It’s 10 o’clock at night and you’re preparing for bed, yet you’re feeling a little anxious about it. For the past of couple nights you have woken up covered in sweat, your heart racing, and in an incredible amount of fear. When you wake up in the morning, after finally getting a couple of uninterrupted hours of sleep, you feel exhausted. You’re anxious about sleep now, worried that the nightmares will come, reminding you of your past traumas.
Nightmares are a common problem for survivors of trauma. They may come in the form of memories of your past abuse, have people from your past who have harmed you in them, or they are generally terrifying encounters with a specific theme that relates to your emotional experiences of feeling trapped, abducted, tortured, or harmed in some way. Nightmares come in all forms and their ability to cause disruptions in your sleep and life are very real.
Nightmares In Children Who Have Experienced Trauma
In children nightmares usually take the form of a thing, like a spider, monster, etc rather than being specifically memory based. They often wake up and do not recall the details of their dreams, but they’re terrifying for them all the same. Just like with adults who have nightmares there is often a running theme in these nightmares. The themes as often related to emotional experiences or how the trauma made a person feel. For example for one survivor of sexual abuse would have nightmares that she was trapped in a coffin and was running out of air. When she was abused, the abuser was a heavy male whose body felt like it was crushing hers leaving her feeling out of breath, like she would die of suffocation. The theme in the nightmare is related to her past abuse. The inability to breath, fearing death by suffocation.
Nightmares and Stress
Something that surprises many people who have nightmares, especially if they go long periods without having them or haven’t had any since childhood, is that when their stress levels rise the frequency of nightmares increases also. Even if something good is happening, like getting married, preparing for a baby, or a promotion at work, there is often an added stress related anxiety about your new responsibilities. The stress plays upon your fears and causes anxiety. Remember that anxiety increases arousal levels and can often trigger trauma reactions (fight-flight-freeze responses) which in turn may lead to more nightmares.
Even without the added stress levels, nightmares may creep up at any point in time and can disrupt your sleep. There are many factors that contribute to an increase in the frequency of your nightmares. Whether they are something you’ve been dealing with since childhood or they are a new phenomenon these 5 tips below will help eliminate them.
5 Steps You Can Take Today To Eliminate Nightmares
Nightmares have the potential to cause major disruptions in your life which is why it’s important to nip them in the bud as soon as possible. The 5 steps below should all be used to increase effectiveness and because they all target different functions.
- Avoid substances such as alcohol, drugs (yes this even includes marijuana), and caffeine. One of the major methods for coping with difficult feelings or experiences (such as nightmares) is avoidance. Avoidance is another way of expressing the desire to escape something unpleasant and the use of substances is one way people use to numb out and escape. The problem with this method is that you’re only delaying the inevitable. The feelings that you’re trying to get rid of or the memories you’re trying to erase with substance use, is on a ban-aid solution. Once the substances effects where off, you’re still left with those feelings and they often come back stronger. I included caffeine here because caffeine acts as a stimulant and can make you feel jumpy and on edge. If you’re using caffeine to try to avoid going to bed your increasing stress on your body and thus increasing the likelihood that you will have nightmares. If you’re struggling with substance use, yes even marijuana, take the necessary steps to start eliminating them from your life so you can find better ways of coping with life stressors.
- Manage your stress levels. Stress is a normal part of our daily lives and can build resilience. The problem isn’t stress itself but how one handles stress as well as how much your taking on all at once that causes problems. When you are finding that you have a lot going on it’s going to be even more important to recruit help from your support network and to find ways to unload some of the tasks that you have on your to-do list.
- Make your bedroom feel like a safe and calming environment. This one is pretty self explanatory but for many survivors they often feel unsafe all the time. This feeling of unsafely raises your alarm bells and leads to trauma reactions. By making your room feel like a safe and relaxing environment, especially if when you were a child your bedroom was the main place the abuse happened, then you are better able to calm down when triggered. By using positive self talk and reminding your brain that your in your adult bedroom where you are safe, then your rewiring your brain in a way that associates your bedroom with a safe place rather than with the old memory of your bedroom being an unsafe space. You can add some of your favorite colors, things that make you feel happy and calm, eliminate work from your room, adding fun lights, etc. Anything that makes your room calm and safe.
- Journal your thoughts before bed. Journaling has so many wonderful benefits. One of which is to let out the anxious or fearful energy. Releasing them from your head and putting them down on paper helps alleviate some of your anxieties. Furthermore, by writing out your thoughts, especially after you have a nightmare, you are better able to pick up on different themes that occur. Once you know th themes you can better target how to address them before bed to decrease the likelihood that you will have a nightmare.
- Incorporate self regulation/relaxation techniques before bed. This can include yoga, a light exercise such as a short walk, or meditation. You can also add things like weighted blankets or even heating pads if you like the sensation of being warm. By incorporating a nighttime regime that includes relaxation you are calming your body before bed and again training your body to feel safe falling asleep.
Nightmares can be incredibly distressing and impact your functioning because of the way they mess up your sleep cycle. These 5 steps above are designed to help combat your nightmares but they may take some time to implement. If your needing immediate relief you can also talk to a trained medical doctor about medication management tools that you can use as well.
Are you tired of being tired, from lack of good quality sleep? Do you want to be free from nightmares and flashbacks? Schedule your first session today.
These are just a few strategies and steps and recommendations! I hope you found this post helpful! I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!
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Until we connect again,