I would venture to guess that almost every adult on this planet has had at least one nightmare in their lives. And I would further dare to suggest that the frequency of nightmares, on a global scale, has increased drastically over the last few decades. There are a variety of reasons why we experience nightmares, or bad dreams. Research suggests that something as simple and inconsequential as a very violent or disturbing movie can affect the content of our dreams, stress and even health issues can result in disturbing dreams, and of course, emotional, life threatening and traumatic issues and events bring on those night time terrors. However, with the rise of political, financial and natural collapse, disaster and conflict it would have surprised if the number and intensity of nightmares has not increased. People all over the world are experiencing more and more traumas, in all forms, shapes and sizes than ever before.
Although humanity has endured two world wars, innumerable armed conflicts, nothing compares to the social, human rights, and environmental atrocities, devastating natural and man-made disasters and horrors of every kind that we experience on an almost daily basis. Add to these horrendous events the very stresses of living in a fast-paced, technologically dependent, competitive, and increasingly violent world and you have the recipe for global sleep disorders and nightmares.
It's astonishing, to me, that there are not more of us suffering from traumatic and / or acute stress nightmares and even full blown PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I suspect there are a great deal more people suffering with post-traumatic nightmares than we know. However, for various reasons, they're suffering alone and in silence.
Most trauma survivors are unfamiliar with how trauma affects them. They usually are not even aware that what they're experiencing is a problem until the situation becomes extreme. And when the problem begins interfering with normal daily functioning, they tend to think that they're going to blame, that they're going crazy, or that there's something wrong with them because others, who experienced the same or a similar trauma, don 't seem to experience the same problems.
Trauma survivors will often experience different symptoms and even similar symptoms in different ways. Which symptoms and the intensity of the symptoms experienced is dependent upon a number of factors including a person's attitude and personality, their life experiences, their ability to cope with stress, how serious the trauma was, and what kind of help and support is available to them from family, friends, and professionals immediately following the trauma.
Individuals suffering from recurring traumatic dreams may not even realize it. We most often think of traumatic / stress nightmares resulting from having experienced events such as sexual assault, combat or natural disasters. However, it's important to recognize that such things as aicious divorce can be experienced as trauma, especially by children, as well as witnessing violent acts; surgery, the loss of a loved one, a physical assault or even a severe accident. Although we may not have been to battle, or survived a plane crash, there are still quite a few events in our everyday lives that qualify as traumatic for us, even though the psychiatric establishment many do not diagnose them as such.
Just because we are not diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or ASD (acute stress disorder), does not mean we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress dreams. It simply means we do not meet the clinical criteria for such a diagnosis. However, according to the World English Dictionary, a trauma is:
1. A powerful shock that may have long-lasting effects
2. Any bodily injury or wound
Therefore, any event that results in long-lasting physical or psychological effects and causes us stress can be defined as a traumatic event. And tragic events often result in sleep disturbances and nightmares.
An everyday, run-of-the-mill nightmare is most often characterized by the following symptoms:
– A sense of dread or fear, inside and outside the dream, that may stay with you for hours or even days.
– The physical paralysis, called atonia, that signifies REM sleep (as opposed to the physical arousal common in night terrors), but possibly with more eye movements than usual and slightly elevated pulse and respiration rates.
– Vivid recall of all or part of a frightening dream story.
– Frequently finding yourself being harmed or harmed in some way.
– A recognition of personal dream themes, or a repetition of the dream itself for months, years, or even decades.
What sets an “ordinary” nightmare apart from a post-traumatic stress dream (or nightmare) is that a PTS dream is usually experienced by someone who's survived a tragic event, and in which the dream content and story closely resembles the actual event, and where the same or a similar dream recurs over days, months or even years. The same symptoms as any other kind of nightmare still exists (fear, anxiety, waking up), however, the PTS dream is often triggered by some waking life event.
Over time, PTS nightsmares become less frequent and new features are typically incorporated while some old features fade out or change. The recovery process may be sped up by discussing the nightmares with others who have experienced similar trauma and / or nightmares.
If PTS nightmares persist you may want to consider talking with a therapist. If you're unable to see a counselor or therapist, you can try working on the issue at home. There are a number of techniques that have been shown to be effective in easing and even eliminating recurring nightmares.
Breathing – Treatment for breathing problems during sleep may reduce the nightmares that follow trauma.
Talk Therapy – As with many difficulties in our lives, it's always better to talk about the issues than not. Share your dreams and fears with someone you trust.
Dream Therapy – Working with your dreams can help you understand them, change them, and eventually eliminate them.
Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) – In IRT, (while wake) you change how the nightmare ends so that it no longer upsets you.
We all deal with stress and trauma in our own, and different ways. We all process our experiences in different ways, and we all do so at our own pace. Your nightmares are part of the process. Ignoring them will only delay the healing and processing. Allow yourself the time your psyche needs to work through the trauma you experienced. Nothing in this world lasts forever, including disturbing or terrifying dreams.