

Remain confident at all times so that your child feels secure in going back to sleep and can have a peaceful rest.

For younger children, it can be helpful to invest in security toys such as comforters, this can include things like dream catchers or worry dolls if they are old enough to understand the concept of these things.

Turning their pillow over and explaining that good dreams are on the other side can help them rest easy. The next day if their memory of the dream is vivid try drawing it or writing it down and screwing it up to bin it so it can no longer 'get them.' If your child enjoys stories they could write it but rewrite the ending to make it happier.

Ultimately, ensuring your child gets adequate sleep and are not too stimulated before bedtime are great ways to eliminate nightmares before they happen. Keep screens away at least 60 minutes before bed and if your child is going through any big life changes such as a new sibling or starting nursery, talk to them lots in the day to check they're not anxious.

If you are one of the 5-8% of adults suffering with frequent nightmares, I have a few suggestions to help you.

Many adults are intrigued by trying to analyse dreams, however, doing this with nightmares can prevent us from getting much-needed sleep and be a sign of emotional issues that we may need to confront. We can often feel a great loss of control when nightmares occur, however it is possible to reframe thoughts and try to put nightmares to bed (ha!)

  • Create a calming environment which is conducive to sleep, this may include relaxing sounds such as birds tweeting or a light piano medley, many adults choose to use white noise.

  • Work on destressing - stress and anxiety all play a big part when it comes to frequent nightmares. Meditation can be great for this as it shrinks the amygdala - the part of our brain which controls fear. Many apps such as Calm and Headspace have various meditations you can try - even if you've never done it. Research shows that finding a different perspective to your life and day events can prevent those nightmares from coming along.

  • Another way to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) in your system is some yoga, there are many free and short bedtime practices that may be a useful part of your bedtime routine.

  • Music can affect our mood, listen to something calming before bed or something that evokes positive memories to enter your bed in a state of calm.

  • Research shows that if we go to bed with feelings of happiness or gratefulness, it can reduce the chance of us having nightmares and result in a better sleep. I have personally set myself the New Year's Resolution to write down 2-3 things that have made me smile that day right before I tuck in for the night.

I hope you find these tips helpful, please contact me if anyone in your family suffers with nightmares and I would be pleased to help you out.

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