It’s a common experience to be in the midst of a vivid, perhaps frightening, dream and suddenly find yourself startled awake. What’s going on there? Dreams may be one of the less-understood aspects of sleep—and the human experience, in general—but there’s no denying that they can wake us up from time to time. Here’s what sleep researchers have to say about the stimulating nature of dreams and how to help train your body so you can stay asleep through them.
Can dreams actually wake us up, or does it just feel that way?
Part of the reason we’re likely to wake up during a dream is due to the nature of REM sleep, the sleep stage in which most dreams occur. In REM sleep, our brain activity is near waking levels, but our body remains “asleep” or paralyzed so we don’t act out our dreams while lying in bed. Since our brain is so active during this stage, it can sometimes scare us into waking up, essentially.
As Girardin Jean-Louis, Ph.D., professor of population health and psychiatry at NYU, explains, “Some dreams with vivid content can wake you up temporarily. This could be the case when one is being chased or is experiencing the sensation of flying or falling off a platform.”
This does not mean that external influences like bedroom noise can’t also wake you up while you happen to be dreaming, but as it would seem, some dreams also do have a way of shaking us into consciousness.
What it means if you keep waking up in the middle of the night.
“If you find yourself waking up during a scary dream or maybe nightmare, one reason for this may be the temperature in your bedroom,” notes sleep researcher and co-author of Sleep for Success!, Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D. “We see experimentally that individuals sleeping in warmer rooms (70°F or higher) are more prone to worrisome dreams and fitful sleep.”
According to her, anything from too much water before bed to too much blue light and even elevated stress, can also disrupt your ability to sleep through the night and cause you to wake up in the middle of a REM cycle. Not to mention, Jean-Louis adds, the older we get, the more likely we’ll need to get up to use the bathroom during the night. And for those with sleep apnea, breathing pauses while sleeping cause one to wake up in order to resume breathing.
What to do about it.
There is no one strategy for making dreams less vivid, although Jean-Louis says some people can train themselves to control their dream state through lucid dreaming. But improving your bedtime routine is one surefire way to cut down your likelihood of waking up in the middle of the night.
“Limit water intake close to bedtime, and avoid blue light, choosing instead a relaxing bedtime routine,” Robbins recommends. “Keep your bedroom cool, and find ways to deal with negative stressors, such as news or exposing yourself to stressful discussions or images close to bedtime.”
Taking a relaxing supplement like magnesium might help too. When taken right before bedtime, magnesium—a natural muscle relaxant—can help the body calm down.* In one clinical trial, the supplement helped patients manage their insomnia symptoms and stay asleep longer across the board.* It also shows promise in easing the stress that keeps so many people tossing and turning.*
In the case of sleep apnea or trouble breathing during the night, however, Jean-Louis says it’s important to skip the lifestyle tweaks and seek medical care immediately. If pain from an injury is what’s keeping you up in the middle of the night, you also may want to see a doctor.
Sleep is a crucial aspect of overall health and well-being, and with a few helpful considerations, we can all rest easy—and hopefully, through the night.
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