Don’t Fear the Night: A Self-Compassion Approach to Insomnia and Nightmares.


 Don’t fear the night is probably a great title for a terrible 80s movie.  I love terrible 80s movies.  It is also a way to think about nightmares and how challenging sleep may be if you anticipate a nightmare tonight or if you have experienced a nightmare last night.  Lack of sleep is a pretty common problem amongst adults and children that has likely increased as our access to technology has increased.

When we experience sleep deprivation, the sleep we do get often lacks REM sleep, which is where vivid dreaming takes place.  This means that eventually our body will try to catch up on sleep, and when it does we may experience much more REM sleep.

So what is REM sleep and why does having more of it at one time matter?  REM stands for rapid eye movement.  It is the sleep in which the body is the most active as it responds to dreams in this state.  Of course, sometimes this connection is so strong that it leads to sleep walking.  As a child, I engaged in sleep walking at times, perhaps the most comical to us today (because I came out ok) was diving off the top bunk at sleepover camp because I dreamt I was diving in a pool.  Before you become disheartened for me, I feel it is only right to acknowledge that I was cared for by a super cute counselor named Robin.

A lot of REM sleep is important at one time because it can trigger nightmares.  In this case, a normal dose of REM sleep may involve some dramatic parts (or a processing of some unresolved questions or stressors over the course of the day).  Increased REM sleep may involve several dramatic parts (several unresolved questions or stressors during the day), which may result in overwhelm, and a potential anxiety dream or nightmare.   As for the ontent of your nightmares, Carl Jung famously noted that dreams were not literal just a combination of events or thoughts that were important to you.  So it is less likely that you want to marry your sister and live in a dog house, and more likely that you have not called your sister in a while, are considering proposing to your girlfriend, and are in the market for a house that could accommodate your dog.

Acknowledging the effects of REM build up over time is important because it helps us better understand how naturally we come by these nightmares (so there is less subjective judgment), what is really driving them, and it offers an opportunity to bring kindness to our experience before and after.  Without this knowledge, some people have struggled with whether nightmares are a moral dilemma: a punishment for not living well or a bad omen.  People have also struggled with feeling like they are somewhat alone in their experience of nightmares.

So it is important to note 3 things.  First, we come by nightmares naturally; often as a result of increased REM after multiple nights of poor or insufficient sleep.  Second, nightmares do not mean that you are being punished but may be an indicator that you may want to find opportunities for longer, more restful sleep or may benefit from reducing stress in your life.  Third, nightmares happen to pretty much everyone, so cut yourself some slack and bring some kindness to your experience.

From the perspective of self-compassion, if you notice that you are nervous about another night of nightmares, take a moment to acknowledge this fear and bring some kindness to your experience.  Perhaps by saying, “This is just fear that will arise and pass away, nightmares are just my body’s way of letting me know that I could benefit from more sleep or less stress.  Because my body is acknowledging suffering, may I be kind to myself.  Let me find an activity that just makes me feel good before bed.” 

Upon awakening from a nightmare, you might say, “This was a nightmare.  This is probably my body’s way of saying I need a little more sleep or less stress.  I, like lots of people, have nightmares sometimes.  May I be kind to myself.”   Then, in you can, take a little extra time to take really good care of yourself.  There is a reason people who are sick recover a little faster with warmth from a friend, parent, or partner. Love and understanding frees up our resources to feel better!

Don’t fear the night.  You are doing just fine.  A poor night’s sleep or apprehension about it is a fantastic reason to be kind to yourself!

365 Days of Kindness. Self Compassion.  Day 12.  In the Books.