By Sallie Culbreth, M.S.
Whoa! I woke up from a doozy of a nightmare the other night with the usual terror, disorientation, and paranoia that lingered for most of the following day. I couldn’t shake it. Even in waking, it stayed with me like some kind of ancient ogre trying to drag me into a subterranean cave.
Nightmares are often a regular part of a trauma survivor’s life. They rob you of your sleep, your peace, and your balance. They make no sense, and yet they feel very familiar. The imagery is significant, but you often don’t know why. People may brush it off and blame it on late night cold pizza, but these dreams can linger for days and leave you stranded in a surreal half-wake state. You may struggle to stay present or be able to concentrate. You feel like you’re in a fog that only you can see.
While dreaming is still not fully understood, researchers believe it serves a housekeeping function for the brain. Your brain sorts and sifts through experiences and puts them away, kind of like folding clothes and putting them in the right drawers. Nightmares are those experiences that the brain still can’t sort and put away in a proper place.
There are several things you can do for yourself when you have a nightmare. Consider these suggestions and use them as a springboard for your ideas:
- Keep a flashlight by your bed that is readily accessible in the dark.
- Keep a multi-dimensional item next to your bed that you can reach for in the darkness to remind you of where you are – such as prayer beads, a figurine, a stuffed toy, or a trinket.
- Select a comforting quote or Scripture to say when you touch this item to help stabilize and ground you.
- Get up and vigorously shake to help purge yourself of the fear that is pulsing through your body causing elevated heart and breathing rates (yes, this really works).
- Keep a dream journal and while it is still fresh, describe the dream in that journal. Include what your feelings or thoughts were as soon as you awoke. Be sure to date it and note where you were sleeping when the nightmare occurred.
- Give it several hours (or even days) and read your journal entry to see if there are images or actions that feel familiar – don’t look at the SPECIFICS of what you dream, but focus on the THEMES of the dream.
- It is helpful to remind yourself throughout the night and into the day that it was a dream, then work to remain intentionally focused on the realities at hand.
- Be sure to drink lots of water and do deep breathing and stretching the following day. You need to purge your body of the adrenaline rush that accompanies fear.
- Talk to someone about the dream if you need to. It helps to use your voice about your experiences, even if those experiences come through a dream.
- Sometimes it feels as if there is a spiritual dimension to nightmares, and if that’s the sense that remains with you, then prayer and meditation can be powerful responses, too.
It’s common for nightmares to increase when you begin to address your trauma, but as you become healthier, their frequency usually diminishes. Some nightmares are recurring and can leave you completely baffled as to what they mean. I had a recurring nightmare that went on for decades and made absolutely no sense to me, and then one morning, I woke up with a jolt and understood what it was about. You’ll discover that from season to season in your life, the frequency of nightmares varies. You may not have had one for years and then, boom! Sometimes they are meaningful, and sometimes your brain is just rearranging the drawers.
This week, strategically plan the actions you will take using these suggestions to better handle nightmares. Ask yourself what other strategies might be helpful for you. The journey beyond abuse, exploitation, and trauma requires awareness and strategic planning, even when it comes to nightmares.
Category: Roadside Assistance - Weekly Articles