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Waking Up from the Grip of PTSD Nightmares


Waking Up from the Grip of PTSD Nightmares


In the recent past, a long string of traumatic events rocked many nations around the planet. Such unspeakable events have generated deeply moving emotions and uproar to the public in general. Students that experienced or witnessed violence in schools, and people being disturbed by catastrophic, natural calamities have one thing in common – that of fear. These traumatic events are devastatingly shocking not only for those involved, but also for others who just witnessed or heard about them.

Trauma is a human experience that is unavoidable and something people have in common. In the United States alone, an estimated 70 percent of adults experience trauma and PTSD nightmares. Many can go through an intensely stressful event and are fine after some time. Up to 20 percent of this population, however, develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others may struggle with an assortment of emotional health problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Notably, many may struggle with some type of sleep problems, such as insomnia. If you have recently experienced a traumatic event, it is the vivid dreams that result in it being difficult to sleep soundly. If PTSD nightmares bother you, know that sleep can improve with therapy.


What is Trauma

Trauma can be generally defined as a cognitive and emotional response to a deeply distressful or disturbing event or experience. It can be triggered by a single episode, or a series of events that can completely overwhelm or upset an individual’s ability to process or integrate the emotions triggered in that experience.

The definition can loosely apply to something disconcerting, such as an illness or injury, death of a loved one, accident, natural disaster, domestic violence, military combat experiences, or going through a divorce. It can also encompass the far extreme and include severely damaging experiences, such as rape and torture.

Any traumatic event can take a serious emotional toll both on those personally involved and direct witnesses. While trauma is often associated with being present at the scene of the trauma-inducing event, it is also possible for anyone to sustain trauma just by witnessing a traumatic event from afar. Even in the absence of any physical damage, the frightening experience can have a negative effect on an individual’s identity. The experience can be so profound it can disconnect a person from all others and many aspects of life.


The Complexities of Trauma

Trauma is often characterized by three common elements, namely:


  • If it was unexpected.
  • The person was completely unprepared.
  • The person cannot stop the event from happening.


Regardless of its source, traumatic events are not within a person’s power to prevent. Trauma is the injury or feeling that results from the meaning of how you interpret the experience. Everyone interprets a traumatic event differently because it is seen through the lens of previous experiences. For example, other people may be afraid after going through a hurricane, but you may feel particularly more upset because you barely escaped from your flooded home. In this scenario, even a minor hurricane may bring up frightening flashbacks of that traumatic experience.

The resulting feelings or reaction to a horrible event are very common. It does not mean something is wrong with you. Although the effects can be severe enough to interfere with your daily functioning. When trauma is ignored, PTSD can catch up. The condition can happen to anyone, regardless of age. In a case such as this, professional help may be beneficial to treat the stress and dysfunction caused by the distressing event so that the state of emotional well-being can be restored.


When Trauma Continues in Your Sleep

If you are a trauma survivor, having flashbacks of the terrifying event (also called re-experiencing) may plague you in the form of nightmares. Nightmares are one of the hallmark symptoms of PTSD, an anxiety disorder caused by a very stressful and frightening event. Roughly half of those with PTSD experience flashbacks while sleeping during the night. This includes 53 percent of Vietnam War veterans who have vivid nightmares that exactly replay the trauma they went through.

The nightmare common among people who have gone through a traumatic event are different than ordinary nightmares. They can occur earlier in the night or during different stages of sleep. Some nightmares replicate the trauma, while others are related to the trauma indirectly or symbolically. The next day, the after effects are obvious in the emotional well-being and functioning of the one with it.

The scary nightmares can reduce the amount of restful sleep needed by a person. With less sleep, it can be difficult for the brain to process the traumatic event and store it away correctly. It can be anxiety-provoking for a person with PTSD to go to bed and re-experience the frightening event while sleeping. The problem can become worse if the nightmares involve acting out the actual traumatic experience. For example, they may yell or scream, kick, or unintentionally assault the other person sleeping next to him or her. Such severe sleep disturbances are alarming. Receiving therapy to bounce back from PTSD nightmares may be warranted.


More Than Just Dreams

Trauma survivors who developed PTSD have multiple nightmares per week, and they even increase if other emotional health issues, such as depression or anxiety, are involved. Whether the nightmares directly replay the trauma or include some scary parts only, the nightly delusions are frightening because they trigger both emotional and physiological reactions, such as panic, helplessness, screaming, irregular heartbeat, and crying in sleep.


The horrid effects of PTSD nightmares do not stop there. The nightmares can have harmful consequences for sleep, namely:


  • Increased REM sleep activity
  • Reduced amount of quality sleep
  • More night-time awakenings
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Poor functioning in all areas of life during the day


The nightmare-filled evenings can have other devastating end results, including fear of sleep and substance abuse as an attempt to avoid or escape the scary visions. PTSD nightmares are more than vivid, disturbing images that appear in dreams. They are emotional and a physiological fear-provoking figment of a traumatic event that can effectively reduce the quality of life.


Putting PTSD Nightmares to Rest

Trauma is an unavoidable human experience with symptoms that can reduce or fade on their own. While some people struggling with PTSD have symptoms that eventually lessen, time may not always be helpful for others. Some symptoms can appear long after the traumatic event, then it can be difficult to link them to the PTSD.

If you or someone you care about has recently been through a terrifying event and have been experiencing disturbing nightmares for longer than a month, it can be helpful to seek an evaluation and diagnosis from an expert. Finding a qualified professional to receive help from can make all the difference in ending your PTSD nightmares and in restoring quality of your life, and the quality of your sleep in particular.

A qualified and licensed counselor/therapist independently contracted with Carolina Counseling Services – North Fayetteville Office – Fayetteville, NC at 422 McArthur Road, Suite 2, near Ramsey St. can help. There is a right fit professional who can offer you a type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a highly effective treatment for nightmares associated with PTSD.

Do not spend another trying night gripped in fear. If you call now to schedule your first counseling session, you can put all your nightmares to rest and wake up each morning feeling refreshed to face the world.

Serving Areas: Carolina Counseling Services

Counties: Cumberland, Bladen and Sampson Counties, NC
Areas: Fayetteville NC, Ft Bragg NC, Pope Field NC, Silver City NC, Linden NC, Bowmore NC, Autryville NC, Bunnlevel NC, Erwin NC, Dundarrach NC, Pineview NC, Rex NC, Lemon Springs NC, Johnsonville NC, Eastover NC, Stedman NC and Wade, NC
Zip Codes: 28311, 28395, 28390, 28356

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  • Becky Clark, MSW, LCSW

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