The question: I keep having work dreams. Or should I say, nightmares. How can I make them stop?
The answer: Ah, the dreaded workmare. Unfortunately, I have no magic wand to make work-related nightmares stop. The key is to first understand what factors contribute to the types of dreams we all have, as well as the function they serve. The next step is to then work to alleviate the causal factors.
Scientific understanding about dreams and their associated meaning is, on the whole, pretty poor. What we do know is that our most vivid and memorable dreams occur during our deepest stage of sleep, known as the REM (rapid eye movement) stage. We also know that there are differences from person to person on how much we dream, or whether we even recall our dreams.
The frequency and content of our dreams can be influenced by factors such as what we have eaten on a given day, how much alcohol we have drunk and myriad other physiological factors (for example, nightmares can be a side effect of some medications).
We also know – most importantly – that our day to-day life situations have a significant impact on the content and intensity of our dreams.
Stressful and, in extreme cases, traumatic life situations are among the most significant psychosocial factors that affect our dreams. Studies that have examined dream content show that we tend to have and recall more negative dreams than positive ones, with the underlying theory being that there is an adaptive function to have threatening dreams. Namely, having nightmares can help us to simulate actual or perceived threatening situations in a safe environment, allowing us to be more psychologically and cognitively prepared for the threats when they come up in life.
Pay attention to what stresses you at work but also in your personal life. High levels of stress, as well as perceptions that we are in situations that are unpredictable and over which we have little control, can play a role.
Make a list of all the significant stressors in your life. Order these from most stressful to least. Then ask yourself the following questions: Do I have any control over this stressor? What specific action can I realistically take that may help alleviate my stress? Then make an action plan to reduce the stressors over which you have some control. Stress builds when we become passive and immobilized, and taking some action (even if it's not the "perfect" one) can help tremendously.
In addition, having a consistent pre-sleep ritual can help to reduce the intensity and frequency of your nightmares. First, minimize talking or thinking about stressful situations right before bed. Relaxation or meditation strategies can help to slow down both your mind and body. Have a warm bath or listen to soothing music to distract your mind. Avoid reading books or watching TV or movies with upsetting content.
If you are woken by a nightmare, get out of bed (staying there will help associate the nightmare with your bed). Do deep, diaphragmatic breathing for five to 10 minutes and then do something relaxing, such as having a warm glass of milk, before you get back into bed.
Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
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