Bad dreams — those scary, stressful, and unwelcome nighttime visitors — are something that everyone deals with from time to time, brought on by stress, anxiety, or a night of bad sleep. If you're dealing with them constantly though, it might be time to examine some of your sleep habits. One potential culprit: your sleep position, especially if you sleep on your back.
Nightmares function the same way as all other dreams, said Rafael Pelayo, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Center For Sleep Sciences and Medicine: that is, "we only remember the dream if we wake up during it. Anything that interrupts or fragments your sleep makes you more likely to be aware of your dreams and since dreams can be unpleasant, you're more likely to experience nightmares," he told POPSUGAR. What you have to figure out, he explained, is why you're having this fragmented, interrupted sleep when you're lying on your back.
According to Dr. Pelayo, it comes down to breathing. "The work of breathing is harder when you're on your back," he said. "Your tongue slides backwards and your breathing is more labored." It's a small obstruction, but breathing is already tougher when you're dreaming; you rely completely on your diaphragm, Dr. Pelayo explained, because the neck and rib muscles that usually aid with inhalation and exhalation "shut down." That difficulty, coupled with the blockage from your tongue, causes your body to shift from a deeper, dreaming sleep (known as REM or rapid eye movement) to a lighter sleep, in order to open up your throat a bit and increase air flow. In that moment of transition, Dr. Pelayo said, "you become aware of whatever the content of your dreams are," good or bad.
This isn't something everyone experiences when they sleep on their back. Dr. Pelayo explained that if you get nightmares in this position, you may have sleep apnea, a disorder in which your airway gets repeatedly blocked throughout the night, or heartburn, which also can also cause frequent waking. If you think you might have either condition, make an appointment with your doctor to get checked out. In the meantime, try sleeping on your side, which Dr. Pelayo said is typically recommended, and make sure to relax your mind before bed (yoga and meditation are great techniques) to reduce your chance of bad dreams.