verified by Psychology Today verified by Psychology Today Directory Theravive Counselor


Insomnia & Nightmares

Most adults have experienced transient insomnia or difficulty sleeping at some point in their lives.  Insomnia can be caused by a number of things, such as a change in sleep environment (e.g., moving to a new home or visiting someone else’s home, traveling, etc.), stressful life changes (e.g., beginning a new job, getting a divorce, etc.), or possibly from depression or some other psychological issue.  

Often when people are experiencing insomnia due to the above reasons, they report having either accompanying distressful thoughts (i.e., “All I do is lay there and think –I can’t shut my brain off!”) or disturbing dreams. 

Sometimes the pattern of the sleep difficulty can be helpful in determining the underlying cause.  For example, people who report having initial insomnia (difficulty achieving sleep) also tend to report that they are suffering from anxiety.  Early morning awakening (terminal insomnia) is usually associated with depression.  And, middle of the night awakenings (middle insomnia) is often reported by people who suffer from chronic pain. 

What Can I Do About Insomnia & Nightmares?

There are some immediate things that can be done to restore sleep. Paying attention to your daytime routine and your sleep hygiene is the first step. What you do during your day and just before bedtime as well as your sleep environment can affect your sleep.

Here are some tips to aide in better sleep:

1. Get some exercise every day (even if just for 10 minutes).

2. Do not take a nap during the day.

3. Reducing alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine intake.

4. Ensure that your bed is comfortable (clean sheets, comfortable pillow, etc.)

5. Do not use your bed for anything other than sleeping or sexual activity.

6. Make sure that your room is dark and quiet at bedtime.

7. Go to bed at the same time every night and awaken at the same time every morning.

8. Refrain from eating before going to bed. 

9. Do not try to fall asleep by watching television.

10. Talk about what is bothering you.

When the Cause of Insomnia is Emotional or Psychological: Can I Analyze My Own Dreams?

The process of dream analysis to reduce conflict is complex (and happens more thoroughly in therapy), but to get yourself started in the right direction, you can begin to tap into your dreams with some practice.

Your dreams contain rich and meaningful information about your deepest wishes and fears.  Your dreams can be either unfulfilled wishes and desires or fears and anxieties.  In some instances your dreams may actually be a process of attempting to master past trauma (recurrent nightmares). 

The purpose of a dream is to keep you asleep!  When you lay down at night to go to sleep, your mind will begin to process unresolved issues (from the here and now and from the past).  When these issues become strong enough to wake us, our minds begin the process of dreaming.  Dreaming is one way that our mind attempts to both process and think about the troubling material while also keeping it hidden from us so that we remain asleep.  The dream fails to accomplish its purpose when the troubling material becomes too stong to hide –thus we awaken –often with disturbing emotions.

Your mind will automatically begin to erase your dreams upon awakening in order to keep the meaning of your dreams out of your awareness. Though you try to recall the details (images, thoughts, and feelings) to them they slip through your fingers like grains of sand.

To increase your ability to retain your dream details, upon awakening, do not get out of bed or move at all! Do not try to get “cognitive” with them by igniting your logical mind and “thinking” into them –though you may think that this will help you retain the information it will ironically do the opposite –push the dream material back down into the dream world.

Upon awakening, simply let yourself become a quiet and casual observer of the dream. Allow yourself to listen and watch without any intrusion or judgment –put your energy into suspending these critical thinking aspects and become more aligned with your fluid mind. This will help to reduce your psyche’s natural tendency to squash the dream.

If the cause of the insomnia and nightmares is due to current life stress or unresolved issues or trauma from the past, psychotherapy can usually assist in ameliorating the sleep disturbance. Often times when people begin psychotherapy, they report experiencing some type of insomnia and/or nightmares.

Psychotherapy for insomnia and nightmares may include:

  • Identifying current life circumstances that are causing anxiety that may be  interfering with sleep.  Assistance with formulating a plan to modify life circumstances that are causing anxiety.
  • Discussion of experiences of past or present emotional traumas that continue to disturb sleep.
  • Probing nature of disturbing dreams and their relationships to current and past life events
  • Assistance in assessing the exact nature of sleep pattern, including bedtime routine, activity level while awake, nutritional habits, napping practice, actual sleep time, rhythm of time for being awake versus sleeping, and so on.

If it appears that you are suffering from a formal sleep disorder that would require additional medical assistance (e.g., sleep apnea, narcolepsy, etc.) a referral will be provided.