How to Have Happier Dreams and Get a Good Night's Sleep

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Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

sweet dreams

Illustrations by Caroline So

Illustrations by Caroline So

Did you spend last night being chased by zombies or taking an exam you never studied for? “The majority of our dreams involve negative emotions,” says Antonio Zadra, PhD, a sleep and dream researcher at the University of Montreal. However, by understanding what causes disturbing dreams, you can take steps to reduce their frequency and up your chances of waking up with a smile. We bring you the bedtime basics so you can turn your dream for a more peaceful night into a reality.

Related: 4 Solutions to Teen Sleep Problems

Here are 8 hacks for happier dreams. Trust us, you'll want to use these strategies tonight.

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Skip the Late-Evening Glass of Wine

sweet dreams

Illustration by Caroline So

Illustration by Caroline So

Hack 1: Try dream incubation
Invite a dream of your choosing by “obsessing about” the desired subject during the day, suggests Lauri Loewenberg, a dream analyst and author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life. Perhaps you would love a visit with the beloved grandmother you cherished as a child. That day, keep Grandma’s picture nearby, talk about her with your sister, wear an heirloom scarf of hers. Right before you drift off, tell yourself, “I want to dream about Grandma tonight,” and play out in your head the way you’d like the dream to go. “There are no guarantees,” says Loewenberg, “but you might find yourself having a wonderful reunion.”

Also see: How to Get Back to Sleep After a Nightmare

Hack 2: Prompt your senses 
German researchers found that sleepers exposed to the scent of roses reported sweeter dreams. Spritz your pillow with a scent you find pleasurable, such as lavender, suggests Zadra. “You might not dream you are walking in a garden,” he says. “But your emotional response to the scent may positively influence your dream.”

Hack 3: Skip the late evening glass of wine
One of the most common causes of disrupted dreams is booze too close to bedtime. “At first, alcohol acts as a sedative, putting you to sleep,” explains Rubin Naiman, PhD, a sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. “But as your body metabolizes it over the next several hours, REM is suppressed.” You may wake abruptly while a giant lobster is ringing your doorbell. 

Hack 4: Ditch daytime anxiety
“When a patient says she’s suddenly troubled by bad dreams, the first thing I ask is what’s going on in her waking life,” says Christopher Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution. It’s easier to avoid facing issues by distracting yourself with an overflowing to-do list or another round of Angry Birds. Unresolved, these concerns pop up in dreams. Cope with stress by exercising, talking it out with someone or practicing mindfulness. A 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation improved sleep quality.

Hack 5: Cultivate bedtime Zen
“Whatever you think about right before bed can be incorporated into your dreams,” says clinical sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD, author of The Power of When. Set the stage for a peaceful transition to dreamland. “Don’t get into a heated discussion with your spouse about the family budget while you’re lying in bed,” he says. Nor is this the time to catch up on American Horror Story. Instead, Breus often suggests patients write in a gratitude journal before drifting off. List five things you’re grateful for and describe them in detail—those warm feelings might carry over to your dreams.

Why do we dream?
Scientists are still debating. One leading theory is that dreams act as a sort of mental housekeeping: They help us process the important and often the more troubling experiences and emotions of our day. “Generally you don’t dream about your trip to the store to buy milk. You dream about the big deadline or the fight you had with your spouse,” says Winter. Significant happy events are processed too. Pregnant women have particularly vivid dreams about babies. “It seems clear that whatever preoccupies us during the day finds its way into our dreams at night,” concludes Zadra.

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Rewrite Bad Dreams

sweet dreams

Photo courtesy of Caroline So

Photo courtesy of Caroline So

Hack 6: Make your bedroom a haven
Our sleeping brains weave physical discomforts and external annoyances into our dream plot lines. (That beeping garbage truck outside your window can turn up as a sinister robot.) So get comfy: Keep your bedroom cool—between 60 and 67 degrees. Also make your room as dark as possible. “Even light from electronics can trickle across your eyelids, disturbing your dream quality,” says Naiman. Use white noise (like a fan) to drown out sounds.

Hack 7: Avoid REM rebound 
Your body craves REM, so if you don’t get enough one night, you make up for it the next. “It’s a phenomenon called REM rebound,” explains Naiman. And it can cause intense and disturbing dreams. (Cue your teeth falling out...again). Aim for 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye each night. If possible (hey, we can dream), go to bed early enough so you rise naturally before your alarm to avoid being awakened mid-dream. 

Hack 8: Rewrite bad dreams 
To treat patients troubled by recurring nightmares, sleep doctors use a technique called image rehearsal therapy. Once you wake up, write down your recurring dream in as much detail as you remember. Now rewrite the scary part with a different, happier ending. Perhaps instead of falling from a jagged cliff and crashing into the rocks below you sprout wings and soar joyfully above a glittering ocean. Reread your new script often during the day and before bed. “It may take a few weeks,” says Breus, “but it really does work.” 

What happens when we dream?
Most dreaming occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep—so named because our eyes dart back and forth watching those midnight movies that our sleeping brains unspool. During REM, the prefrontal cortex (the logical center of the brain) powers down, while the amygdala (the emotional part) ramps up. The result: Waking rules don’t apply and our visions are surreal and symbolic. Your boss might appear as a barking dog. Your childhood home becomes a circus tent. As the night goes on, we spend more of our sleeping time in REM, notes Winter. Dreams get longer and more complex. (That’s why a saved-by-the-alarm-clock dream can be a doozy.)