How To “Come Down” From A Nightmare

photographed by Alexandra Gavillet; modeled by Leal Zielinska; produced by Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez.
I've dreamt about murders, pandemics, zombies, drowning, monsters, demons, curses, and getting hopelessly, irreversibly lost. They come and go, but when I do have nightmares, they are, technically speaking, hella scary. And, consistently, the worst part of any of them is the moment I wake up.
Even as I lay in my familiar bed next to my familiar boyfriend and hear all the familiar sounds from the street outside, I can't shake the feeling that what I dreamt was completely real. I've taken to referring to these moments as my nightmare "comedowns," in which I try to shake off my fear and return to the real world. Sometimes, a comedown takes me less than a minute — other times, as hard as I try, I can't snap out of playing (and replaying) the scary scenario that I just woke from.
Our dreams can be loaded with subconscious fears and anxieties, but the first few minutes after waking up aren't the time to stop and analyze their content. According to Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City, I'm right for trying to return to reality as quickly as possible after having a nightmare, but I'm probably not doing enough.
For one thing, he says, I should just get out of bed and do "anything that can ground you in reality," from just standing up to drinking a cold glass of water to actually opening the shades and looking at the world outside. And practicing some self-soothing techniques (like simply telling yourself that you're safe and okay, or reminding yourself that it was only a dream) along the way is often useful, too, Lundquist says.
He adds that I have permission to bug my boyfriend: "If you sleep with a partner, or have roommates who are cool, these are great times to ask for their help, even if it means waking them up. Because another person hasn't been in the dream, they're going to be able to help connect you with what's real." Apologies in advance, Denis.
Whatever technique you try out, your goal should be to shake off the nightmare and salvage your night of sleep. That said, it's likely that you'll remember at least bits and pieces of your nightmare the next day — and that's your chance to unpack it, if you wish. "I would never want anyone to extend a feeling of panic just for purposes of collecting data," Lundquist says. But, he adds that confronting and, more importantly, recording the contents of your nightmares in a dream journal once you're awake for the day is a great first step to managing them.
Of course, there are limits to these techniques. If you're having nightmares every night or having ones that make you fear falling back asleep and restarting the same scary dream, you face a "lose-lose" situation (nightmare-infused sleep or no sleep whatsoever). And that's no choice at all, Lundquist says. "If someone is consistently having nightmares that are super scary, something's going on to cause them," he says. "In most instances, there's some old trauma being sorted out." This is your psyche's way of telling you that something in your subconscious needs attention, Lundquist explains — and seeing a therapist will help you get on track to address it healthily.

More from Mind

R29 Original Series