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Managing Nightmares

After a traumatic event such as sexual abuse or assault, it is common for survivors to have vivid nightmares re-living or relating to their trauma.

Dreams are our mind’s way of subconsciously expressing certain worries, fears, and stressors that we have been feeling. After a traumatic event such as sexual abuse or assault, it is common for survivors to have vivid nightmares re-living or relating to their trauma. This is a telltale sign of PTSD. While many people are aware that a dream is simply their imagination, nightmares have the ability to feel similar to real life. It can trick us into thinking that “this event is really happening” even if it’s only our mind playing a trick on us. This can leave survivors to wake up in a panic, disrupt their quality of sleep, and create more issues for their well being. The more these terrors occur, the more it can make sleeping a stressful event, fearing you’ll re-live painful memories every night. Many people feel as though they have little control over their minds when they enter the dream-like state. However, this is far from the truth and there are ways you can manage and prevent these  dreams. 

First let’s understand how you can manage your nightmares when you wake up from them:

  1. When you wake up from a nightmare, you want something that can bring you back to reality and calm you down. Think of it like watching a horror movie. Many people feel the need to watch something lighthearted after viewing something scary, as this helps lessen the fear. The same goes for your nightmares. Watching or reading something that is lighthearted can help relieve feelings of terror and anxiety. So, keep your favourite novel by your bedside, or have a comedy cued up on your cellular device or computer. You don’t have to watch or read the whole thing, simply do this until you feel ready to fall back asleep.
  2. If possible, seek comfort from a family member, roommate, or romantic partner. I know you may not want to bother them, but if comfortable this can really relieve any upsetting feelings.
  3. Being in a dark room when waking up from a nightmare can be scary and is absolutely nothing to feel ashamed of. You need to change the scenery, and show your senses that you are now in reality. In order to do this, grab a cold glass of water, walk around your house, turn some lights on, open a window, get some fresh air, splash cold or warm water on your face, or listen to calming music. Anything that you feel can help bring you out of a state of panic is worth trying.
  4. Positive self-talk is another excellent way to self-soothe. This can include telling yourself that it was only a dream, that you are safe, protected and loved. You can even try hugging yourself which actually has a proven effect to lessen anxiety and increase feelings of relaxation. For more information on self hugging check out this article on healthline.

Here are some ways to prevent nightmares

  1. Avoid watching violent or disturbing shows that can subconsciously remind you of your trauma. This can also include graphic novels with upsetting content. Immerse yourself in television and novels that are lighthearted.
  2. Social media can show you things that may be triggering, or remind you of painful memories. If you feel that since having certain apps, your dreams and thoughts have worsened, try disconnecting from these platforms.
  3. Daily exercise such as yoga, a brisk walk, or jogging can be beneficial. Exercise can actually help you have better sleeps, and release chemicals that lessen stress, and increase happiness. Avoid exercising right before bed though, as this can make you energized and restless.
  4. Try to express any distressing thoughts or feelings. When you bottle things up, they tend to show themselves in unpleasant ways (i.e nightmares). If you don’t have a person you can confide in, try journaling, or calling a helpline that ensures anonymity. Here’s a link to one:
  5. Cutting out caffeine, drugs and alcohol can drastically help prevent nightmares. For example, alcohol has the ability to interfere with your REM sleep which is when you experience your most vivid dreams. If REM is disrupted by alcohol, it can in turn cause nightmares.
  6. If the darkness is a trigger for bad dreams, try keeping a light on in the hallway, washroom or use a night light in your room.
  7. Establish a calming night time routine. This can include drawing, colouring, reading, writing, meditating or watching a relaxing television show.

What to do if your nightmares persist every night: 

It’s important to remember that frequent nightmares are a result of trauma or prolonged stress. If you don’t have an outlet where you can express upsetting feelings, your mind tries to deal with these emotions in other ways. It would be beneficial for you to track these dreams and speak with a therapist who can not only professionally get your sleep back on track, but also become a trusted outlet.

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