Today’s PTSD symptom: Nightmares

I remember the terrifying nightmares I once had from trauma and PTSD. Sometimes they played an evil scene from my damaged childhood. Sometimes I ran for my life. Other times I was trying to save a little girl who turned out to be me. I moaned and groaned in my sleep,then startled awake, sweaty and scared and shouting gibberish.

The nightmares frightened me beyond words. They replayed in my mind like flashbacks. The anxiety they produced made me ill for a week. I dreaded going to bed. Do nightmares affect you like this? Or maybe your nightmares torture you in different ways. Either way, PTSD nightmares are almost impossible to escape. But if left untreated, these nightmares can really get in the way of healing.

These are just a few results of nasty nightmares:

  • They interrupt your sleep, making you more tired.
  • You may begin dreading sleep, so you stay up late and get even less sleep.
  • Nightmares immerse you in the world of trauma, where you are continually fearful, anxious, frightened, and vulnerable.

Scientists have some theories about PTSD nightmares:

  • Perhaps the trauma has changed your memory processing, and this shows up in nightmares.
  • Or maybe the damage from PTSD has made you more vulnerable to triggered memories that can come and go at will.
  • It’s important to address the vivid, terrifying PTSD nightmares because they can affect you emotionally and psychologically, dramatically decreasing your quality of life.

BUT–good news!–you can take action to contain nightmares

  • On your own: Develop a “containment plan” to put yourself back in the driver’s seat. I keep a list near my bed with actions that can help me calm down after a nightmare: Turn on a light, pray out loud, tell yourself (aloud, if that helps) that it was just a dream, and it’s over now. Read, pray, or meditate a while until you feel calm enough to go back to sleep. If you’re a bit shaky the next day, give yourself grace. You’ve gone through trauma again, and you’ve survived.
  • Ask a counselor or therapist if they recommend your trying “IRT” (Imagery Rehearsal Therapy)  In this therapy, while you’re awake you rewrite the nightmare so it no longer upsets you. Then you replay in your mind, many times a day, the new dream with the happy ending.
  • Ask your medical doctor to check you for breathing problems during sleep. Trauma survivors often have high levels of sleep-disordered breathing. If breathing improves at night, it can help eliminate violent, scary dreams.
  • Check with your psychiatrist about using the medicine prazosin. Once used as a blood pressure medication, it has now been found to help reduce nightmares.

If you experience trauma or PTSD nightmares, I empathize deeply with you because I know how debilitating they can be. Here’s some hope: You can take control of this high-anxiety PTSD symptom. I tried several strategies that didn’t work, but kept researching ways to get in control. Now I take prazosin, and very rarely have a nightmare.

I’d love to hear strategies you’ve tried and their results. In the meantime, hang on to HOPE and don’t let go.

Sydney Segen