In some ways, nightmares can be like flashbacks you have when you are asleep. They might be very clear reminders of the abuse that you experienced, and can have the same unsettling, confusing and distressing after-effects as flashbacks. However, while flashbacks are usually recognisable memories of actual events, the content of nightmares can be less concrete.
Nightmares might also be of things that represent the abuse or trauma in some way. It might not always be clear exactly what they mean. They might seem very odd or bizarre, yet leave you with a definite sense of being afraid, scared, alone or disorientated. They might also trigger feelings of shame or anger associated with the abuse.
Similarly to flashbacks, nightmares can seem to come from ‘out of the blue’, and leave you feeling out of control.
As well as the emotional and psychological aspects of nightmares, they can also have physiological effects (sweating, increased heart-rate, breathing troubles). If nightmares happen regularly, they can also bring about anxiety about sleeping.
The same ideas that can help deal with flashbacks are also useful for nightmares. Again, there are 2 parts of this. First is the immediate work of calming or grounding yourself just after a nightmare; and second, you may like to explore their meaning in more depth.
Check out the next section which describes an exercise that can help to deal with persistent nightmares.
What can I do about nightmares
If, in the morning, you can put aside the nightmare and concentrate on getting on and doing what it is important to you, then do. If, however, a nightmare persists or becomes particularly disruptive you might try the following exercise.
- Pick an unpleasant dream/nightmare, one that is not a direct replay or a re- enactment of a distressing event and write it down.
- Write the unpleasant dream down in as much detail as you can. Only in this telling of the dream change the ending so that it suits you. Remember it is your choice to do this and that you can stop writing or thinking about the dream and do something else any time you want.
- Now, get to know this new preferred version of the dream, rehearse it each night for about 5-15 minutes prior to going to sleep.
- Once you have rehearsed the dream, perform a relaxation exercise, one that you are familiar with and helps you to fall asleep peacefully. If you wake up, it can be useful to repeat this relaxation exercise, breathing deeply and slowly.
- When you are satisfied that you have re-storied the unpleasant dream to better suit you, you can choose to work on another nightmare that is slightly more intense than the last. Make sure that this process is a gradual increase in intensity and do not work with more than 2 nightmares in one week. Also take care of yourself; you do not have to over describe the upsetting content within the dream.