We want to wash our past trauma out like mud from between our toes.

We want to start each day without the trauma from yesterday lurking behind every corner.

However, certain triggers often bring us right back to the moment of terror, and we feel just as helpless as we did in the past event itself.

Past trauma can have a devastating effect on our wellbeing. Both mentally and physically, unresolved trauma can fester like a wound untreated, reaching into every corner of our lives.

Those of us who have been traumatized in the past usually relive our trauma through flashbacks, sensory triggers, memories, and nightmares. In the daytime, we might be able to avoid or manage the triggers that bring back our past, but what about when we are sleeping?

Sleep and Trauma

woman asleep in bed

Everyone experiences restlessness nights, nightmares, and other sleep problems more than once in their life. However, not all suffer from frequent and crippling night disturbances the way that many people coping with trauma do. 

We see sleep problems manifest in several different ways. One might be a fear of falling asleep. This fear arises from the feeling that we lack the control to prevent visitations of past events in our sleep. Some of us might also wake up continuously throughout the night because our body is conditioned to awake whenever a specific memory or action takes place in our dreams.

Both of these sleep disturbances cause irritability, drowsiness, and physical side effects that contribute to the PTSD we experience during our waking hours. But perhaps one of the most frightful sleep-related symptoms of trauma is nightmares.

Trauma-Driven Nightmares

A nightmare for the general public is often a mix of our imagination and experience. Someone who has a fear of heights might dream of hanging off a cliff by their fingertips, but that is not something they have necessarily ever experienced in real life.

A person suffering from past trauma will often have nightmares of the traumatic event or a scenario that is closely associated with the actual trauma. Moreover, these nightmares may also include certain symbols, scents, sounds, or images that trigger the traumatic event.

Nightmares like these force those of us who suffer from past trauma to become trapped in a vicious cycle of pain and recovery. It can feel as though the trauma never ended or that we cannot move forward in our lives.

However, past trauma and the nightmares that follow do not have to rule our lives. Certain treatments and practices can help relieve the pattern of sleep problems and nightmares.

How to Cope with Nightmares and Sleep Problems

1.Create a safe sleeping space

Your sleep space goes beyond your physical bedroom to include your mind. Start by ensuring the physical space you sleep in is comfortable and promotes relaxation. Then, work to set your mind to a calming station, as you would a radio. A great way to get your mind in a peaceful and happy place is to practice meditation for 10-30 min before sleep.

2. Start writing down your dreams

If you feel that you are not in control or cannot understand your dreams, you are bound to fall deeper into the fear and pain that the nightmares cause. Keep a dream journal to record symbols, reoccurring people or actions, and other information that you recall when you wake up. Then, work with your therapist to identify where these symbols arise from and how you can resolve them.

3. Try Imagery Rehearsal Treatment

This treatment is designed as a cognitive-behavioral treatment in which patients get to rewrite their nightmares. Working with a therapist, you can rehearse the dream and rewrite the ending to be less threatening and traumatizing. This method is one that has proved to reduce both the intensity of reoccurring nightmares as well as the frequency.

4. Explore Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or EMDR, is a widely studied and practiced therapy that un-jams your mind after a trauma. Often, past traumas and the emotions stay with you and paralyze you in that moment. This frozen nervous system can then seep into your sleep and cause nightmares. What EDMR does is confront the negative self-beliefs that you carry after a trauma and replace them with more positive outlooks and beliefs.

5. Feel it out

One treatment that has been popular among therapists is Somatic Therapy. When you have a nightmare, you do not only experience emotional reactions but also physical ones—such as rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, muscle tension or spasms, and sweating.

Somatic therapy treats the physical side effects of past trauma by asking patients to draw a map, tracking where in their bodies they hold that trauma. Through movements and body sensations, the patient can work through each physically manifested memory of the event alongside the emotional trauma.

Women in yoga class meditating

True, the nightmares of past trauma can plague your life with pain. However, there is hope in sight. With certain practices and treatment options, you can overcome your nightmares and begin healing from your past trauma. I can help you get started.  For more information about trauma disorders please read the Trauma Specialization page of this website and schedule an initial psychodiagnostic assessment with me.