How to Deal with PTSD Nightmares
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) nightmares make life tiring. When you live with PTSD nightmares plus anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, and flashbacks (all common occurrences in the day-to-day lives of people with PTSD), it's no wonder around 70-91% of people with PTSD have trouble sleeping at night.1
Everybody experiences PTSD on a different scale. In my case, I have the most trouble managing my PTSD at night. Insomnia, difficulty staying asleep, and nightmares have been my reality since I first started showing symptoms of PTSD at age 16.
Over time, I've learned to manage my PTSD symptoms as best I can. I take antidepressants for anxiety and depression, use sleeping pills for insomnia, and practice breathing exercises to stay calm during the day.
My PTSD nightmares, however, have stuck with me. They're the one symptom of PTSD I can't seem to figure out. No amount of medication or therapy has been able to erase what my mind sees when I fall asleep.
What a PTSD Nightmare Looks Like
Because I lived through continuous trauma over my childhood, I don't have typical recurring nightmares. Rather than replaying the same traumatic event over and over again, my dreams fall into recurring categories instead. It can vary depending on what's happening in my day-to-day life, but my nightmares most commonly involve themes of death, pain, and fear.
For example, I once had a dream I was getting eaten alive by a tiger. In the dream, my friends stood by and watched as the tiger consumed me piece by piece. This particular nightmare wasn't a replay of a past event, as nothing like that has ever happened in my real life (and I'm confident my friends would help me if a stray tiger escaped from the zoo). Rather, the dream encompassed the fear and helplessness I felt growing up, with everyone watching my pain but no one stepping in to help.
When I first started getting nightmares, I tried to avoid them. Lacking proper prescriptions at the time, I would take over-the-counter medications that made me drowsy in order to fall asleep. Or--on really bad days--I would stock up on energy drinks with the hopes of evading sleep entirely.
The Positive Side of PTSD Nightmares
While my nightmares bothered me at the start of my PTSD recovery, I've grown to appreciate them. They can be very unpleasant, but I've found that they are a way for my mind to process the deep traumas and fear I am unable--or unwilling--to face during the day. In a strange way, they provide a place for my brain to work through memories and feelings bothering me on a level I'm not ready to face yet.
Recently, I started testing out an app that's designed to track and disrupt nightmares during my sleep cycles. I'm not certain yet if it will help me sleep better, but even if it doesn't, I'm confident I will one day be able to sleep in peace. Nightmares are a tough PTSD symptom, but they have their place in my life. When my mind decides it no longer needs them to process my pain, I think they'll fade away. For now, all I can do is keep healing.
- Maher, M.J., "Sleep Disturbances in Patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Epidemiology, Impact and Approaches to Management." CNS Drugs, July 2006.
Avery, B. (2019, July 8). How to Deal with PTSD Nightmares, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, April 10 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2019/7/how-to-deal-with-ptsd-nightmares