If you’ve ever been jolted awake during a particularly awful nightmare, you know how jarring it can be. It would be one thing if the experience ended there, but for a lot of people—myself included—the feelings of fear, anxiety and/or depression brought on by a bad dream can be hard to shake. It’s a terrible way to begin the day, especially if you’re someone who regularly deals with anxiety.
Fortunately, there are ways to recover from a nightmare, so you can start your day off fresh. Lifehacker spoke with two psychiatrists to find out how.
Why we can feel depressed or anxious after a nightmare
Before we look into how to recover and start your day after a bad dream, let’s look at why nightmares have the power to do this to us in the first place. According to Dion Metzger, M.D., a psychiatrist based in Atlanta, a disturbing dream presents just like reality. “Similarly to how we would feel after a scary real-life experience, we can have the same reaction of anxiety, sadness or even anger following a bad dream,” she tells Lifehacker.
And that’s part of the reason why our brains have been wired to quickly forget our dreams, says psychiatrist Alex Dimitriu, M.D. “Otherwise, we would not be able to distinguish our waking from our dreaming lives,” Dimitriu, who is board-certified in both psychiatry and sleep medicine and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, tells Lifehacker. He says that dreams are “sort of the best VR simulator around,” which is also what makes nightmares especially scary.
In fact, it’s that “realness” of dreams that causes us to continue to experience feelings from the dream—whether that’s joy, sadness, fear or anxiety—upon waking. “There is some theory that we process emotions and feelings in dreams, and in some cases, if the emotions are too strong, we wake up, and never get to ‘process’ these thoughts,” Dimitriu explains. “This is believed to be the case with PTSD, and why people with PTSD continue to suffer and wake with disturbing nightmares by night, and flashbacks by day.”
What we can do to recover after a nightmare
The first step to dealing with the aftershocks of a nightmare is to acknowledge the anxiety and other negative feelings that bad dreams can cause, Metzger explains. She says that anxiety is a natural response and nothing to minimize or be ashamed of. “I’ve had patients admit that they’re embarrassed that they feel so upset about a dream,” Metzger notes. “It doesn’t matter if the cause is a dream or a real experience; our brain responds similarly.”
Next, try and process the content of the dream—something Dimitriu says is consistent with the treatment of PTSD—especially if it is a recurring theme or dream. “The goal in the morning is not to bury the feelings, but to confront them—to the journal, to discuss, and to give them some time and thought,” he explains. “My approach to therapy is the ‘bogey man model,’ which basically says [that] as long as you are afraid of the dark and keep running, you remain afraid of the dark, and, well, keep running. The goal of most therapy, and certainly in dealing with nightmares, is to confront the fear. Sometimes we need help doing this, which is where therapy becomes instrumental.”
The idea here is to actively process the dream, working through your thoughts and feelings about it. Just make sure to get up and start your day, instead of staying in bed and stewing.