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Reclaiming Peace: 7 Strategies to Cope with Disturbing Dreams

Cassy Schraft, MSEd, LPC, EMDR

Dreams can be a nightly journey into our inner thoughts and emotions, but not all dreams are pleasant.  Nightmares in particular can be deeply distressing, leaving us feeling anxious and shaken.  Coping with the aftermath of a nightmare can impact the quality of our sleep and our overall functioning the following day.  High levels of stress or past trauma can increase the likelihood of experiencing nightmares.  If you are someone who often struggles with calming yourself after a nightmare, here are six effective strategies to consider:

Deep Breathing

Commonly referred to as “military breathing,” this technique focuses on taking slow, deep breaths.  By consciously regulating your breathing, you can slow down your racing heart rate and soothe the emotional intensity of the experience.  A recommended approach is to inhale for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, and exhale for four counts.  Repeat this until you feel your distress levels diminish.

Embrace the Weighted Blanket

Calming your nervous system is crucial after a nightmare.  Nightmares activate the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response.  The gentle pressure of a weighted blanket mimics the therapeutic concept of deep pressure therapy and can help you calm your emotions effectively.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This technique focuses on intentionally tensing and then relaxing various muscle groups to release the tension that may have built up during a nightmare.  Start from your toes and work your way up to your head, holding each muscle group tense for five seconds before releasing.  Repeat as needed, paying special attention to areas that still hold tension.

Journal Your Thoughts

Keeping a journal can aid in processing your thoughts and emotions surrounding a nightmare.  It might help you identify patterns in recurring dreams and create a sense of separation from the distressing experience, reducing the emotional connection you feel towards it.


Mentally transport yourself to a place where you feel safe, calm, and at peace.  Immerse your senses in the details of this place, focusing on what you hear, feel, smell, and even taste.  If visualization is challenging, find a picture of a calming location and engage your senses in the same way.

Engage in Relaxing Activities

Participate in activities that promote relaxation, such as reading, taking a soothing bath, listening to calming music, or practicing yoga.  Conversely, avoid activities that stimulate your mind further, such as using electronic devices, listening to intense music, or engaging in vigorous activities, as they can exacerbate your nervous system’s activation.

Grounding Techniques

Grounding strategies help your stay in the present moment and reduce anxiety.  Common grounding techniques include the 5 Senses grounding method, describing the room around you, savoring something to eat or drink, holding an ice cube, and touching objects with various textures.  By concentrating your full attention on these grounding exercises, you divert your mental energy away from the nightmare.


Practicing these strategies when you are calm is crucial.  When you wake up in a panic, it can be challenging to remember these techniques, but rehearsing them can make them more accessible when you need them.


It is also important to recognize that coping strategies for nightmares are not one-size-fits-all solutions.  What works effectively for one person may not be as helpful for another.  The key is to experiment with these techniques to discover what resonates with you personally.


If chronic nightmares persist, it may be indicative of underlying mental health or medical concerns.  Seeking assistance from a licensed professional can help address the root causes, provide you with tailored strategies and support based on your unique needs and circumstances, and reduce the frequency of nightmares.