Having the Same Bad Dream Over and Over: How to Stop Recurring Nightmares

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If you’re having the same bad dream over and over, know that there are effective ways to stop recurring nightmares.

Nightmares and bad dreams are a normal part of life. In a given year, the average person is likely to have about 10 nightmares, which involve an element of terror and prompt sudden awakening, and about 30 bad dreams, which focus on negative or stressful themes but don’t cause an immediate disturbance in sleep.

The mere presence of nightmares and bad dreams, even frequent or recurring ones, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem. Indeed, many find effective ways to cope with nightmares or come to view them in a benign way.  

READ RELATED: Stretch Your Coping Muscles! Take the Coping Flexibility Quiz and Find Out How Flexible You Are

When Nightmares Become a Problem

But nightmares can sometimes creep into our daily life, fueling feelings of anxiety or depression. They can also exacerbate other sleep disturbances, like insomnia, when sleep is avoided or delayed to prevent the occurence of more nightmares.      

If nightmares are disturbing you during the day or keeping you up at night, then it might be worth talking with a therapist about it.

Treatment for Nightmares

Both medication and talk therapy have been found to be effective treatments for chronic, disturbing nightmares. Most non-pharmacological therapies for nightmares, such as Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), draw upon one’s own natural ability to reimagine dreams and re-write their ending.

Dr. Barry Krakow, one of the developers of IRT, reasons that “imagery is often the last conscious activity just before sleep onset; ergo, imagery during the day may be a bridge to imagery at night (dreams).”

Is It Okay to Rewrite a Nightmare?

Though approaches like IRT have been shown to be successful at reducing the frequency of nightmares and the distress associated with them, the concept of ‘rewriting’ dreams is not without its critics.

In a New York Times piece on IRT, for example, Dr. Jane White-Lewis, a psychologist and instructor at the Carl Jung Institute, raised concerns that by simply putting a happy ending on a nightmare “you lose an opportunity to really get some meaning out of it.”

READ RELATED: Pay Attention to Your Dreams: 5 Reasons Why Dreams Are Meaningful

Dr. Krakow acknowledges encountering similar concerns in his practice. And to these reluctant clients, he poses the question:‘‘Do these nightmares and disturbing dreams still provide any benefits, once they have lasted for so long?’’

Krakow argues that persistent and distressful nightmares can take on a life of their own and become habit. And just like any habit we can unlearn them using simple behavioral strategies.

Give Imagery Rehearsal a Try

If you’re bothered by recurring nightmares or bad dreams and would like to learn more about imagery-based approaches to curbing nightmares, sign up for a 100% free Lifespark Exclusive membership and get access to our exercise that’s grounded in the basic principles of IRT.    

TRY EXCLUSIVE EXERCISE: Using Your Imagination to Change Nightmare Images: The Basics of Imagery Rehearsal Therapy

And in the comments below, tell us about the nightmares that have kept you up at night and what you have done to cope with them.


Further Reading:
















Aurora, R. N., Zak, R. S., Auerbach, S. H., Casey, K. R., Chowdhuri, S., Karippot, A., … & Lamm, C. I. (2010). Best practice guide for the treatment of nightmare disorder in adults. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 6, 389-401.

Krakow, B., & Zadra, A. (2010). Imagery rehearsal therapy: Principles and practice. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 5, 289-298.

Levin, R., & Fireman, G. (2002). Nightmare prevalence, nightmare distress, and self-reported psychological disturbance. Sleep, 25, 205-212.

Zadra, A., & Donderi, D. C. (2000). Nightmares and bad dreams: Their prevalence and relationship to well-being. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 273-281.


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