When someone has gone through a traumatic experience, they can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can cause them to relive their trauma, feeling just as helpless as they did at the moment the trauma occurred. PTSD can make trauma fester like a wound in the corner of your mind that can affect every corner of your life. Your sleep can be interrupted, and PTSD can cause nightmares. In this article, we will look at the relationship between PTSD and nightmares, along with some tips for coping with your nightmares.
Sleep and PTSD
PTSD can cause a person to have nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and other symptoms. Everyone can experience restless nights and nightmares every once in a while, whether they have been through trauma or not. However, when you have PTSD, you can experience many more sleep disturbances than others. You might be afraid of falling asleep because of the nightmares or waking up constantly throughout the night.
Nightmares typically mix our experiences and imagination. Someone who is afraid of heights might have a nightmare about dangling out of a window by their fingers, waking up just before they hit the ground. However, this is probably not something they experienced for real. A person with PTSD is more likely to have nightmares about the traumatic event or scenarios that are close to the trauma itself.
Coping with PTSD Nightmares
Controlling your dreams is not an exact science yet, since there is still a lot about the human brain that we do not understand, but there are a few things that can help you manage your nightmares. One of the big problems with nightmares is that you are often awoken by them or during them, so you are more likely to remember what happened. Staying asleep can sometimes be the key to not remembering the dreams that you are plagued with at night.
Create a Safe Space
Going to sleep involves more than just getting in bed and closing your eyes. Take some time to set up the physical space where you sleep to help you feel calm and safer. Make sure your bedroom has a relaxing atmosphere to it, then add anything that can help quiet your mind, like a soothing sounds station or meditation for a few minutes before you go to sleep.
Control the Temperature
When it is too hot or too cold in your bedroom, your sleep is going to be less restful, and you are more likely to awake during the night. What temperature is your bedroom usually? The best temperatures for more restful sleep are between 59 and 69 degrees Fahrenheit. Try getting a better HVAC system, getting a thicker or thinner blanket, and getting warmer or cooler pajamas, depending on the temperatures in your bedroom at night.
Start a Dream Journal
This might seem a little corny, but it can actually help. You might not feel like you are in control of your dreams, or you do not understand them, which can make your nightmares affect you even more deeply. Start keeping a dream journal where you can write down any details you remember about the dream, especially reoccurring people, symbols, and anything else that you can think of when you wake up. Writing down your nightmares can truly help take away some of their power over you, especially since it means you will not be struggling to recall them, which can make you dwell on them.
If you are in therapy, you can then bring your dream journal to your therapist to help you work through the recurring patterns in the nightmares to hopefully help you overcome them eventually.
Add Pleasing Smells to the Room
A sleep study in Germany released the scent of roses or rotten eggs into the room of people when people entered REM sleep. When the subjects awoke, those who smelled roses in their sleep had more positive dreams, and the people who smelled rotten eggs had more negative dreams. Scent is heavily tied to memory, so getting a scent diffuser in your bedroom or getting a scent patch you can put on your pillow might help encourage your subconscious to give you good dreams and help you stay asleep.
Pain can make you wake up more often in the night, meaning you are more likely to remember any bad dreams you are having. If your trauma is linked to an injury that may cause you pain, your body feeling that pain in the night can trigger nightmares. PTSD can also cause joint or muscular pain since those with it are frequently tense. If pain is part of the problem that is causing you to wake in the night, consider talking to your doctor about it.
Eating and Drinking Before Bedtime
When you eat or drink too close to your bedtime, there is the potential that you can get indigestion, and there is the chance that your metabolism can act up when sleeping. This is especially true if you eat something spicy, drink coffee, or have junk food too close to going to bed. Try not to have dinner too close to bedtime, no more than three hours if you can avoid it. You can even try having a cup of herbal tea before bedtime. However, not too close to bed, you do not need to be woken up in the middle of the night by your bladder because you had a big cup of tea before bed.
Image Rehearsal Therapy
Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is a type of behavioral therapy that involves writing a new, positive version of your nightmare. You can go over this new scenario nightly to help displace the nightmare in your memory. This type of therapy is recommended by many professionals for those who suffer from PTSD-related nightmares.
Limit Light in the Bedroom
Our bodies are designed to sleep in the dark and wake up in the light. If you are trying to sleep with a TV on, or any other light sources, your body is likely to stop producing the melatonin it needs to sleep and make your night more restless, which means you are more likely to wake up more and remember any nightmares linked to your PTSD. If you feel unsafe sleeping in the complete dark, red lights do not interrupt your circadian rhythms like blue lights do, so consider getting color-changing lightbulbs that can turn red about half an hour before you are ready to go to bed. This may help you feel safe enough to sleep without messing up your ability to stay asleep.
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy that can help some people overcome trauma. When someone experiences trauma, the event and emotions stay with you and can leave you mentally paralyzed in the moment of the trauma. This state can seep into your dreams and give you nightmares. EDMR can help a person confront any negative self-beliefs they are carrying after trauma, helping them replace them with more positive beliefs.
When someone suffers from PTSD, talking to a therapist can help them work through the trauma, which can help with nightmares in time. A therapist can also recommend medications that might help someone with their sleep.
About the Author
Geralyn Ritter is an accomplished corporate senior executive, miracle survivor of the 2015 Amtrak train derailment, and author of Bone by Bone: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing. Geralyn is the executive vice president at Organon & Co., a new Fortune 500 healthcare company dedicated to the health of women.