When Trauma Follows You into Your Nightmares

Asian man worry and sleepless all nightThey are frightening, disturbing, inconvenient, and happen when you are supposed to be rejuvenating your body and brain: the nightmares that follow a traumatic experience.

Nightmares are quite common among people who have experienced a traumatic event. The aftereffects of a nightmare often follow them into the next day, which can affect their emotional well-being and ability to function. Nightmares can be quite scary and negatively impact the amount of restful sleep a person is getting. They can feel like one is re-experiencing the traumatic event, and the thought of going to sleep can become anxiety-provoking. The less sleep a person gets, the more difficult it is for the brain to process a traumatic event and file it away correctly. Sometimes the symptoms that are present due to trauma are the very barriers that get in the way of a person’s ability to heal.

The Function of Dreams

According to Hartmann (1996), one theory regarding the function of dreaming is that it allows the brain to make connections more efficiently and effectively than the conscious mind. In other words, it is the time when the brain reviews information that has been observed and then sorts and organizes it in a way that makes sense.

Hartmann (1998) also states that dreaming is a way for the brain to work through trauma, and the dreams are often based on the main emotion the person experienced during the trauma or experiences when they recall the trauma. This is important to the healing process but, as discussed above, can be problematic when the person’s nightmares interfere with their sleep and their ability to function day-to-day. According to Leskin et al. (2002), people who had a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress had a significantly higher rate of sleep problems. They state that 96% of participants in their study who were diagnosed with PTSD experienced nightmares and 100% experienced insomnia.

So what can a person do to work through unwanted trauma nightmares?

  1. Keep track of your dreams and nightmares and discuss them with your therapist. Dreams can contain information that is significant in therapy work. I often encourage people in therapy to write down the basic themes of their dreams and nightmares so we can investigate their significance to the trauma treatment work we are doing. I often find that the information gathered from dreams is directly related to the themes that are increasing or continuing the disturbance related to trauma (for example, a sense of helplessness).
  2. Develop coping and self-soothing skills. Practice self-soothing and anxiety-reduction techniques before sleep and/or if you wake up from a nightmare. Continue self-soothing throughout the day as needed to deal with the aftereffects of a nightmare. Some of the tools people in therapy have found most useful include guided meditations, body scans, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness exercises. Another tool that many find particularly useful is called “container.” Essentially, the person experiencing the disturbance creates a container (real or imagined) wherein they can keep the things that bother them most (thoughts about the event, flashbacks, or even the nightmares or other disturbing material) until a time when he or she able to sort through the material with his or her therapist. When the disturbing material comes up, the person can allow whatever it is to go into container until therapy, where we can decide what should be addressed. Some containers that are common are safes, boxes, vaults, and jars. The container should have a lid or door of some type. A person can imagine this container in the form of a picture in the mind and imagine the disturbing material going into the container. Alternately, the person can have a physical container and write down the disturbing material on a piece of paper and then place it in the container.
  3. Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep. Often, when awakened from a nightmare, going back to sleep may be difficult. Also, the act of initially going to sleep may be anxiety-provoking for fear that the nightmares or other symptoms the person may be experiencing will return. If you are not able to go to sleep in a reasonable amount of time, get up and do something self-soothing. It may take time before sleep comes, but it is better to engage in self-soothing exercises than to get yourself worked up and more anxious because sleep won’t come.
  4. Make changes to your sleep environment to avoid associating anxiety with the place you sleep. When a person has repeated nightmares, the sleep environment may become a trigger for anxiety and other trauma symptoms. Making changes to the sleep environment, such as moving furniture around, getting new bedding, or changing the decor, may be helpful in starting with a clean slate when it comes to sleep.
  5. Remind yourself that your brain is trying to heal. Healing is not always a comfortable process and it takes time. As uncomfortable as nightmares are, your brain is giving you the information it needs you to work through. Nightmares can bring to light issues that you may have been unaware of during your awake time. Work with a therapist so you do not feel alone in this process. A therapist can normalize what you are going through and can help you to process your symptoms in a way that may make them less overwhelming.

References:

  1. Hartmann, E. (1996). Outline for a theory on the nature and functions of dreaming. Dreaming, 6(2), pp 147-170.
  2. Hartmann, E. (1998). Nightmare after trauma as a paradigm for all dreams: A new approach to the nature and functions of dreaming. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 61(3), pp223-238.
  3. Leskin, G.A., Woodward, S.H., Young, H.E., and Sheikh, J.I. (2002). Effects of comorbid diagnoses on sleep disturbance in PTSD. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 36(6), pp 449-452.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, therapist in Midvale, Utah

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    July 8th, 2014 at 7:14 AM

    Very useful article. I’d only add to the toolkit the following:

    The cessation of lifelong anxiety dreams and nightmares of my own is a chief reason I brought neurofeedback into my psychotherapy practice ten years ago. I’ve seen good results with my clients as well. The insight aspect is still present as the dreams tend to evolve. It’s extremely complementary with good psychotherapy.

  • Kay Bee

    June 9th, 2015 at 11:23 PM

    I haven’t dreamt since my Middle East bombing trauma in Oct 2000… Until/except for 3 nights of stressmares after the workplace shooting trauma of 2007. Any suggestions? Thank you for any insights u can share.

  • Talullah

    July 8th, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    your brain could be trying to heal but if these things keep you from sleeping at night then how are you actually supposed to heal?

  • shannon

    July 8th, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    Writing down what these dreams are and how they make you feel can be something really useful to bring up with your therapist so that the two of you can sort it all out together. What may not make sense to us in a dream may make perfect sense to you once you have a chance to talk it through with someone who is objective and who knows a little of your backstory. It can be very painful and frightening to have these experiences, but if you can write it down and then talk it out this may be a way of starting to banish those demons that taunt you at night. Just writing them down on paper can be a great way to help you get a clear picture of what is going on and how this could be related to any other pain that you could be feeling.

  • Sienna

    July 9th, 2014 at 4:15 AM

    It’s so frustrating though when you simply want to lay down and not think about anything and all of this follows you even into sleep.
    the things that go unresolved in the daytime are surely going to come back and mess with your head at night

  • Creed Camp

    July 10th, 2014 at 4:50 PM

    Reading always helps take the edge off for me. I can’t wnatch TV because that gets me a little too wound up, I guess it’s the light and all. But reading a good book even after I wake up in the middle of the night kind of helps me get settled back in and usually I can go right back to sleep.

  • Ty

    July 12th, 2014 at 7:45 AM

    I sometimes wish that the things that paralyze me with fear during the day would follow me in to the night just so I could get some things done during the daytime!
    Now granted mine does not stem from fear of trauma that I have encountered or experienced, but more just indecisiveness and things like that, whereas maybe if I could work through some of it at night it would help me have a little more clarity during the day.

  • David Lillie

    July 12th, 2014 at 12:35 PM

    There is lots of help for trauma now, see traumahealing.com to find a Somatic Experiencing practictioner near you. Also see Peter Levine’s new book, “In an unspoken voice.” I’ve been doing this work since 1998 and it realy does help.

  • mac

    July 14th, 2014 at 4:20 PM

    Yeah if I am having a terrible night’s sleep, I just go ahead and get up. No sense laying there on those nights when I know that sleep, good sleep, jusy ain’t going to come. Get up, do something pproductive for a while, and then I can hope that eventually I will be able to fall back asleep and get some rest. If not then at least I know that I should be able to rest the next night.

  • Tammy S

    August 26th, 2015 at 4:24 AM

    I cannot sleep I’m going through menopause and it is impossible I can sleep is so precious and I’m just can’t get enough

  • Allison

    December 19th, 2015 at 11:44 PM

    I have nightmare and flashbacks, day and night, about people (only men) who hanged themselves. My brother hanged himself on 10/09/2015. I was not allowed to see him until they took him down. I’m unable now to get this image out of my mind and I had this dream every night since then. Just before I wake up from this dream, one of the bodies slowly swings around and I see my brothers face and his eyes are closed. I’m afraid to sleep.

  • GoodTherapy Admin

    GoodTherapy Admin

    December 20th, 2015 at 12:11 PM

    Dear Allison,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Cynthia Hernandez

    February 20th, 2016 at 1:38 PM

    As a lifelong sufferer of nightmares, I became interested in the value of dream symbols early in life. They can be good teachers, but sometimes a person just needs relief and a peaceful night’s sleep, especially if a person doesn’t currently have a therapist or counselor with whom to process the dream/nightmare images. For those times, I can recommend a couple of strategies to ward of the nightmares. One is to view happiness-inducing images just prior to going to sleep. For me it’s cute baby animals, or birds, or other scenes in nature. I have Pinterest boards for this purpose. Another is guided imagery or meditation, with soothing sounds. I use an app for this. In both cases I have had good results and will have both restful sleep and pleasant dreams when I use these techniques. I do also have a therapist though, and I value learning from my subconscious, so I allow the natural feelings to surface when I can afford to. I just balance that with restful, peaceful sleep, for the sake of my mental and emotional health, as well as my physical well being.

  • Lynne N.

    April 16th, 2016 at 11:17 AM

    Do the Cranial Hold. Put one hand on the back of your neck and the other hand across your forehead. Breathe deeply and ask for a healing at the origin of whatever caused the disturbing images. This is an old chiropractor technique that promotes relaxation. Breathe and say, “I forgive myself and I deserve to heal this.”

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