Many survivors experience frequent or disturbing nightmares as a result of their abuse. Nightmares serve two purposes: our subconscious mind can process the horrors we’ve experienced in a “safe” setting, and it can also continue to feed hypervigilance during waking hours. Dreams give us the ability to revisit the abuse, in a setting which is physically safe. This can help us unlock feelings about our abuse which we have repressed or not yet identified. For survivors who experience hypervigilance (a heightened sense of awareness or fear about your surroundings), nightmares can also feed the cycle of fear leading to hypervigilance.
For whatever reasons we have nightmares, frequent or horrific nightmares can leave us drained, dissociated, and hypervigilant. There is a method (which has no official name) which can help reduce both the frequency and intensity of nightmares. Along with your other methods of processing/healing (talk therapy, counseling, medication, exercise, meditation, etc.), it can help to reduce your stress during waking hours, and help you have more energy to face the cycles of processing after abuse or rape.
Below the cut will be a brief description of the method, for those who haven’t heard of it:
1. Have a soothing routine before bedtime: 1 hour before bedtime, don’t do anything you know will trigger you (including music, movies, places, books, websites, etc.). 15 minutes before bedtime, do something actively soothing to you. Some people find reading a non-triggering book, putting lotion on hands/legs, quiet meditation, etc. to be soothing before bedtime. This helps keep your mind off upsetting things before you start dreaming.
2. As soon as you wake up from a nightmare, smell a comforting smell. Scent is the sense most strongly linked to emotion, so it will very quickly help you calm down and feel centered. Good options for comforting smells: an unlit scented candle (which come in every scent from fresh baked bread, to lavender, to sea spray, to clean linen), a previously worn shirt of a loved one (so you can smell them and know you’re not alone), or even a favorite perfume/cologne. The key is to remember to have it within arm’s reach, so you can immediately smell it. If you can’t think of a comforting smell, but have an object which is that level of comforting, use that instead.
3. After you feel calmer, close your eyes and imagine a different ending to the dream. If your abuser found you, have the abuser get arrested, put to trial, and convicted. If you were attacked, give yourself the power to heal, and give yourself super-fighting powers. Re-write the ending of the nightmare in a way which makes you feel better, even if the ending is cliché or silly. Even if you re-write the dream to all be some big, horrible practical joke, it will help keep that lingering feeling from the nightmare from setting in.
If used consistently, over a few weeks to a couple months, your brain stops associating nightmares with being beneficial. Your mind can stop using nightmares as a means to an end (which can reduce their frequency and intensity), and you learn some good coping skills to use when you do have nightmares.
This week’s Questions:
- Do you have nightmares relating to your abuse? Did you have an increase in nightmare frequency or intensity after your abuse?
- What type of nightmare do you tend to have the most? Being attacked, overall anxiety, gory, feeling stalked, etc.?
In relation to the method for reducing nightmares:
- What types of activities could you avoid in the hour before bed? What activities do you consider non-triggering, that you enjoy, that you could start doing before bed?
- What focused soothing could you do in the 15 minutes before you go to sleep?
- What smell is the most comforting? What is your favorite happy memory – and is there a smell which reminds you of that memory? What object is instantly soothing for you to have nearby?
- Based on what type of nightmare you tend to have, what are some ways in which you could re-write those nightmares?