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How to Relax After a Nightmare

Andromeda Peters, LICSW

Nightmares can be disturbing and frightening. Our minds and bodies respond to the dream, as if it is a real-life event. Waking up from a nightmare cannot only make it challenging to fall back asleep, but it can also make it challenging for us to feel safe in the moment. We may wake up from nightmares with perspiration, a racing heart rate, racing thoughts, panic attacks, nausea, dissociation, disorientation to our surroundings and time and place, and other anxiety symptoms. What’s more, trauma responses can come to the surface resulting in fear-based responses at bedtime. We may find ourselves feeling anxious in the evenings, being fearful of falling asleep, and attempting to stay awake as long as possible.

This all said, impaired sleep can affect our functioning in our day-to-day life, creating significant impacts on our lives, our jobs, relationships, and other responsibilities. This is why it’s important to “reclaim sleep” after a nightmare and work on decreasing nightmares overall. Research shows that high-stress levels can contribute to high frequencies of nightmares, which is why relaxation is recommended.

Here are some helpful tips that can assist you with grounding and getting proper rest after waking up from a nightmare. 

Grounding

Grounding exercises assist us with connecting back to our physical bodies and physical surroundings through connecting with our senses. 

Here are a few grounding tips to help with relaxation: 

  • Breathing exercises such as the 4-7-8 breathing (inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds)
  • Drinking a cold beverage
  • Applying an ice pack to a specific area of the body
  • Smelling a scented item such as an essential oil, scented lotion, or an orange

Hearing and Relaxation

We can use our sense of hearing and listening to help ground ourselves and relax after a nightmare. For instance, listening to relaxing music or binaural beats (if approved by a medical professional) can assist the body with regulation. Repeating affirmations for grounding are also recommended such as saying, “I am safe,” or speaking reminders of where you are physically located such as “I am home,” “I am in my room,” or “I am in Washington, DC.” 

Military Method Grounding Technique

Another grounding technique is the military method: 

  • Relax your entire face, including the muscles inside your mouth. 
  • Drop your shoulders to release tension and let your hands drop to the side of your body.
  • Exhale, relaxing your chest. 
  • Relax your legs, thighs, and calves. 
  • Clear your mind for 10 seconds by imagining a relaxing scene. If this doesn’t work, try saying the words, “Don’t think,” over and over for 10 seconds. Progressive muscle relaxation exercises like this assist us with tensing and relaxing our muscles while inhaling and exhaling. YouTube offers numerous progressive muscle relaxation exercises to try as well.

Movement After a Nightmare

Movement can be helpful when waking up from a nightmare. Experts state that getting out of bed is beneficial if you cannot fall asleep within 20 minutes of waking up. It is recommended that going to another room can help refocus the mind, making it easier to fall asleep upon returning to bed. Sleeping in another room can also be soothing.

Avoid Screen Time

Avoid looking at screens; refrain from screen time on your phones, tablets, and other devices. The blue light emitted from screens suppresses your body’s ability to produce melatonin, which can make it difficult to fall back asleep. If checking your phone is necessary, switch to night mode on your devices or opt for blue light glasses. 

Create a Healthy Routine to Reduce Stress 

Along with these practices, it is recommended that we prioritize decreasing our stress levels overall to get a better night’s sleep. One healthy stress-relieving tool to work into your daily routine is developing a good workout routine. Exercise is beneficial in helping to decrease stress. Another tool is journaling, which gives us space to express our emotions. What’s more, speaking to a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist is a great way to assist in decreasing stress levels.

We hope you find these tips helpful with grounding and relaxing after a nightmare. These are also great ways to relax before bedtime, which may help you sleep better and more peacefully through the night. If you would like to talk to someone about coping with nightmares or reducing stress in your life, please reach out to Symmetry Counseling to explore our counseling services in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Phoenix. Our intake specialists can connect you with a very skilled therapist in your area.

References:

How to Go Back to Sleep After Waking Up in the Middle of the Night. Retrieved from 

https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-go-back-to-sleep#tips on October 25, 2017.

How to Fall Asleep After a Nightmare. Retrieved from 

https://www.verlo.com/blog/how-to-fall-back-to-sleep-after-a-nightmare/ on May 16, 2018.

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