South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault: Crisis website

Coping with nightmares & flashbacks

Nightmares

Most people have dreams when they sleep, although they may not always remember them when they wake. Dreams are usually related to things that have happened during the day or in recent times. They are the subconscious minds way of making sense of events that have already occurred. Often these dreams don’t bother people, and sometimes they have no recollection of them at all. Sometimes though, they might have ‘bad dreams’ or nightmares.

Nightmares occur for a number of reasons, mainly to do with something that is causing that person to be worried, upset or anxious. Nightmares are mostly related to fears. It is not unusual for someone who has experienced a traumatic event, to then experience nightmares for some time afterwards (often about the traumatic event itself). This is one way that your mind might respond to what you have gone through.

Nightmares often occur when the person is trying to block out the experience. Avoiding thoughts about the event and then experiencing nightmares about it, can be very distressing for people who thought they had ‘blocked it out’. For some people who have blocked out the event to the point of having little memory of it, experiencing nightmares can be frightening and confusing as they don’t understand why they are occurring.

When nightmares relating to a traumatic event begin to occur, it is a sign that your mind is telling you that you are ready to deal with it, that perhaps now is a good time to start to talk about it. Some nightmares can feel as though you are re-living the abuse. Some people are so fearful of having nightmares that they have difficulty sleeping and may try to avoid it.

Even though nightmares occur when you are sleeping, preparing yourself can help you to feel safer. Below are some strategies to help you deal with nightmares.

Strategies for dealing with nightmares

  • Try to relax. Although this may seem difficult, trying to relax reduces the stress of a nightmare and usually means it will pass more quickly.
  • Concentrate on breathing deeply and slowly. Sometimes when people are stressed they forget to breathe, and they freeze up. When this happens it is easier for the flashback to take hold of you. Focusing on breathing helps to free you from ‘freezing up’ and also provides a distraction from the flashback.
  • Remind yourself that it was just a dream. The traumatic event is not happening now, and even though the nightmare may be scary and painful, it was a dream and did not just happen.
  • Turn on a light or a lamp. This helps to orientate you and chase away the shadows in the room that can be frightening after waking from a nightmare.
  • Sleep with a night light or a lamp on.
  • Seek out a support person, someone you feel safe with, who can sit with you while you calm down.
  • Imagine a safe place. This can be anywhere or anything that helps you feel safe. You could use a photograph, draw or write it down before a nightmare occurs, so that you can have it ready and refer to it.
  • Remember positive encouragements from your support people. Imagine the person is there with you, encouraging you. Think of what they would say to you to help you feel stronger.
  • Hold onto a soft toy or an object that helps you feel safe/comforted
  • Write about or draw the nightmare and change the ending to protect you from the traumatic event. At the point where the dream becomes a nightmare, rewrite the events so that you don’t get hurt. Over time, rewriting the actual dream might eventually result in dreaming the new version instead.
  • Talk to someone you trust. This could be a friend, family member or your counsellor. Tell them about the new version of the nightmare that you have rewritten, this may help to reinforce the ‘new’ dream in your mind.

Nightmare protocol*

This can be used before sleep to help orientate you when waking from a nightmare and, with practice, may help to reduce the occurrence of nightmares.

Say the following sentences (filling in the blanks) before you go to sleep, and follow the instructions.

Today I have been really scared of (name the trauma, no details)

so I might have a nightmare and wake up feeling (name the emotion)

and my heart might beat fast, and I might be shaking or crying.

If that happens, I will tell myself that it is because I am remembering (name the trauma, no details)

Then I will turn on the light and look around at my room. I will name the things in my room that I can see.

And I will tell myself that I just had a nightmare, and that (name the trauma, no details)

is not happening right now

Flashbacks

What is a flashback?

A flashback is a dissociated memory that returns to consciousness. It might be a smell, a taste, a sound, an image, an emotion, or a combination of these things. It might last a moment or linger for weeks.

Flashbacks can be described in many different ways. Some people describe flashbacks as being like nightmares that happen to you while you are awake, remembering memories, or re-experiencing the assault. Sometimes people describe smelling alcohol or perfume when there is no one present, hearing a word over and over again in their heads, feeling panic or dread for no logical reason, or seeing pictures, like snapshots or a movie in their head.

Whatever term you use to describe them, they are usually very frightening experiences.

Experiencing flashbacks does not mean that you are losing your mind. It means that you are at a point in your life where you are able to deal with things that perhaps you couldn’t cope with earlier. Flashbacks tend to lose their intensity once you have assembled the fragments into a coherent memory, talked about it, cried about it, and absorbed the memory into your life.

The flashbacks you are experiencing are only memories. They cannot hurt you and you are not being re-abused. You may feel powerless because you cannot control when these memories are going to emerge. But you do have control over how you feel afterwards. You may experience a wide range of emotions. Acknowledge them and allow yourself to feel them (even though this may seem painful).

Take some time to recover from flashbacks and look after yourself. By looking after yourself you are acknowledging that you are a good person worthy of nice things. Whatever you choose to do, take some time out for yourself.

Strategies for dealing with flashbacks

  • Try to relax. Although this is difficult, trying to relax reduces the stress that accompanies the flashback and usually means the flashback will pass more quickly
  • Concentrate on breathing deeply and slowly. Sometimes when people are stressed they forget to breathe, and they freeze up. Focusing on breathing helps to free you from ‘freezing up’ and also provides a distraction from the flashback.
  • Remind yourself that the abuse is not happening now. You are remembering the abuse, and that can be painful, but it is still a memory and not occurring right now.
  • Find a safe place. This may be somewhere in your house, school, work, garden etc. Try to concentrate on breathing slowly and deeply while you are getting there.
  • Seek out a support person, someone you feel safe with.
  • Imagine a safe place. This can be anywhere or anything that helps you feel safe. You could use a photograph, draw or write it down before a flashback occurs, so that you can have it ready and refer to it.
  • Remember positive encouragements from your support people. Imagine the person is there with you, encouraging you. Think of what they would say to you to help you feel stronger.
  • Touch or hold something to ground you in the present moment, instead of feeling pulled into the past where the abuse occurred. This could be a table, a chair or a pillow etc.
  • Hold onto a soft toy or an object that helps you feel safe/comforted.
  • Use the flashback protocol. With practice this may help to reduce further flashbacks.
  • You might find it useful to talk to other people you trust about it. This could be a close friend, your counsellor, or even writing about it. This helps to acknowledge that although you suffered alone when you were abused, you don’t need to be on your own when you are healing from it.

Flashback protocol*

This can be used to help halt traumatic flashbacks and ground you in the present. With practice, this may help to reduce the occurrence of further flashbacks.

“Right now I am feeling (name the current emotion, for example ‘fear’)

and I am sensing in my body (describe, in detail, the current bodily sensation)

Because I am remembering (name the trauma, no details)

and, at the same time, I am looking around where I am now in (say the year)

here (name the place where you are right now)

and I can see (describe some things that you can see right now)

and so I know (name the trauma again)

is not happening now/anymore

*Adapted from Rothschild,B (2000). The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York: W.W.Norton

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