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6 Tips For Better Sleep and Fewer Nightmares With Mental Illness

Today sucks. I’m not only beyond sleepy, but completely and utterly bewildered. I feel heavy, if that makes any sense. I’m wiped-out, burned-out, bleary, lethargic and just-plain zonked. This is what happens when nightmares invade my mind and body.

I’ve been suffering from “do-nothing days” ever since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2008. Today is a do-nothing day. And the culprit is vivid dreams.

I think the aftermath of intense nightmares is worse than having the flu. I may not be vomiting, but my body aches and I feel so incredibly hypnotic. I’m not jet-lag tired; this is an affliction that decimates brain and body.

Sleep is supposed to be restorative. But so many of us with bipolar or other mental illnesses have sleep disturbances. There’s insomnia — the inability to fall asleep in a timely manner. And there’s narcolepsy – sleeping too much, which often happens in depressed phases.

Here are six ways to ensure sound sleep and avoid terrible dreams:

1. Go to bed nightly at the same time and awaken at the same time each morning.

Your body has a clock. When you’ve been awake for too long, circadian rhythms kick in and tell your body to go to bed. Cues like darkness also play a role. Staying in step with those circadian rhythms improves sleep. When sleep-wake cycles are off, you’re more likely to have nightmares.

2. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon.

We know you love that extra cup of coffee and boost of energy in the afternoon. But according to the National Sleep Foundation, it takes six hours for one half of a caffeinated drink to make its way through your system. If you go to bed at 10 pm, don’t drink coffee or caffeinated soda past 10 am. Caffeine can also directly cause nightmares.

3. To ensure a good night’s sleep, don’t drink alcohol, smoke or do recreational drugs. 

These vices can render you hyperactive and agitated. Their effects can be prolonged, eating into your would-be healthy sleep.

4. Drink herbal tea and listen to music.

Turn off the lights and don’t look at your phone or TV before bed. Instead, drink a nice chamomile or jasmine, light a candle and fill your brain with quiet music in the dark. I like mellow classic jazz like Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and Herbie Hancock‘s “Maiden Voyage” to name a couple albums. And then there are old standbys like Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Music can be calming and it can definitely soften your mood. I do this frequently and it works for a better night’s sleep.

5. Keep a sleep diary.

When did you go to bed? When did you wake up? How was your sleep? Any nightmares or vivid dreams? If you keep a diary, you might be able to pinpoint your sleep disturbances and consult a doctor on how to remedy them.

6. Exercise: It does a body good.

Have a workout routine in the daytime, but not right before bed. Morning is ideal.

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), consult your doctor. People who live with PTSD can have some of the worst nightmares. Work out your negative thoughts and fears with a therapist.

What are your nightmares like?

My nightmares can be both whimsical and terrifying simultaneously. In one I remember, I was attacked by a giant lemon meringue pie. Its gooey core enshrouded my entire body as if I’d been clobbered by Slimer from “Ghostbusters.” As hard as I tried, I couldn’t move. It doesn’t sound all that scary, but it did the job of jolting me from my slumber, my heart beating like a hummingbird.

Last night’s nightmare involved me yelling at a loved one. I was shocked and awakened at 5:30 am and I couldn’t sleep any more. I ended up taking three naps today because I felt awful. In my “do-nothing” days, I do exactly that, nothing. In fact, I’m actually writing this story based on how I felt yesterday.

And as we head into the holidays, please keep in mind the tips above and you will be more likely to have wonderful, restful sleep.

“Most people think nightmares are just about fear, but they can really be any really negative emotion,” dream expert Leslie Ellis told CBS News. “For a lot of people, it’s a really bad dream or really bad emotions, and they wake you up and they’re very vivid and easy to recall.” While they help us sort out our emotions and anxieties, dreams of any kind scare me.

“None of us like having nightmares, but they’re actually very healthy to have, because you’re acknowledging something you’re afraid of, and you’re letting out and expressing it,” Eli Roth, host of “History of Horror” on AMC tells CBS. “I just take my nightmares a step further, and then I write it down and I film it and I project it onto everybody else!” See, a sleep diary can indeed be helpful.

Halloween may be over and the holiday season is nigh, but frightful nightmares can be alive and well any time of year. Sometimes they strike randomly, but with the above steps, you can be golden.

We’d like to hear from you. Recount one of your worst nightmares in the comments below. And don’t forget to share your own sleep tips.

Getty image by nadia_bormotova