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Nightmares: How to Get Rid of Them

Klaus Bernhardt

by Klaus Bernhardt

Good news for all those who suffer from nightmares. There is a method with which nightly horror trips can be significantly reduced. This blog article from the Institute for Modern Psychotherapy in Berlin explains which method it is and what exactly is behind nightmares.

Fewer Nightmares Due to Less Sleep – Not a Good Idea!

Some people are so often haunted by nightmares that some would prefer not to sleep at all. Of course, it goes without saying that this is neither possible nor healthy. Nevertheless, some try to reduce their sleeping hours as much as possible, usually hoping that less sleep means fewer nightmares. Yet some are even encouraged in this desire because a low need for sleep is often highly regarded socially.

In our fast-paced society, people who need a lot of sleep are considered bores, party poopers, and low performers. After all, if you sleep, you haven’t experienced anything, work less, and are not competitive. The famous saying “The competition never sleeps” speaks volumes. But in politics, too, the phrase “I don’t need much sleep” is an alleged marker of success, power, and stamina. Whether Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, or Vladimir Putin, they all boast of getting by on just four hours of sleep. Apart from the fact that we don’t know how often and for how long politicians doze off exhausted in endless meetings, this statement is alarming for us all. After all, do we really want to be governed by drunks? This comparison is quite apt if you’re rubbing your eyes in wonder now. Because anyone who sleeps less than six hours a day for weeks and months is in a state as if they had a permanent level of one per mile of alcohol in their blood. Reaction speed, memory, and judgment are correspondingly impaired. This is different from the confidence-inspiring impression that our politicians make when it comes to decision-making ability.

We depend on sufficient sleep and not just for rest. Night’s rest strengthens bodily functions such as healing, immune defense, and memory. This is why we fall into a kind of sleep paralysis night after night and are actually helpless against our environment. Evolutionarily, this sleep paralysis is not a good survival tactic. But since all animals also need to sleep, we humans are in the best sleeping company with them and, with six to eight hours, lie between the Asian elephant (4 hours) and the domestic pig (8 hours), as Dr. Hans-Günter Weeß, head of the Sleep Center at the Pfalzklinikum explains. We would not survive a constant state of wakefulness at all. An experiment on rats showed that their metabolism and the immune system collapsed after 2 weeks without sleep.

In addition to strengthening essential bodily functions, a good night’s sleep is also an elementary prerequisite for our brain to function correctly. This is because it is highly active during sleep paralysis that overtakes us at night. It processes the learning experiences we have made during the day and even looks for any dangers. Perhaps you have experienced this activity yourself: you are finally on vacation! However, after the first night in a strange bed, you wake up as if exhausted. This behavior is nothing more than a remnant from prehistoric times. This is because American scientists discovered that the brain’s left hemisphere remains active during the night in an unfamiliar environment, constantly on guard against lurking danger. That’s why we wake up at the slightest external stimulus. However, the effect lasts only one night, thank God. Then our brain switches back to normal. But even in familiar surroundings, our brain works hard during sleep.

While we sleep…

… a small cleaning squad emerges, busily wielding a broom in all corners of our brain to sweep away superfluous and harmful substances from the intercellular spaces. Now the computer specialists step in. They are responsible for sorting and permanently storing information that the brain stores in the hippocampus during the waking hours of the day. Computer specialists are at their best when the hippocampus is in a holy night’s rest. They delete useless information and move important memory data from the hippocampus to the neocortex, a cerebrum area. Once this is done, a motley crew of creatives enters the scene. They not only imaginatively adapt archived sensory impressions to existing long-term memory content. They also take care of restructuring the neuronal network. Frequently frequented synaptic connections with emotionally solid content are beautifully decorated and stabilized. Less-used synaptic connections are decorated like a Christmas tree and disposed of to prevent overloading the entire network.

If you’re smiling now at this little comic strip, I’ll tell you that this is the latest research. If this idea makes you smile, I can tell you that this is the latest research.

Sleep is The Lifeblood of Our Memory Formation

Psychologist Jan Born has done numerous experiments to show how active and creative our brain is during sleep. The scientist concludes that memory formation cannot occur while awake. Because this would result in us suffering from hallucinations during the day. Our brain cannot distinguish between newly recorded information and that just being moved from the hippocampus to the neocortex. So sleeping makes us intelligent. However, sleep researchers also agree that the two different sleep phases lead to the further formation of brain memory. Deep sleep, in which the cortex sends out slow “delta waves,” alternates with REM sleep in a cycle of about 90 minutes. REM sleep processes skills about motor learned knowledge, such as riding a bike, swimming, or other athletic activities.

In contrast, deep sleep promotes memory for personal experiences and general facts and knowledge. This would explain why we learn much faster and more efficiently as children than in adulthood. This is because the proportion of deep sleep decreases significantly after age 40.

By the way, you can promote deep sleep by avoiding late meals and especially alcohol. A so-called weighted blanket not only helps you fall asleep but also promotes deep sleep. A blanket weighing 18 pounds gives the subconscious a pleasant feeling of security. On the other hand, those who lie awake more often at night do not have only disadvantages. Because of thereby, memories of unpleasant experiences fade with time more and more. 

So there is a deeper psychological meaning even to nights spent awake, as long as insomnia does not become permanent. According to Jan Born, this effect could be clinically relevant, for example, in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it will undoubtedly be several years before this is the case, as comprehensive long-term studies must first be carried out. But what role do nightmares play in this context? Do they also have an essential function, and if so, what is it?

Sufficient sleep, deep sleep, sleep disorders, problems and insomnia at night. Sad tired woman in blanket sleeping on bed inside bedroom, dark, panorama, empty space

Dreams are Lies, But Then Why Do We Need Them?

You may know the saying: dreams are lies. But then, what is dreaming good for? The fact is: many sleep researchers disagree about the meaning of dreaming. What is certain is that everyone dreams, even if they can’t remember it the following day. One theory is that in dreams, new information is mixed with old and stored as a creative solution. However, there has yet to be proof of this theory. However, study participants report that new experiences are mixed with old experiences in their dreams, and they have a strong emotional connection to each other in the dream.

Another theory uses an evolutionary biological explanation: In dreams, we are prepared for situations we need to survive. Dreaming is the training of survival strategies. And that would explain why we dream much more intensively in childhood than adulthood. Michael Schredl, a sleep researcher at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, explains the connections. In adults, who sleep about 8 hours, REM sleep takes about 2 hours per night. In newborns, REM sleep is proportionately 70% and then decreases to about 3 hours by age eight. Thus, young children’s sleep tends to be dominated by REM sleep. REM (rapid eye movements) sleep is named for the rapid eye movements that occur during this stage of sleep. The brain is most active during this time, and intense sensory dreaming is more pronounced in REM sleep than deep sleep. Pulse and blood pressure increase, and our emotional center in the brain is even more active than when we are awake. However, our muscles are paralyzed during this phase. Otherwise, we would sleepwalk. Because of the high proportion of REM sleep in infancy, Schredl suggests that young children are prepared in their dreams to deal with a wide variety of situations, including fearful situations.

Therefore, some scientists believe that nightmares are the tip of the dream iceberg. Suppose one experiences dangerous situations during the day. In that case, one processes the lived experiences during sleep and learns to deal with impending dangers better. But this explanation is only a theory because persistent stress can also lead to nightmares. People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, are particularly often affected by nightmares. Specific themes appear regularly in their nightmares. In this case, it can be that the affected persons reach their processing limits due to the terrible experience. There is no question of a learning effect in dealing with imminent dangers.

As you can see, researchers do not entirely agree about the meaning and cause of dreams and nightmares. And some people suddenly get into a continuous loop of nightmares and cannot find a reason for them.

Nightmares – So That The Nightly Horror Does Not Become a Continuous Negative Trip

One of my patients was always haunted by the same nightmare: she woke up at night because she sensed the presence of a strange person in the entrance area of her apartment. She panicked and tried to turn on the bedside lamp, but the light didn’t come on. So she ran to the light switch in the living room. That also failed. Everything was in darkness, and the person, a jet-black shadow, was approaching menacingly. My patient wanted to scream for help, but all she could get out was a croak. Just before the sinister shadow could attack her, she awoke in a cold sweat. When this nightmare recurred several times a week, my patient decided to have an additional door lock installed. Since she didn’t have a predisposition to nightmares, she thought a safe feeling in her subconscious might chase away the anxiety dreams when she went to sleep. But that didn’t help either. Finally, she sat with us in the office because the threatening dream image of the shadow person prevented her from falling asleep and left her with post-traumatic stress during the day.

I was able to reassure my patient at first; the dream image of a threat is one of the most common scenarios in a nightmare and did not necessarily have to do with the lack of security at her apartment door. According to the German Society for Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine, the most common themes in nightmares are:

  • persecution (50 %)
  • threatening (20 %)
  • injury or death of close persons (20 %)
  • own death (15 %)
  • falling into the bottomless pit (10 %)

Not only fear but also great disgust, sadness, shame, or anger can lead to startling and waking up. Nightmares often occur in the second half of the night, and those affected can remember the anxiety dreams well. In contrast, the nightly startling from deep sleep occurs in the night’s first half. Affected persons cannot remember the dream while awake. In dream research, this traumatic awakening from the sleep phase is called Pavor nocturnus.

On the other hand, my patient could have written down her dream horror scenario in all details in a dream diary. Still, I would have strongly advised her not to do so. This is because when you deal with the dream horror pictorially, the fear of the fear can deepen. New negative structures are unconsciously formed in the brain, which even encourage the occurrence of nightmares.

However, there is a very effective method to prevent that and permanently free yourself from nightmares. However, let’s first look at what strategies are recommended against nightmares. Because not all tips and tricks are equally suitable for sufferers.

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy: Giving Nightmares a Positive End – Not Everyone’s Thing

When we have mostly forgotten the night’s dreams in the morning, nightmares remain heavy in our minds and haunt us throughout the day. Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) takes advantage of this negative characteristic of anxiety dreams. Imagery Rehearsal Therapy accompanies a psychotherapist as part of cognitive behavioral therapy. IRT aims to put a positive spin on the anxiety-provoking dream story. However, this is not easy for every affected person. Because when you wake up, you have to deal with the nightmare again regarding content. My patient would probably not have given her consent to this therapy. But if you get involved in IRT, you can provide her negative dream story in a positive direction so that it has a good ending. The important thing is that the new dream variant should resemble the original dream in as many details as possible. If it helps, you can also write down the positive dream variant in a diary. It would help to imagine this “new” dream intensively at least once a day for the next few weeks. The first success are adjusting to this method after a few weeks, so sleep researcher Michael Schredl. The nightmare pressure slowly dissolves. But for sufferers with anxiety disorders, this method is not recommended.

Dealing with the stressful dream story again can lead to the consolidation of negative thought structures and promote further fears. The next method, lucid dreaming, is also not an all-purpose remedy against the dreaded night terrors and has some therapy disadvantages.

Young sleepless man in gray vest holds head on pillow while lying in bed in middle of night and can't fall asleep

Lucid Dreaming: Confronting Nightmares in Your Sleep – a Tricky Approach

You fly gently through the air in a paraglider. Suddenly a helicopter appears next to you, and your dog jumps out. The dog walks towards you on a cloud, joyfully wagging its tail. And suddenly, the scales fall from your eyes: you are dreaming. Because your dog has been dead for years. This spontaneous realization is called lucid dreaming and provides another way to combat nightmares. The trick here is that in such a lucid dream, not only are your senses working completely reliably and sharpened, but you, as the dreamer, can also change the content of the dream at will.

As a nightmare therapy, however, lucid dreaming has three major disadvantages. First, not every dream is a lucid one. So there are no guarantees that you will be able to identify your nightmare as such while you sleep. Second, the technique has no effect on the frequency of nightmares. So, you cannot permanently eliminate nightmares with the lucid dreaming technique. Third, lucid dreaming is unsuitable for anxiety patients. This is because anxious patients tend to be beside themselves and feel that their lives are sometimes unreal. As if they were sleepwalking. And the training of lucid dreaming goes exactly in this direction: Several times a day, you should ask yourself whether you are awake or dreaming.

Dangerous for anxiety patients. Because the constant preoccupation with one’s own negative emotional world would result in a deterioration of the state of mind. For training in lucid dreaming, you also need a lot of perseverance. This is because it can take months to ask yourself the crucial question in a dream, whether you are awake or dreaming – and then consciously experience the dream.

Fears and Worries: Remove The Breeding Ground for Nightmares

As you can see, the above strategies against sleep disorders caused by recurring nightmares are not always helpful or valuable. However, there is a gentle and safe way to enjoy your night’s rest again and escape from the fear of nightmares. First of all, it would be helpful to start your night’s rest without stress. Snuggle up in your bed and imagine how all your worries and fears fall away from you. It may help you to visualize images that make you feel good. Whether your evil thoughts sink like black stones in a calm lake or you float on a bright cloud, and your fears fall to the ground as raindrops – any positive image will help you fall asleep. You may also be able to relax your muscles and breathe calmly. However, it would be best to not put yourself under pressure to fall asleep because you are guaranteed to stay awake. People who sleep well do not try to fall asleep. They do it.

Since our brain is very active during the sleep phase and neuronal structures are constantly being rewired, we should go to bed with positive thoughts. And this is precisely where the Bernhardt Method comes in.

Klaus and Daniela Bernhardt

The Bernhardt Method: a Gentle and Safe Technique to Escape Nightmares and Even Get Rid of Anxiety disorders

Studies from sleep research show that a quiet night’s rest is essential for our brains. We learn better when we get enough sleep. In addition, our brain cleanses itself of excessive or harmful substances at night, strengthening our memory performance. But also, the neuronal plasticity, the connections of the nerve cells among each other, are constantly changed and updated. And at this point, you can escape from nightmares permanently with a safe method. How does it work?

Simply put, use the healing power of your thoughts with the help of the Bernhardt method. This was initially developed for the quick and drug-free treatment of anxiety disorders. However, as it has turned out over time, it is also ideally suited to remove the neuronal breeding ground in the brain for nightmares. You can learn precisely how this works in a video I have linked for you HERE.

Suppose you steer your thoughts positively through targeted mental training. In that case, you control the neuroplasticity of your brain. During the day, they build up new neuronal structures filled with positive feelings. And it is precisely these positive thoughts that are solidified during the night, leaving no room for nightmares to develop. What sounds complicated is actually simple and based on the latest neuroscientific findings.

By the way, my patient, who was haunted by the jet-black shadow in her nightmares, could sleep through the night again and enjoy her sleep after a few weeks thanks to the Bernhardt Method. For her, working with the method even had another pleasant side effect. She suddenly received many compliments on her radiant and pleasing appearance. In the process, my patient realized how much she had subconsciously struggled with nighttime nightmares during the day. But when she was finally able to successfully put this behind her, it also had a lasting effect on her radiance and everyday life.