When I was 23 years old, I was diagnosed with PTSD after a sexual assault. The advice I’m going to share is from a psychotherapist I saw who basically cured my PTSD nightmares.
I experienced a severe case of PTSD. To be completely transparent, prior to the assault, I was formally diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. So, the PTSD was magnified unlike anything doctors had ever seen before.
Going to sleep was the scariest part of my day. It was incredibly difficult to feel safe enough to let go and close my eyes. My greatest fear was that something would happen to me while I was asleep. I also knew that falling asleep would lead to multiple nightmares throughout the night.
At its worst, I was waking up from PTSD nightmares every ten minutes. Literally. I would look at the clock every time I woke up. And only ten minutes would’ve passed each time I awoke. It was horrible.
For months, I was in a state of lucid dreaming. I was so sleep deprived that months blurred together. I slept enough to have nightmares but my sleep was interrupted throughout the night.
The advice my psychotherapist shared with me took time to work. But it eventually helped me desensitize the horror from the nightmares. And to be honest, I still practice what she told me to this day and it still works like a charm nine years later.
The Best Advice I Ever Got To Make PTSD Nightmares Stop
My psychotherapist shared, “nightmares are just the brain’s way of processing information.” The trauma arises because you’re being forced to deal with it. Your brain is telling you that it’s time to address the trauma. However, the feelings you’re experiencing in the nightmare such as loss of control or fear are just symbols for how you feel in your waking life.
She said, “every time you wake up from a nightmare, say out loud to yourself, “I’m just processing information.” That’s the big secret to my PTSD nightmare cure. It’s literally the simplest thing to practice. But by expliciting stating why the nightmare is happening, you slowly stop fearing the nightmare. Instead, you begin to logically understand why it’s happening.
PTSD nightmares are very emotional experiences. But repeating the statement every time you wake up from a nightmare helps balance out the emotion with logic.
I’ve literally repeated this mantra after every nightmare for years. Eventually, years later when your PTSD resurfaces again, you’ll be able to take care of yourself on your own without the help of a psychotherapist. And when you wake up from a nightmare, you’ll realize you’re simply processing information and you won’t be scared when you wake up. And so you fall back asleep.
Other Methods to Make PTSD Nightmares Stop
1. Find a Safe Place to Sleep
Some people with PTSD are afraid of sleeping in their homes. If you feel safer sleeping in different places so you aren’t trackable, then do that. A psychotherapist will likely advise against that. But you know what helps make you feel safe. Getting a good night’s sleep while you have PTSD is more important than anything else. It’s not a permanent solution. You can’t sleep in different places your whole life. But it can help bring you back to a stable point of your mental health in the short-term.
At the height of my PTSD, I went to the hospital a few times and slept there because I figured I’d be safe with so many people around. I didn’t tell them that I was there to sleep, I simply went in the middle of the night because I was having severe panic attacks, hypervigilance, and other related PTSD symptoms. And most psychiatric doctors aren’t at the hospital at 2 in the morning.
I also slept at the houses of different friends. I would constantly change my location because I was scared of being found. It was my way of protecting myself. But it’s important to know that you really don’t need to change your location. You aren’t actually in danger anymore. You feel like you’re in danger. I know it’s hard to believe. I forget too sometimes so no judgment from me here.
By finding a safe place to sleep, you might slowly find yourself waking up from PTSD nightmares less frequently through the night. It also helps because being sleep deprived may make you hallucinate more which may trigger the nightmares as well. So it’s important that you sleep where you feel safe.
2. Change Your Bedtime Routine
A self-care bedtime routine is so important to stop PTSD nightmares. Before bed, try to do relaxing activities. The greatest savior at relaxation for me has been lavender scented products. When I shower I always use lavender scented shampoo, conditioner, and soap. Lavender is known to be a relaxing scent. You can also buy candles, essential oils, and air freshener in the scent.
Avoid watching stimulating shows at all. Say goodbye to any horror, gory, or triggering television shows. You might find shows and movies that you once loved now trigger you. Instead, focus on reading books before bed. I like reading books about meditation, astronomy, and business. The topics are not triggering but they help you learn something new. There are likely topics that you can learn more about that can help distract you from thinking about the trauma. Try not to get lost in thought while you read. That happens to me sometimes. I have to keep reminding myself to bring my attention back to the text. So if it happens to you, that’s normal. PTSD is a bit distracting.
3. Add Security Features to Your Home
The worst thing about PTSD is that you lose your sense of security. Not feeling safe in your waking world ends up taking over in your sleep world. If you’re constantly being triggered during the day from sudden sounds, your dreams will be reminders and will resurface subconscious thoughts into your nightmares.
Some good ideas might be to live in a building with a security guard and security cameras. They’re often available to rent at standard rent prices for cities. Knowing that you’re building has someone keeping everyone safe may help you feel safer.
You can install locks on your bedroom door. That was my number one request when I had PTSD. It makes a huge difference. You can also install a security system in your home so you can feel safe in your home. Sleeping with your phone by your bedside may also make you feel safer.
You might also start considering the safest routes to get from one place to another. Maybe you work at a company that allows you to work remotely so you can limit potential dangers. But remember, these are simply bandaid solutions for the short-term. You can’t hide from the world forever.
If you struggle with severe sounds, you might choose to avoid going to certain events to feel safe. For example, some veterans suffer from the sound of fireworks. So maybe you avoid going to new year’s celebrations or long weekend firework shows. Hypervigilance from sounds can be really scary. It’s okay to avoid that for a while.
By focusing on limiting triggers and creating a safer environment, it helps you slowly settle back down. The nightmares from PTSD eventually decrease over the period of months. These simple changes simply help minimize the fear you feel. And by limiting the fear, you can slowly stop having PTSD nightmares.
4. Do What Your Body Tells You To Do
People who’ve never had PTSD will often tell you not to do certain things because “you’ll make it worse.” “It’s all in your head,” they say. And of course, that’s not reassuring because it all feels so real.
There will be times you’ll go through ridiculous lengths to reduce stress, feel safe, and minimize your emotions. A trained professional may tell you that you’ll make things worse by doing those things. But as a person who has been through it, doing those weird things like giving up sex and alcohol for a year, cutting out certain people from my life, or sleeping in a place I felt safe was really important for the healing process. And in a year and a half, I was able to go back to having a normal life. It simply became just one chapter of my life story.
Remember that things little things you do to feel safe or sane help you cope with the trauma. It may seem strange to another person. But you know why you’re doing it. You likely won’t regret the decisions you make. Of course, don’t hurt yourself or anyone. But if you need to make slight modifications about who you hang out with or where you sleep, it’s okay.
Eventually, by taking care of your mental health and wellbeing, the nightmares do decrease. So take the steps that you feel you need to do even if others don’t understand. But don’t do anything illegal or dangerous. Trust me on that one!
5. Call a Friend
If you’re struggling with PTSD nightmares and aren’t in a relationship, you might be feeling scared at night. One of the most effective things you can do in that situation is head over to Facebook in the middle of the night and check who’s online. Keep in mind some people are night owls or are awake in a different time zone. You can reach out to them and ask if you can have a quick chat or phone call with them as you try to calm yourself down.
The person who helped me was a former coworker named Derek. I hadn’t spoken to him in years when I had sent the message. However, he saw the desperation in my message and became my greatest ally as I coped with horrific PTSD nightmares and a fear of sleep. He’d stay on the phone with me until 6 in the morning until I finally got tired enough to fall asleep. Thus, minimizing the fear of sleep.
6. Practice Meditation
There are guided meditations for PTSD that you can follow along to for free. Meditation isn’t about being alone with your thoughts. It’s about seeing the thoughts and your mind and watching them pass. You’ll learn breathing techniques to help you relax.
There are also guided meditations for sleep to help you relax at the end of the night. If you find that your anxiety rises to an impossible to manage level at night, these meditations can help lower your stress level. You’ll follow along to a soothing voice walking you through your breathing which will help ease you into sleep.
7. Speak with a Psychotherapist
Getting help from a trained professional can be a game-changer. But finding the right psychotherapist can be difficult. I had to fire the first psychotherapist I saw. After one appointment I left the office feeling more scared than before I had entered. Avoid going to free services because they often don’t attract the best psychotherapists.
I found the best person to help me by getting admitted to the hospital and being referred to the hospital’s sexual assault unit. The psychotherapist in that division was hired by the hospital. Her role involved going to court with survivors, helping survivors through their trauma, using CBT therapy and various other techniques to help survivors deal with their trauma.
At the time, I couldn’t afford a psychotherapist, I was a student and I had just gotten fired from my job. So I was able to fill out a form that allowed me to see her for free. But she did have a fee for other patients. Keep in mind that Canada does have free healthcare. However, they may be affordable services if you don’t have the budget to get professional help for your PTSD nightmares.
PTSD nightmares do eventually go away. But the real secret isn’t to make nightmares stop but to minimize the fear of them. Using the trick mentioned in this article, you’ll eventually see a rapid decrease of nightmares from PTSD. And years later when symptoms get triggered, you’ll be able to ease yourself back to sleep easily. If you’re currently struggling with PTSD nightmares, let us know in the comments if you try out any of these tricks.