How to Treat PTSD Nightmares
Nightmares are one of the most common symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While most people experience a nightmare or two in their lifetime, up to 72% of people suffering from PTSD develop recurring nightmares as a result of the disorder.1
I am one of those people. I started experiencing nightmares as a result of PTSD when I was sixteen. Almost eight years later, I still get them every time I close my eyes to sleep. Coping with daily nightmares (and the poor sleep quality that can result) has been difficult, but I have found ways to manage them over time.
What Causes PTSD Nightmares?
Nightmares that result from PTSD are different than typical nightmares. This is because PTSD symptoms all occur as a result of a specific traumatic event in a person's life. While nightmares that aren't related to PTSD can be about anything, PTSD nightmares almost always include some aspect of the specific traumatic event that caused the disorder to develop.
Because I experienced multiple traumatic events over the course of my childhood, my PTSD nightmares are a little more complex. Even so, the things I dream about night after night all relate to my past in some way.
Stress is also a common cause of nightmares. It's normal to have bad dreams when you have a big exam or important project looming at school or work. Because stress is also a core symptom of PTSD, it's natural that people with PTSD would experience more nightmares than those without.
How to Treat PTSD Nightmares
As of right now, there is no standard way for doctors to treat PTSD nightmares. Certain drugs have shown promise in reducing the number of nightmares caused by PTSD, but there is no magic cure.
However, there a plenty of ways to cope with PTSD nightmares outside of medication. Here are a few of the top ways I've learned to deal with my own PTSD nightmares over time.
- Cut out bad bedtime habits. Caffeine, alcohol, and spicy or sweet foods too close to bedtime can cause nightmares. Reducing these triggers can be a helpful step.
- Make your bedroom as cozy as possible. Your room should be somewhere you can relax, an escape from the stress of the world. For me, this means soft blankets, soothing fairy lights, eye masks to block out light, and some type of white noise.
- Develop a regular sleep schedule. Staying up into the early hours of the morning every Saturday night can wreak havoc on your body's internal clock. Sticking to a consistent sleep/wake cycle will help regulate your body and might reduce the number of nightmares you experience.
- Try out different types of therapy. Trauma therapy exists for a reason. If typical talk therapy isn't your style, find a type of therapy that suits your needs. Anything from yoga therapy to art therapy can be a beneficial way to work through the trauma that's causing your nightmares.
- Learn to relax. Being tense all day results in being tense at night. Developing relaxation techniques to help you cope with stress during the day can improve your stress at night.
Everyone with PTSD will have a different recovery journey. What helps me sleep at night might not work for you, and that's okay.
There are no rules to PTSD recovery. There is no perfect way to treat PTSD nightmares. Gaining control of your sleep can take some time, and it's up to you to figure out what techniques and coping methods blend well with your lifestyle. Give yourself what you need to heal. With time, you will find rest.
- El-Sohl, A.A., "Management of Nightmares in Patients with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Current Perspectives." Nature and Science of Sleep, November 2018.
Avery, B. (2020, April 8). How to Treat PTSD Nightmares, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, August 11 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2020/4/how-to-treat-ptsd-nightmares
Author: Beth Avery
Great tips Beth. There is a new theory floating around at the moment which involves visualising a “positive completion” of the recurring nightmare story. It didn’t work for me, but it might work for others. It involves imagining, whilst awake, your traumatic story having a different, more positive ending (not sure if it works when you choose to have your revenge fantasies acted out upon the abuser!). Imagining for example, the abuser apologising and atoning, or your family being kind and supportive instead of victim-blaming and critical. Personally, I’ve learnt to live with the nightly nightmares by waking up, engaging my conscious mind, and recognising that the story is real but no longer true. If I stay in that half-asleep place, the whole night is lost, as you say. I soothe myself as I would a small child.
Thanks, Nicki. I've heard about this theory - it sounds promising! I'll have to give it a try.