How To Work Through Trauma-Related Nightmares? Professional Support Update 04/2024

If you’ve been through something horrific, you’re more likely to suffer nightmares and anxiety dreams as a result. As a result of the trauma, these disturbed dreams generally contain similar feelings and sensations.

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS)

Experiencing a traumatic or stressful situation can result in a common and natural reaction called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS). Every survivor of a traumatic event is likely to suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. When a person is in a state of high anxiety, such as after a traumatic experience, the brain orders the body to tighten its muscles, increase blood flow, and speed up breathing. The “fight or flight” response is a natural reflex that gets the body ready to deal with danger or adversity.
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The following are examples of possible PTS symptoms:

  • An elevated heart rate is the result.
  • jittery hands.
  • Nightmares.
  • Anything that brings back memories of a painful event is avoided.
  • Nervousness and apprehension.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS) typically fade within a few days of the traumatic experience; PTS does not have a long-term impact on a person’s daily life.

Note that PTS is not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (post-traumatic stress disorder). A person suffering from PTSD may experience symptoms that remain for weeks or months after the traumatic event has occurred, as opposed to the month-long duration of PTS symptoms.

What is Trauma?

Emotional reactions to frightening or painful events are considered trauma. Natural catastrophes, car accidents, and assault are all instances of common traumatic experiences. In the event of a trauma, it can happen to anyone at any time and in any place. An estimated 60% of men and 50% of women will go through some sort of traumatic event in their lifetime.

While women are more likely to endure traumatic events like sexual assault and child abuse, men are more likely to be involved in accidents, physical assault and conflict or see the death or injury of someone they care for.

Trauma can cause a wide range of symptoms, including but not limited to:

  • A wide range of symptoms, including headaches, nausea, dizziness, and exhaustion.
  • Sadness, rage, denial, terror, and shame are all examples of negative emotions.
  • You’re having trouble sleeping because of nightmares or other sleep disturbances.
  • Alterations in sleeping habits.
  • The inability to maintain existing relationships or form new ones.
  • Anger is one emotion that comes to mind when thinking about emotional outbursts.
  • It’s common to have digestive issues.

Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can result in many of these signs and feelings, and they are all entirely normal. In certain cases, these symptoms may last for a long period. If left untreated, it could lead to PTSD, the most frequent form of mental illness.

Why Does Trauma Affect Dreams?

In spite of the lack of unanimity, scientists have long been interested in the link between trauma and dreams. Psychoanalyst and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud proposed in the early 1900s that dreams provide a window into the unconscious. He argued that the anxiety associated with repressed desires may be contained in dreams, therefore protecting sleep.

To explain combat veterans’ persistent nightmares, several theories were put forth. Dreams, according to some theories, are a way for people to revisit and move with past trauma. Nightmares were viewed as a sign of inability to overcome or overcome the trauma. A different school of thought held that dreams were a manifestation of the mind’s attempt to turn shame connected with the traumatic event into fearfulness.

Even though science has advanced significantly since Freud’s time, some of the more modern hypotheses are strikingly similar to those of Freud. It is widely accepted that dreams aid in the consolidation of our experiences into long-term memory; this process is known as memory consolidation. Dreams may reflect our bodies’ attempts to deal with and learn from painful experiences.

Dreams can be used to test out different responses to dangerous situations. By exposing ourselves to dangers when we’re soundly asleep, we may be able to reach parts of our brains that are critical for creative problem solving and sound judgment. A recent study found that we’re more prone to approach dangerous situations in our dreams than to flee from them.

Nightmares and PTSD

Approximately 4% to 10% of the population suffers from nightmares on a weekly basis. Nightmares are more common after a distressing incident has occurred.

The intensity of a person’s nightmares may be an expression of their body working through painful memories. One possible explanation for the occurrence of nightmarish thoughts is that the body is having difficulty processing stress. After a few weeks or months, for most people, trauma-related nightmares fade away.

The body’s fight-flight-freeze response is initiated in order to protect us from damage in the event of a terrifying situation. We become more aware of danger when our bodies release stress hormones, which dilate our pupils and raise our heart rate. Normal functioning of this alarm system is frequently restored once we’ve dealt with a stressful situation.

Persistent hyperarousal and difficulty lowering the brain’s terror response are both implicated in chronic, recurring nightmares. Even after a traumatic event has passed, the fight-flight-freeze response may still be active in the brain.

People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to suffer from recurring nightmares than those who are not (PTSD). Fewer than ten percent of trauma victims acquire post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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The development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs following a traumatic experience. For those who suffer from this disorder, recurring and uncontrollable memories of the event (e.g. flashbacks) are common (nightmares). External and internal triggers (such as other people, places, or things) are common avoidance strategies for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As they become more easily frightened and hyper-aware of any danger, those around them may notice changes in their attitude.

Can Nightmares Cause Trauma?

Having vivid dreams or waking up with vivid memories of nightmares can be unnerving. There may not be much research on the concept that nightmares might produce trauma, but it depends on how trauma is defined if the answer to this question is to be found.

Over time, our understanding of what constitutes a traumatic event has evolved. The term “trauma” was first used by psychologists to describe occurrences that were deemed too extreme to be considered part of a person’s regular experience while they were conscious. The concept of trauma has evolved throughout time, recognising the different sources of stress and the cumulative effect of multiple traumas.

DSM–5 states that trauma can be experienced both directly and indirectly, and this is based on current research. We don’t have to be directly affected by an event in order to be traumatized. As a result of hearing about the traumas of the people they assist on a regular basis, teachers, counselors, and psychologists may develop secondary or vicarious trauma. It’s possible that dreams can cause indirect trauma, but that’s still up for debate.

Trauma from nightmares may or may not be culturally specific. Western dream theories have traditionally focused on the influence of waking life on the content of dreams. There is little demarcation between the waking and the dreaming worlds in other civilizations, including several Native American traditions, and dreams can have a substantial impact on waking life. Dreams have profound spiritual connotations in many cultures, therefore it’s probable that many people find them traumatic.

How to work through trauma-related nightmares

In most cases, the first step is to find out what’s causing the night terrors in the first place (in this case, PTSD).

There are proven therapies for trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (including trauma-related nightmares; learn more about them here). To determine if medicine is essential and to rule out any health hazards, an individual evaluation is necessary.

Here are some specific treatments that have been proven to help those who suffer from nightmares as a result of trauma:

  • Rehearsal Through Imagery (IRT).
  • Therapy that includes exposure, rescripting, and relaxing (ERRT).

Visualization (imagining a scene or activity in your head) and nightmare rescripting are common features of these treatments.

Visual imagery and nightmare rewriting can be seen in action in the following scenario.

  • Consider a nightmare that frequently occurs in your mind.
  • Do you have any thoughts? both in the dream and when you awaken from it
  • Instead, how would you choose to feel?
  • As a result, how would the plot change?

The subtleties of this technique are difficult to express. In addition, a qualified therapist can aid you by teaching you how to appropriately rewrite your nightmares (to address the last two points).

Treatment for Nightmares

The desire to let go of the past and move on is common among those who have been through a difficult time. Trauma-related nightmares may become more common if you try to forget or suppress your thoughts and feelings.

Knowing when to seek assistance is a critical skill in the recovery process after a traumatic event. Trauma-trained professionals such as doctors, counselors, and therapists specialize in treating symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks.

It is typical to have nightmares and difficulties sleeping following trauma, and many people recover without treatment. These symptoms could raise the specter of a more serious disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for others.

Many specialists recommend trauma-focused psychotherapy or counseling as a first step in treating chronic nightmares. Image rehearsal therapy (IRT), desensitization and exposure therapy (D&E), and lucid dreaming are all possible treatments for recurring nightmares.

  • Reducing emotional reactions is the goal of desensitization and exposure therapy. During and after exposure, students are frequently given relaxation techniques to help calm their bodies and minds.
  • Therapy in which the patient creates a story or script based on an image they had in their mind while having a bad dream. Afterward, the narrative is modified to address the problem or crisis, and the new version can be read aloud to the child before night.
  • In the therapy of nightmares, lucid dreaming is a method that focuses on learning how to become aware of when one is dreaming. As soon as a person is able to recognize when they’re dreaming, they may be able to alter or resolve situations in their dreams.

Grounding and Relaxation skills to try yourself:

Grounding practices can help alleviate some of the anguish produced by nightmares by focusing on the here and now, rather than dwelling on the past or future.
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Make sure you wake up from a nightmare entirely before continuing on with your day. Prior to falling asleep again (which you can’t do if you’re sleepy or drowsy), the goal is to reacquaint yourself with the present moment and to restore your sense of security.

Having a lamp or a nightlight by your bedside can help you focus on the current moment.

Begin this grounding exercise as soon as you wake up.

All of your senses are engaged. Think about:

  • You can see five things.
  • There are four things you can actually feel.
  • Three distinct sounds are audible.
  • The fragrance of two distinct things.
  • You can only taste one thing.

If you feel the need for more support, try a basic breathing exercise along with a grounding technique.

Breathing Exercise skill to try yourself:

  • Sit or lie down in a posture that is comfortable for you.
  • Gently close your eyes when you’re ready to do so (or set your gaze to a point in your surrounding).
  • For four counts, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth (1-2-3-4).
  • For four counts, inhale through your nose (1-2-3-4).
  • Replicate 3-4 times, if necessary.

Hopefully, this post has been helpful to you or someone you know who suffers from trauma-related dreams.

We’ve put up a free paper for anyone who want to learn more about how to improve their sleep habits and routines (sleep hygiene tips).

Sleep Hygiene After Trauma

If you’re dealing with the repercussions of trauma, it may be beneficial to try sleep hygiene practices as well.

  • Be aware that some of your symptoms may be typical. For example, it’s usual to have trouble sleeping the night after a distressing encounter. Keep in mind that your body is trying to process and cope with the incident.
  • Keep to your normal sleeping schedule: Routine and rest are inextricably linked. A common reaction after a traumatic event is to retreat or alter one’s routine. To ensure a pleasant night’s sleep, try to stick to your normal bedtime routine.
  • Before going to bed, take a deep breath and relax. Instead of attempting to force yourself to go to sleep, try to discover techniques to relax your mind and body before going to bed. Disconnect from all electronic devices and experiment with various sleep-inducing techniques.
  • If you’re having trouble sleeping, get out of bed. It is possible to form an unhelpful association between the bed and inability to sleep if you stay in bed while you are sleep deprived. Get out of bed and do something calming, such reading a book or listening to soft music, if you find yourself unable to sleep for longer than 20 minutes.

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