Nightmares May Continue After a Trauma

Reviewed Feb 28, 2017

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Summary

  • Normal response to trauma
  • Rethink nightmare content upon wakening
  • Practice good sleep habits

Although sleep medicine is an evolving field and many conflicting theories exist of why we dream, you don’t need a PhD to know when you’ve had a nightmare. It’s unrealistic and even unwise to hope for dreamless sleep. You need the dream phase of sleep, or REM, for optimum health of the mind and body. But why the bad dreams?

Those who go through a trauma can have disturbed sleep, whether with insomnia or distressing dreams. Pamela Swales, PhD, who writes for the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, maintains that “sleep disturbance may be understood as a normal response to past trauma or anticipated threat.”

Nightmares may be a predictable symptom for you if you were traumatized in some way, but you are not helpless. Try some of the following suggestions from Dr. Swales and other experts on sleep disorders.

Take control of your dreams

Perhaps you’ve experienced lucid dreaming. While dreaming, not only are you aware that you are in a dream, but you also change the scene as the dream unfolds. If nightmares haunt you after some horrible circumstance, try these tips:

  • As you fall asleep, repeat in your mind, “I will take charge of my dreams tonight.”
  • If you awake from a nightmare, immediately rethink it in your imagination, but change the ending to one that does not distress you.
  • Earlier in the day, write down an improved, uplifting version of a recent nightmare and read the new “script” or rehearse it in your imagination close to bedtime.
  • Accept that nightmares are normal when trauma raises your anxiety level.

Improve these three things

Even if you accept that nightmares make sense after what you went through, you can take steps to improve your biology, your psychology, and your sleep habits. Improving these three aspects of your life might help your dream content.

Your biology

  • Exercise regularly to help decrease stress hormones. (Avoid exercising too close to bedtime though.)
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other recreational drugs; they may interfere with sleep.
  • Practice progressive relaxation at bedtime.

Your psychology

  • Release your worries about what you suffered by writing them in a journal, talking to a counselor, or submitting them to a “higher power” in prayer.
  • Try thought blocking. When distressing thoughts related to the trauma come up throughout the day, order those thoughts to “STOP!”, then distract yourself with a good book, hobby, or even a household chore.

Your sleep habits

  • Try to get regular hours of sleep: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Avoid associating your bed with anything other than sleep or sex. If a nightmare leaves you restless in bed, get up and try to relax in another room.

Tell your doctor

An occasional sleepless night or nightmare is normal, especially after facing trauma. If, however, you continue to suffer from nightmares and other sleep disturbances, please tell your doctor. Your trouble sleeping may result from other physical or psychological events that require medical attention.

Whether your sleep problems are intermittent or chronic, try not to add anxiety about sleep disruption to the situation. According to Deborah Smith, who writes for the American Psychological Association’s magazine Monitor on Psychology, negative beliefs and thoughts about sleep can exacerbate sleep disorders. Look beyond this distressing time in your life and anticipate restored peace and sweet dreams.

Resource

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine
www.aasmnet.org 

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Dream Therapy by Sarah O. Richards; Sleep and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by Pamela Swales, PhD; www.ptsd.va.gov; “Sleep Psychologists in Demand” by Deborah Smith. Monitor on Psychology. October 2001, Vol. 32, No. 9.

Summary

  • Normal response to trauma
  • Rethink nightmare content upon wakening
  • Practice good sleep habits

Although sleep medicine is an evolving field and many conflicting theories exist of why we dream, you don’t need a PhD to know when you’ve had a nightmare. It’s unrealistic and even unwise to hope for dreamless sleep. You need the dream phase of sleep, or REM, for optimum health of the mind and body. But why the bad dreams?

Those who go through a trauma can have disturbed sleep, whether with insomnia or distressing dreams. Pamela Swales, PhD, who writes for the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, maintains that “sleep disturbance may be understood as a normal response to past trauma or anticipated threat.”

Nightmares may be a predictable symptom for you if you were traumatized in some way, but you are not helpless. Try some of the following suggestions from Dr. Swales and other experts on sleep disorders.

Take control of your dreams

Perhaps you’ve experienced lucid dreaming. While dreaming, not only are you aware that you are in a dream, but you also change the scene as the dream unfolds. If nightmares haunt you after some horrible circumstance, try these tips:

  • As you fall asleep, repeat in your mind, “I will take charge of my dreams tonight.”
  • If you awake from a nightmare, immediately rethink it in your imagination, but change the ending to one that does not distress you.
  • Earlier in the day, write down an improved, uplifting version of a recent nightmare and read the new “script” or rehearse it in your imagination close to bedtime.
  • Accept that nightmares are normal when trauma raises your anxiety level.

Improve these three things

Even if you accept that nightmares make sense after what you went through, you can take steps to improve your biology, your psychology, and your sleep habits. Improving these three aspects of your life might help your dream content.

Your biology

  • Exercise regularly to help decrease stress hormones. (Avoid exercising too close to bedtime though.)
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other recreational drugs; they may interfere with sleep.
  • Practice progressive relaxation at bedtime.

Your psychology

  • Release your worries about what you suffered by writing them in a journal, talking to a counselor, or submitting them to a “higher power” in prayer.
  • Try thought blocking. When distressing thoughts related to the trauma come up throughout the day, order those thoughts to “STOP!”, then distract yourself with a good book, hobby, or even a household chore.

Your sleep habits

  • Try to get regular hours of sleep: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Avoid associating your bed with anything other than sleep or sex. If a nightmare leaves you restless in bed, get up and try to relax in another room.

Tell your doctor

An occasional sleepless night or nightmare is normal, especially after facing trauma. If, however, you continue to suffer from nightmares and other sleep disturbances, please tell your doctor. Your trouble sleeping may result from other physical or psychological events that require medical attention.

Whether your sleep problems are intermittent or chronic, try not to add anxiety about sleep disruption to the situation. According to Deborah Smith, who writes for the American Psychological Association’s magazine Monitor on Psychology, negative beliefs and thoughts about sleep can exacerbate sleep disorders. Look beyond this distressing time in your life and anticipate restored peace and sweet dreams.

Resource

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine
www.aasmnet.org 

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Dream Therapy by Sarah O. Richards; Sleep and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by Pamela Swales, PhD; www.ptsd.va.gov; “Sleep Psychologists in Demand” by Deborah Smith. Monitor on Psychology. October 2001, Vol. 32, No. 9.

Summary

  • Normal response to trauma
  • Rethink nightmare content upon wakening
  • Practice good sleep habits

Although sleep medicine is an evolving field and many conflicting theories exist of why we dream, you don’t need a PhD to know when you’ve had a nightmare. It’s unrealistic and even unwise to hope for dreamless sleep. You need the dream phase of sleep, or REM, for optimum health of the mind and body. But why the bad dreams?

Those who go through a trauma can have disturbed sleep, whether with insomnia or distressing dreams. Pamela Swales, PhD, who writes for the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, maintains that “sleep disturbance may be understood as a normal response to past trauma or anticipated threat.”

Nightmares may be a predictable symptom for you if you were traumatized in some way, but you are not helpless. Try some of the following suggestions from Dr. Swales and other experts on sleep disorders.

Take control of your dreams

Perhaps you’ve experienced lucid dreaming. While dreaming, not only are you aware that you are in a dream, but you also change the scene as the dream unfolds. If nightmares haunt you after some horrible circumstance, try these tips:

  • As you fall asleep, repeat in your mind, “I will take charge of my dreams tonight.”
  • If you awake from a nightmare, immediately rethink it in your imagination, but change the ending to one that does not distress you.
  • Earlier in the day, write down an improved, uplifting version of a recent nightmare and read the new “script” or rehearse it in your imagination close to bedtime.
  • Accept that nightmares are normal when trauma raises your anxiety level.

Improve these three things

Even if you accept that nightmares make sense after what you went through, you can take steps to improve your biology, your psychology, and your sleep habits. Improving these three aspects of your life might help your dream content.

Your biology

  • Exercise regularly to help decrease stress hormones. (Avoid exercising too close to bedtime though.)
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other recreational drugs; they may interfere with sleep.
  • Practice progressive relaxation at bedtime.

Your psychology

  • Release your worries about what you suffered by writing them in a journal, talking to a counselor, or submitting them to a “higher power” in prayer.
  • Try thought blocking. When distressing thoughts related to the trauma come up throughout the day, order those thoughts to “STOP!”, then distract yourself with a good book, hobby, or even a household chore.

Your sleep habits

  • Try to get regular hours of sleep: Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Avoid associating your bed with anything other than sleep or sex. If a nightmare leaves you restless in bed, get up and try to relax in another room.

Tell your doctor

An occasional sleepless night or nightmare is normal, especially after facing trauma. If, however, you continue to suffer from nightmares and other sleep disturbances, please tell your doctor. Your trouble sleeping may result from other physical or psychological events that require medical attention.

Whether your sleep problems are intermittent or chronic, try not to add anxiety about sleep disruption to the situation. According to Deborah Smith, who writes for the American Psychological Association’s magazine Monitor on Psychology, negative beliefs and thoughts about sleep can exacerbate sleep disorders. Look beyond this distressing time in your life and anticipate restored peace and sweet dreams.

Resource

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine
www.aasmnet.org 

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: Dream Therapy by Sarah O. Richards; Sleep and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by Pamela Swales, PhD; www.ptsd.va.gov; “Sleep Psychologists in Demand” by Deborah Smith. Monitor on Psychology. October 2001, Vol. 32, No. 9.

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