I am a lifelong insomniac with mild narcolepsy. I do pretty well with the falling asleep part, but once I’m there it’s tough to remain. Because of that, when I do finally slip into deep sleep, my REM phase or dreaming phase can be intense. Cue mild narcolepsy. My brain has problems shifting the gears between asleep and awake. This means that sometimes my brain is still dreaming while my body is up and moving. The upshot of this is all manner of strange nighttime occurrences. My poor fiancé sometimes gets whacked, or shaken awake, or wakes up to me talking or laughing. If I have a nightmare, things are worse: I have gotten up and run across the room, jumped out of bed, pulled all the blankets off the bed and onto the floor…it’s a real mess. My sister has the same condition and has thrown an entire nightstand across a room.
Why don’t you want to share a cabin with me?
TL:DR? I have a lot of experience with sleep and nightmare management. Because the results of a nightmare are so alarming for me personally (waking up standing on the stairs is the worst, y’all), I do a lot to prevent them from even forming.
Let’s talk about the science first, then the magick.
The Science of Sleep, Dreams, and Nightmares
Nightmares generally occur during Rapid Eye Movement or REM phases of sleep, which means they happen late in your sleep cycle. Your body needs REM sleep and will try to catch up on it if it is in short supply. This means that if you are chronically sleep deprived, when your brain finally gets to REM sleep, it will do the REM equivalent of a sprint, resulting in more vivid dreams.
Our dreams are influenced by many things. Some medications can trigger nightmares, so the first piece of advice is always to check the side effects list on everything you take. The next thing to remember is that you take your brain and body with you when you sleep. If you are chronically sleep deprived due to an insane work schedule, bouts of insomnia, or poor sleep management, the likelihood is much higher for vivid dreams and nightmares. Remember, your brain needs REM sleep. If you keep it from entering REM, it will go all Kool Aid Man when it finally gets there.
Nightmare management means sleep management. The good news is that getting better sleep is an area we understand pretty well. You’re not going to like some of these suggestions, but they do work.
Set a regular sleep schedule. This means blocking out enough time for sleep. Regardless of what our consumption and productivity driven culture tells you, most adults really do need around 8 hours of sleep per night. When we sleep enough, our brains don’t feel the need to power chug the REM sleep cycle. Set a sleep schedule and enforce it with the fervor of a dragon guarding its hoard.
Just eat a lot of garlic and then breathe on whoever is bothering you
Improve your sleep environment. Light, noise and distractions have a negative impact on getting restful sleep. If you live in an area with ambient light (streetlights, for example), consider adding blackout curtains. If you live in a noisy area (I live within the city limits, so we get some traffic noise at times), consider adding a white noise generator or sleeping with earplugs. Also, our brains are associative. Try not to watch TV, read or otherwise pursue wakeful activities in bed. Your bed is for sex and sleep and that is all. Go sit in the living room if you want to read.
Cut down on stimulants and booze. I know, this one is tough. Reduce your caffeine and stimulant intake, particularly in the afternoon. I have a ‘hard stop’ at 1 pm. Also, know before you hit the vodka that you are increasing your risk of nightmares and poor sleep. Although you do get drowsy after drinking, the kind of sleep you experience is not the same as healthy, restful sleep. Alcohol suppresses REM sleep, which means that toward the end of the night when your body has finally finished processing out all those tasty Manhattans, your brain does the Kool Aid Man sprint. Same with stimulants like caffeine and nicotine. They interfere with falling asleep, staying asleep, and entering REM sleep.
Get some exercise, but not right before bed. I promise not to go full soapbox here, tempting though it might be. Human bodies are made to move. This culture of spending most of our time seated is actively fucking terrible for us in every measurable way. During your lunch break or early in the evening, get up and go for a walk. Play tag with the kids. If you have a motion sensing gaming console like a Wii, get it out and play something vigorous for half an hour. Raise your heart rate and let your body move. It will translate to better sleep later.
I mean, you do you.
Be careful what you feed your brain. You take your brain with you into sleep, remember? Although winding down before bed is a great idea, content matters. Some people are basically immune to side effects from the horror genre but many of us are not. Avoid stress raising content in the hours before bed. Stay off the news, save the thrilling or suspenseful shows and movies for during the day, and if your media feeds include people who make you crazy or post things that cause your stress or anxiety to go up, put the phone down. I personally like to work on crafts or read non-triggering content before bed (largely books on permaculture right now).
Stress and Anxiety
There is one massive contributing factor to sleep and nightmares that we haven’t talked about yet. It’s so important that it deserves its own section, especially right now. Stress and anxiety can contribute to insomnia and sleep disturbances and influence the content of dreams. It’s a terrible combination. Right now, even if you are one of the lucky ones whose income has not been affected by the pandemic, life is stressful. Humans are social creatures. We empathize with each other, mirror each other’s emotions and pick up on the feelings around us. It is not possible right now to be ‘fine.’ Which means we need to look at stress management.
Interestingly, a lot of the techniques for reducing stress are the same as the ones that promote sleep: ingesting fewer stimulants, getting more rest, reducing stressful input, and getting some exercise. To this we can also add:
Meditation. There are dozens of types of meditation, not all of which involve sitting quietly. Choose one, or a few, to try. Start with just five minutes daily. Add on when you’re ready to. Use an app like Headspace if you need some help here.
Mindfulness. Add a mindfulness-triggering hobby. Color, paint, sew, embroider, weave, spin, build or otherwise engage your body in an activity that allows you to quietly focus on creating. For me, it’s making malas. Choose that activity rather than screen time, particularly in the evenings.
Self-Care. Make a list of 5 to 10 self-care activities that take two to five minutes. Some examples from my own list are self-foot massage, mindful breathing/mini meditation, earthwalking in the yard, a sun salutation or two, random selection of a short reading from one of my meditation/journaling prompt books.
Then, make a list of 5 to 10 self-care activities that take 10 to 30 minutes. Some of my examples: hot bath with Epsom salts, shamanic journeying, restorative yoga pose sequence, walk in the park or on the C&O Canal trail (they are local to me, I’m lucky), put on music I love and dance around the living room.
Now you have a self-care menu. Choose one item from the two to five minute list to do every day. Choose one item from the 10 to 30 minute list to do once a week. Schedule them into your calendar on your phone and set reminders before each one.
Awareness. More than anything, understand that you are currently subject to greater levels of stress and anxiety. Focus on more ways to relax, unwind, and reduce stress. Sometimes just remembering that we are operating under an additional load can help us make better choices.
The Magick of Sleep
Now let’s get into the metaphysics. When we sleep, our minds are more vulnerable to outside influences. This is particularly true for those of us with enhanced empathic and psychic sensitivity. Nightmares that originate outside the self can be symptoms of contamination from the miasma (the collective unconsciousness of the humans around us), psychic attack, energetic overload, or spirit contact. Quite frankly, none of that is stuff you want invading your energy while you sleep. On a metaphysical level, controlling the space in which you sleep is the most effective way to reduce nightmares.
Hygiene. I know. You’re sick of me talking about spiritual hygiene. Guess what? I don’t care. Like the benevolent parent who feeds you vegetables because they’re good for you, I am here to put some hygiene on your plate.
Along with being more energetically and spiritually vulnerable in our sleep, we are also clumsier. Some of the careful ways we manage and regulate our own energy while conscious fall by the wayside. If we share our bed with a companion, we are also subject to their ‘shedding’ of energy. I think of bits of shed energy like dust. It accumulates on surfaces in a similar fashion. When there’s too much loose energy present, it can become a problem. When I am Space Clearing a house, most of what I deal with is built up stray energy. We need to be aware of this shedding when it comes to our beds.
When was the last time you changed your bed linens? I’m serious. Clean those bad boys and start changing your sheets more frequently. Set a designated day of the week for this if that helps. Look at your pillow as well. Is it time to wash it, or purchase a new one? Most physical-hygiene guidance is to change out your pillow a minimum of once per year and to wash it once per month (if possible – some pillows are not washable). If you can’t remember when you bought that pillow, or if it looks like it might have been used as a bandage during the Civil War, it’s time to get a new one. Remember, your pillow is where your head rests. A buildup of discordant energy right there is about the worst possible place to have that happen.
Salt. Salt neutralizes and grounds out energy. While you are changing your sheets, lift your mattress and sprinkle salt between the mattress and box spring. Think of it like setting a trap for stray energy. This is particularly useful for miasma-related sleep disruptions and accidental psychic attack. (Yes, that’s a thing. People do crazy shit in their sleep.)
Grid the room and bed. A crystal grid is a cooperative collection of stones working toward a shared goal and placed in a specific pattern. Gather up a few nice, heavy, grounding stones. I like to work with the Beings present in my environment first, so my own inclination would be to find those stones on my property. Anything dense and dark-colored will most likely be willing to help with grounding energy. If you do not have access to land, you can also purchase stones for this. Black tourmaline, hematite, obsidian and other dark, dense stones are wonderful for protection and grounding.
Charge your stones and imbue them with your intention, then place them in the corners of the room and underneath the bed.
Additionally, there are some stones and minerals associated with nightmare reduction. Citrine is one that I use personally. Many purple stones like amethyst and purple fluorite are associated with contentment and meditation. Pink stones like rose quartz and pink calcite radiate peace and friendship. Soft green stones like Jade are good for harmonious energy flow. Place your nightmare-reducing stones underneath the mattress or directly beneath the bed.
Remember to periodically cleanse and reset your stones. My preferred method for this is to gather them all up and place them out in the sun and directly on the earth for a day or two to release the gunk they’ve been absorbing. Then, I recharge and reset them.
Sigils. I became a Reiki master in 2003 and to this day I trace the Reiki healing symbols around my bed before I go to sleep, especially if I’m feeling more anxious than usual. The use of sigils and symbols to support peaceful sleep is highly effective. Simply imagine drawing the sigil(s) into the air around you or even directly onto the mattress or bed linens. My fiancé is well-versed in runes, so when he wards the room it is with a combination of protective and healing/peaceful runes. Sigils can be created by the practitioner or can be gathered from historical or contemporary sources. Laura Tempest Zakroff is one of the contemporary voices developing beautiful, effective sigils right now. Her book Sigil Witchery is a great place to start.
Get help. This is a wonderful area for spirit allies to assist with. If you work with a Spirit Court (a group of Guides/Spirits/Deities you interact with regularly), seeking a spirit to guard you while you sleep can be helpful. As with all spirit interactions, be sure to negotiate a fair and reasonable agreement for help. Some spirits are content with occasional offerings, some require more work in return. Be sure that what you agree to is amenable to you.
In my own experience, even if we can’t get rid of nightmares completely, we can greatly reduce their occurrence through a combination of mundane and metaphysical techniques. One of the best things you can do for your body is get peaceful, restful sleep. I hope this article offers you some new ways to do just that. Do you have a great nightmare-busting technique? Got a question about something I didn’t cover? Hit me up in the comments.
May your dreams be sweet.
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