A traumatic event can be the stuff of nightmares, recurrent nightmares, to be exact — which can ultimately affect sleep.
It’s more than just bad dreams that lead to sleep disturbances. They may reflect a more severe mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although it’s widely known that combat veterans have chronic nightmares and sleep problems, nightly flashbacks to a traumatic experience go beyond veterans affairs.
Anybody can have post-traumatic stress disorder. You or someone you know may be suffering from the condition and the persistent nightmares.
To help you make sense of what’s happening, we’ve prepared the following overview of PTSD and the nightmares it’s responsible for.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that occurs when you go through a traumatic experience.
Trauma usually results from highly violent occurrences like accidents, natural disasters, assault, rape, and other similar circumstances.
In Australia, it’s estimated that around 3 million people have had PTSD at some point in their lives. Because of the disorder and the symptoms of PTSD, sufferers can go through a drop in quality of life, especially when the condition is left untreated.
How PTSD causes nightmares and lowers sleep quality
One way that PTSD affects the quality of life is through its one recognisable symptom –- nightmares. These nightmares aren’t the childish kind filled with ghosts, monsters or ghouls.
They’re more like flashbacks to traumatic events that leave the person fearful, anxious and with a super high heart rate.
Imagine reliving the same traumatic event night after night. A recurring ordeal like this leaves one not only emotionally drained but physically exhausted as well.
The nightmares cause constant awakenings or sleep disturbances. Because of their wrecked emotional state, sufferers then choose not to sleep anymore.
This pattern eventually leads to a sleep disorder. As the condition and symptoms persist, sleep quality worsens, and so does PTSD.
Did you know that PTSD-related nightmares differ from nightmare disorders? Nightmare disorder is only a type of parasomnia that occurs during rapid eye movement sleep or REM sleep.
Nightmare disorders don’t result from a psychiatric issue. On the other hand, PTSD involves a number of symptoms, including nightmares, anxiety, depression, and more.
Deal with PTSD-related nightmares to manage the condition itself
Now, living with PTSD is already a struggle in itself. Recurrent nightmares are another problem altogether.
To deal with both of these issues, you’ll need more than PTSD treatment. It’s good, but it will be better supplemented with the treatment of nightmares. According to a published study, treatment for sleep disruption leads to better nightmare management and supports PTSD therapy.
With this, you may expect more peaceful and restful nights. You may even improve your quality of life since you will have enough sleep and manage other PTSD symptoms better. What are these treatments, then?
Treatments options for recurring nightmares
Different treatments range from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to medication. These may work, so it will be best to consult a healthcare professional or clinician for proper diagnosis and psychotherapy treatment. You can learn a little about each one in advance below.
Image rehearsal therapy (IRT)
Imagery rehearsal therapy is a form of CBT that aims to alter nightmarish incidents at night through daytime rescripting. The treatment is based on the theory that there’s a relationship between nightmares and dream scripts that you tell yourself.
Patients are instructed to rescript or go through a dream script daily to improve their nighttime experience. This rehearsal hopefully changes your nightmares into new scenarios with nonfrightening endings, at the very least.
Exposure, rescripting and relaxation therapy
Exposure therapy is a variant of the previously-mentioned IRT. It uses psychoeducation, relaxation techniques, nightmare rescripting, sleep hygiene, and exposure.
It’s basically IRT but with more focus on the exposure part, where patients write their target nightmare and confront it by reading it aloud in a safe environment.
This practice aims to accustom the patient to the anxiety of the nightmare and grow resistant to it. It also uses other techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation to induce calmness.
Another way of treating nightmares is through systematic desensitisation, which first establishes a hierarchy of anxiety-inducing stimuli.
Next, relaxing techniques are paired with each level of stimuli with the expectation that the methods should lessen the severity of anxiety. Ultimately, it aims to eliminate all incidences of anxiety in the patient.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing
A third option is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing: a method that still recalls the distressing image of your nightmares while allowing you to tap your hand or move your eyes from side to side.
This movement supposedly overloads the memory and lessens its vividness. You may then become more relaxed with a lower heart rate in response to the traumatic memories.
Lucid dreaming is actually a treatment option for nightmares specifically. It attacks the dreams by training the patient to gain a semblance of control over the outcome. The point of the training is for the patient to know that they’re dreaming.
Thus, the nightmares remain the same, but the patient will be more aware that their flashbacks are only a dream that will pass and be gone come morning.
Finally, drugs are used in psychiatry as well. They may go hand in hand with psychotherapy to increase the likelihood of recovery.
One such drug is prazosin: initially used as a treatment for blood pressure. In time, it was discovered to be good at countering PTSD-related nightmares.
Like any other medication, however, it has its side effects, such as dizziness and headaches, but the proper dosage determined by your psychiatrist will keep you safe from such experiences.
Other drugs similar to prazosin treat nightmares through different parts of the body, like your nervous system. Again, the proper medication and dosage should be determined by your psychiatrist.
There’s life beyond the nightmares and trauma
Sleep apnea may have taken away your sleep, nightmares may have hounded you, and your traumatic memories may have devastated you.
However, it’s not the end. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel as long as you get the help you need. In time, no matter how long it takes, you’ll find a sense of wellbeing again. With the information above, you may be able to move forward and discover ways to heal