Nightmares: An Experiment in Anxiety Management

Warning: This contains some nongraphic descriptions of violent/disturbing nightmares. 

I have a lot of nightmares. If the statistics at WebMD are correct, I fall into the 2-8% of the adult population that has nightmares more than once a month. I’d love to know the percentage of people who have nightmares more than once a week. I bet that would make me feel really special.

Lately, though, I’m getting fed up with the nightmares. I’m ready to get myself into the 90+ percent of people who don’t regularly dream about being chased and assaulted.

Locating the Source of the Problem

Recently I began to suspect that my nightmares were related to my Asperger’s. Since finding out that I’m an aspie, this has been my default explanation for anything out of the ordinary.

Some digging through the PubMed database failed to turn up any research strongly linking nightmares and autism. Autistic kids are known to have a very high incidence of sleep disorders (look for a separate post on this next week). Some studies reported that as many as 80% of children with ASD have some form of insomnia. But nightmares haven’t been strongly linked to autism in children and, not surprisingly, there were no studies on sleep disorders in autistic adults.

My next stop was Google. If Asperger’s wasn’t to blame, I needed to find a likely suspect, and where better to hunt for clues than the internet, right?

Visits to WebMD and the International Association for the Study of Dreams turned up good background information about adult nightmares. I scanned through the common causes: medication or withdrawal from medication/alcohol, late-night snacking (because it increases metabolism), a traumatic event, PTSD, anxiety, stress, depression.

Aha! There it was. Anxiety. Asperger’s was to blame after all.

Sort of.

Connecting the Dots

Since I’ve been paying closer attention, I’ve noticed that my nightmares fall into two categories: violent or rage-filled.

The violent nightmares are closer to what most people think of when they think nightmare: being chased, being attacked, being seriously injured. The threatening person (or people) is always a stranger. The dreams used to end in me being seriously injured or nearly dying. A few years ago they shifted. Now the violent dreams almost always end with me seriously injuring or killing the attacker(s). If this sounds like an improvement, trust me, it’s not.

The rage-filled nightmares are characterized by me getting extremely angry with someone I know and blowing up at them. I’m not the kind of person who screams and rages at people in my waking life, so doing it in a dream is strange and disturbing. The rage feels uncontrollable and far more extreme than anything I’ve ever experienced in a sustained way while awake. It feels like I’ve snapped.

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Over time, I’ve noticed a pattern in when I have nightmares. I can go weeks without a bad dream and then I’ll have a string of nights filled with long vivid nightmares.

The trigger for each of the types is specific, too. The violent nightmares usually follow a day where I’ve had a frustrating social encounter with a stranger or acquaintance–something that’s left me feeling tongue-tied, inadequate or embarrassed. The rage-filled nightmares usually follow an unpleasant interaction with someone I know. Often that person will be the target of the rage in the dream.

Armed with this analysis, I went off in search of remedies.

A Possible Solution

One of the most common suggestions I found for reducing nightmares was journaling. I’ve tried journaling in the past, unsuccessfully, because part of my brain spends the whole time going “why are we writing this if no one is going to read it?” But the underlying principle of using journaling to process my anxiety makes sense.

My hypothesis about my nightmares: When a trigger event occurs, I’m not processing the feelings associated with it. The lack of processing in my conscious mind is forcing my subconscious to process the feelings, resulting in the unpleasant dreams.

So here is my Aspergarian solution: a spreadsheet. I’m going to track suspected trigger events and nightmares–along with a couple of other variables, like hormonal fluctuations–to see if there’s any relationship between the two.

Ideally, I’d also like to recognize triggering events and try to conscious process the feelings associated with them, no matter how unpleasant that might be. Avoiding them obviously isn’t working. Maybe making a deliberate attempt to look at the triggering situation, acknowledge what I’m feeling and then tell myself that it’s okay to feel that way will diffuse the power of the triggering events and lessen the frequency of the nightmares.

I’ll be back in a few months with a post about how this works.

25 thoughts on “Nightmares: An Experiment in Anxiety Management”

  1. Huh. I’ve always had lot of nightmares. In fact, I would say that is my default dream – the nightmare. I rarely have happy dreams and I, too, am usually being chased, or exploding in rage. I never even thought about whether they are triggered by anything; they’ve always been a part of my life. But since becoming an adult I did think of them as a product of my anxiety. I am also very interested in how this turns out!

    1. It seems like many of us are plagued by nightmares. Until recently I didn’t put much thought into what might be triggering them either. I don’t have a lot of hope for getting rid of them, but I guess it’s worth a shot.

  2. Please do let us know!
    I have nightmares as often as you, but their not like yours, I normally get to watch everyone I love die or my dog eat my newborn baby or something else equally pleasant.

    1. Oh, that’s sounds awful. The violent dreams I have usually feature me as the target or violence against some random stranger. I think I would find someone I love getting killed even more traumatizing that being the victim myself. You have my sympathies!

  3. It will be interesting to know what you find out. I am plagued with reoccuring bad dreams. Always the same themes – I am lost, I can’t find my way, I am late and I can’t seem to find the right room, I can’t get out of what ever building I am in. Then there are the reoccuring nightmares. I won’t go into detail, but they cause depression when ever they occur and I end up having trouble getting my mind to function well the next day.

    I think you are on to something when you wrote about unprocessed feelings and anxiety. I have always been confused with my emotions. I have so much trouble putting words to them. I know that I have a delayed reaction to emotional stimuli. After watching Vectors of Autism, a documentary about Laura Nagle, I have come to realize that I may even feel emotions differently. Laura Nagle explained that there might not even be words to describe the type of emotions that autistics feel. No wonder I have so much trouble explaining how I feel. Due to my delayed emotional response and the confusion of what that emotional response is suppose to mean, and my inability to figure out consciously what is going on in my head, I can see how I would get stuck in a feedback loop. My subconscious mind would try to process what my conscious mind could not. The result are the reoccuring bad dreams and nightmares.

    Good luck with your experiment!

    1. Yes, the bad dreams you mention are the type that I have almost daily. Getting lost, being in the wrong place, being late, being blind, not being able to speak, dialing the wrong phone number over and over. And I know what you mean about the nightmares being depressing. I only class something as a nightmare if I wake up shaken by it and it ruins my day because I can’t get rid of the terrible feelings it brings up.

      I think you’re really on to something about the nightmares being related to not having the words to describe our emotions and/or a delayed emotional response. I often feel like I’d like to process something but just can’t access it within the frame of the day that it occurs. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I found them really helpful.

  4. I, too, have a tremendous number of nightmares. I used to believe everyone did, but then my husband would tell me about his wonderful dreams and I started to ask others. Evidently having horrible dreams about people trying to hurt me/kill me is NOT as usual as I once believed!
    I am eager to hear how your experiment goes!

  5. Thanks for taking up this topic!

    It is a big surprise that only 2-8% of the adult population has nightmares more than once a month… I thought most people did. Once a month isn’t much.

    Nightmares is a problem for me too. Like with you there is a periodical pattern with strings of nightmare-nights, usually accompanied by days where I feel shaken, anxious and oversensitive to everything that happens. – and then weeks without any nightmares.

    I discussed my nightmares with my psychologist a while ago, and he suggested that they may be caused by sensory overload, when there isn’t enough recovery time to process all inputs before going to sleep. He asked me whether there were certain days on the week nightmares were more likely to happen, and I realised that nights before Mondays are most night-mare prone.

    Sunday is the day we go to Church and interact with all the people there, it is a long day where we wake up early, and I sing in the band which can be quite noisy and interactive. Saturday is my most intensive workday where I go out and interview people, and in the evening we have music practice. I always feel exhausted and very stressed late Sunday. So I think sensory overload is a possible trigger, although I am not only having nightmares on Mondays. I suppose there can be multiple triggers at work, alone or at once.

    Your hypothesis about your trigger events sounds very likely because the themes of your dreams sounds like they relate to the stressful events. The theory about the subconscious mind having to process the stress overnight sounds similar to my psychologist’s suggestion, only with social stress rather than sensory stress.

    Good idea with the spread sheet! I may do something like that too next time I get into a bad nightmare-period.

    1. I was very surprised by the statistic too. I hadn’t considered sensory overload directly, but often sensory overload contributes to social overload for me so there could definitely be a link. I’m going to add “day of the week” as a variable to my spreadsheet. 🙂

      1. I am almost looking forward to my next nightmare, so I can make a spreadsheet. ALMOST:-)

        If you find some important key variables then you could make your spreadsheet available to others as a template.

  6. Interesting. I don’t have Asperger’s nor do I have Autism. However it seems that my stressful first 7 years of family life gave me almost continuous nightmares where I was being attacked by Vampires….Sometimes they were even mocking images of them and they were more funny than scary. But now I rarely dream or have a nightmare. Yet when I’ve had a busy day then things related to it pop-up: Fallout 3, Team Fortress 2 Trailer, Being Human, people I did a lot with that day had all merged into one nightmare.

    1. Trauma is definitely a recognized source of nightmares. As a kid I had one particularly awful recurring nightmare so often that I eventually started realizing within the dream that I was dreaming. It’s cool/scary the way our brains scramble up the events of our day and present them as one congruent pseudo-reality. Yours sound particularly interesting!

  7. Hi! I had a thought as I was reading this… maybe charting and doing an analysis of your nightmares may help not only because you might discover a trigger, but you are now taking action, and as a consequence, in a way, controlling the occurrences rather than them happening to you. They are still happening to you, yes, but now not in such a passive way. You are now watching them, rather than them watching you. Does that make sense??? Like I said, it was just a thought. I sure hope your study works and you can get a good night’s sleep!

    1. I think you’re onto something with this idea. Being mindful is very powerful. I’ve been practicing being mindful about triggers in general and I’m finding that it’s making shutdowns less frequent and less debilitating. I can’t prevent them entirely, but something about recognizing and acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room takes some of the power away from it. The good news is that I had the triggery feeling yesterday, but didn’t have a nightmare. That was a nice surprise to wake up to. 🙂

  8. I just found your blog a few days ago, and I’ve been binge-reading from the beginning. So far, I love it!
    I just had to comment on this, because I tend to have recurring themes in my dreams and nightmares. The worst ones are getting attacked by a strange man, or getting caught in a tsunami. That second theme was intensified after watching the director’s cut of “The Abyss”, and after that big tsunami a few years ago I couldn’t watch the news for weeks.
    Anyway, I learned to figure out within the dream when the nightmare is coming, and I wake myself up before it gets bad. Does that make sense? I learned that every time there was a body of water in my dream, eventually the water would start raising, so now when I dream of the ocean, or a lake, I just tell myself in the dream to wake up.
    I know that doing that doesn’t address the root of the issue, but I have a lot less nightmares and that works for me. If you give it a try, let me know if it works for you.

    1. Since writing this, my nightmares have pretty much stopped. I think I figured out what was causing them and addressed it. These days I might have one a month or less, which feels more “normal”. It’s so cool that you’ve figured out how to stop your dreams before they turn into nightmares!

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog and you took the time to de-lurk and comment. 🙂

  9. One year when I was having a really bad time (physical and verbal abuse almost daily, threatened to be killed almost weekly, wonderful time), I dreamed I was killed every night. Violent, gory, and some were in ways so abnormal I woke myself up by trying to figure out how it’d be anatomically possible in the first place. Then one day (night?) I reached a breaking point, turned into a monster myself, and killed the enemy hordes, and it was AWESOME. After that, they were just simply bad dreams. I got bored with dying and had a very nonchalant reaction to those dreams in time. I started winning in the fights more often (almost always now). Now all of them are just as mundane as those dreams when I get to have a really big, tasty dinner. Although it’s hard to track them to direct triggers, they usually lay dormant and simmer days or months after the event they’re related to. (Gory movies are definitely a trigger.) I’m out of the bad situation I was in that lead to the year of nightmares, so now I just have occasional bad dreams. I sleep well, although that can’t be said for my husband, I am a very active dreamer! Headbutted him out of bed one night defending myself from an attacker. I guess what worked for me in the end was to embrace them, accept them, and then have some fun with them. Now to protect the hubby…

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