⚠️ Note to the reader: This article contains references to trauma, triggers, domestic abuse and male violence, and may include some broad descriptions. Nightmares can be distressing for many; this blog in no way intends to minimise that. Treatment options mentioned won’t be right for everyone. Please reach out to local healthcare providers if you have any concerns about your health and well-being.
This morning, I woke from a nightmare.
This isn’t unusual; I’ve been having them for years. Some might (wrongly) think that as a qualified counsellor and having written a book that covers this topic, that I would be immune to that. But I’m not. Because (and as I cover in Answers In The Dark) this is normal. Let me explain.
I’ve been open about my experience of being subjected to male violence, particularly domestic abuse, and why I talk about it now, so it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who understands this landscape, that nightmares come as part of the trauma “package”.
One of the biggest misconceptions about trauma is that it’s like a broken bone that heals, as if after a while, and with a bit of self-care, you’re “over it”. But, just as when we’re grieving, that’s simply not the case. Anniversaries, movies, even the smell of aftershave can be enough to remind us of what’s gone before. Society’s false expectations of what it means to heal also don’t help, along with systemic failures (like long waiting times for treatment) that keep people suffering. That doesn’t mean we will necessarily be unable to function because of it; for many of us, whilst trauma can be life long, it isn’t always life limiting.
“Blips” are normal
Authentically speaking, well-being also doesn’t mean we never have “blips”; in fact they are to be expected. Life deals us curve balls all the time, and surviving trauma doesn’t mean we will never be triggered again. It’s an awareness, as Bessel van den Kolk says, that The Body Keeps The Score and there will be times when events take us back to places in our minds that were painful.
People worry these “setbacks” mean there’s something wrong with them but, despite what society may endorse, finding our way forward is not linear, with a ‘neat’ beginning and an end. The (false) notion that people in the helping profession should also be above that, as if we are never affected by life, is a myth. The idea no one will ever be triggered again is unhelpful; it’s a natural response to what we’ve been through.
It might mean there are times when we need to be kinder to ourselves, or take a step back for a while to find our way back to centre. To check coping strategies are healthy and if we need, ask for help (especially if those mechanisms are harming us in some way.) If we’re noting elevated or intense emotions, like feelings of anger for example, we might need to check what they’re really giving away. But setbacks don’t mean we are flawed or broken or ‘beyond help’. Not at all.
So if you find you have a “blip”, or a nightmare that surprises you, then that proves you are human, trying to navigate the labyrinth of ways the experiences you’ve been subjected to – through no fault of your own – have had an impact.
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Nightmares are subjective
Nightmares are also different for everyone. A nightmare to me, might not be for you. If you’re scared of dogs, a dream containing them can be terrifying, whereas to someone who loves them, it wouldn’t be a nightmare at all.
They can be loud, violent, or just unsettling. They’re not always gory (although those that are can be particularly distressing), they can relive past events which we feel like we can’t escape from, and they can be repetitive. This is why keeping a dream diary might be helpful, so that we can start to spot patterns in our dreaming; if we know what prompts them, we can prepare helpfully. (I don’t have nightmares as regularly as I used to, but they still arrive periodically; noting when I do has helped me understand why. (I offer a template along with some free resources (subject to availability) in my book).
Importantly, and as I explain in Answers In The Dark, like our dreams, nightmares can be trying to tell us something. Sometimes what we’re not dealing with during the day, can show up in our sleep at night. It might be a relationship breakdown, the pressure of work, or something less obvious: a news article prompts a difficult dream that gets our attention (that’s what happened in my case). They might even be telling us we’re overwhelmed and need a break.
Interestingly, even some forms of medication may prompt nightmares (or the events surrounding the reasons you’re taking them), so always have a chat with your healthcare team, if you think it could be that. Ironically sleep deprivation may also cause bad dreams, which is the kicker if your nightmares are the cause of that; the very definition of a vicious cycle. (I also offer a Sleep Cycle Repair Kit in the book). Where nightmares reference or replay lived experiences, as if they’re happening again, you might find other forms of treatment like EMDR of some benefit.
Over time, you might notice some nightmares become less intense and less troubling – dreams have been described as overnight therapy to help us work through difficult times – especially if we find ways to express them helpfully. (I talk in the book about how some people have used their dreams as inspiration for works of art including books and paintings). You might find when you wake up you’re less affected than you used to be, knowing this is normal and that they’re just trying to help. As you take time to explore them safely (or their pattern), at a pace that’s right for you, you may be able to work out why and what, if anything, you need to do about it.
Most importantly though, please remember that having nightmares doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you; on the contrary, it might mean your brain is working helpfully to try and process all you’ve been through. Sometimes you might need help with that, and that’s a choice for you to make if and when you’re ready. Ultimately though, take your time and do what’s healthy and right for you.
Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal is out now.
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