What Do You Do When You Wake up from a Nightmare


There’s nothing worse than being jolted awake from a horrible dream. It doesn’t matter if it was about returning to high school in the nude or being chased down by a pack of wild boars; waking up in pitch blackness after something scary can have your heart racing in seconds. So what do you do when you come to from a nightmare? Well, it might help to start by considering what happens to the body and mind following a dream.

Shortly upon waking up, your body goes through a process called the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR). Cortisol is the hormone that’s associated with being wired, alert, and most infamously, stressed. It’s surging at above average levels when we wake up, usually increasing between 38 percent and 75 percent about 30 minutes after our eyes open.

That’s important context when we consider waking up after something traumatic. There’s even a little bit of research that suggests that CAR becomes elevated following a nightmare—one study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology followed 30 healthy participants that reported frequent nightmares. The results showed that their nightmares had a prolonged effect on CAR, with higher cortisol levels and debilitating issues throughout the day. We’re talking heightened stress, worse quality of sleep, and elevated rumination.

To make a long story short, your best bet following a nightmare is to do anything that helps you distract and destress…especially if you still have hours to go until daybreak. “Nightmares can be very unsettling and it can be difficult to fall back asleep,” says Rebecca Robbins, PhD, sleep expert and postdoctoral researcher at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “If you wake from a nightmare and have difficulty falling back asleep, get out of bed, do something soothing like a few yoga poses or find a place to sit, close your eyes, and try a breathing technique or relaxation exercise.”

Need some specific pointers? Here are a few self-soothing practices that work.

3 de-stressing activities for when you wake up from a nightmare

1. Try the 4-7-8 breathing technique

I’ve tested out the 4-7-8 method in the past, and it’s definitely a good breathwork pattern to keep in your back pocket. At best, it’s an instant tranquilizer that can make you conk out in seconds. At worst, it’s a slightly tricky pranayama breath that can get you to relax significantly.

To do it, put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth where your gums meet your upper front teeth. Exhale hard enough that you make a whooshing sound. Close your mouth and inhale through the nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through the mouth making the same “whoosh” noise for a count of eight. Repeat this cycle four times and you’re golden!

2. Embrace yoga poses for a deeper snooze

If you know how stress-relieving a vinyasa flow can be, then using yoga for better sleep makes perfect sense. After all, yoga is inherently calming for the body and mind, so it can be the ideal way to bring you down to Earth, whether you’re looking to start your day or hit the hay again. If it’s the latter, some important options to add to your flow are child’s pose, sphinx pose, pigeon pose, supported bridge pose, and supine twist.

3. Try a beditation (aka bedtime meditation) for better sleep

If you’re too worried to leave the covers for fear that monsters will get you (feel ya) then you can always do a meditation from the comfort of your own bed. This pre-sleep meditation led by Latham Thomas founder of MamaGlow takes less than 10 minutes, and can help you slow down those heart palpitations. Sweet dreams!



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