December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 12 min read
After experiencing something as traumatic as sexual assault or abuse, many survivors face recurring unpleasant dreams or nightmares. Some research suggests that survivors who experience nightmares may struggle with as many as five or more distressing dreams per week.
These dreams (sometimes referred to as “post-traumatic dreams”) may take the form of flashbacks, wherein the survivor feels as if they are experiencing the assault all over again. However, bad dreams and nightmares that arise after an experience of sexual assault can take on many different forms and often do not involve explicit or exact details of a real-life experience. All distressing dreams that arise after an experience of sexual assault can be extremely disruptive to one’s life, but the information in this article can help.
If you’re experiencing unpleasant, distressing, scary, or traumatic dreams following an experience of sexual assault, rape, or abuse, the following list will provide some ideas for how to cope.
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For all aspects of sexual trauma recovery, seeking support from a trained therapist or counselor is among the most effective ways to make meaningful progress. If you don’t already have a therapist, seek out someone who specializes in working with sexual assault and abuse survivors. Some therapists also specialize in sleep disturbances and disorders, so finding a provider with experience in both of these areas could be especially helpful.
Survivors who are specifically interested in addressing the nature of their dreams might find it helpful to seek out a therapist trained in Jungian psychology. Jungian analysts are specially trained to help patients navigate the mysterious and symbolic realm of the unconscious, particularly as it relates to dreams.
“Sleep hygiene” refers to the practice of supporting the body’s natural ability to regulate its sleep/wake cycle. Although research is limited, practicing good sleep hygiene is thought to reduce the overall severity and frequency of nightmares.
Some ways to practice good sleep hygiene include:
While good sleep hygiene won’t get rid of nightmares entirely, it can help reduce their frequency and eliminate other factors that may contribute to the presence of distressing dreams.
Another way to promote peaceful sleep is to intentionally turn your bedroom into as safe and relaxing of a space as possible. The first step in this process is to ensure that your bedroom is, in fact, safe. Depending on your circumstances, this might involve installing a lock on your door or window or disallowing certain people from entering your sleeping space.
Once your room feels safe in a practical sense, try some of the following ideas to promote a deeper sense of comfort in your space:
Regardless of how many techniques you try, bad dreams and nightmares will likely continue to happen from time to time. First, remind yourself that it’s normal to struggle with nightmares after experiencing trauma. Continuing to experience traumatic dreams does not mean that you have failed in your healing journey.
When bad dreams inevitably arise, make sure you have a plan in place to comfort and ground yourself after you wake up. Nightmares often leave us feeling stressed, activated, terrified, or heartbroken. We might even wake up with physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, cold sweat, heavy breathing, or crying.
First, find ways to calm your nervous system after the distressing dream. This might mean making yourself a cup of tea, taking a warm shower or bath, or calling a friend or loved one. Having a plan ahead of time in the event of a traumatic dream can help you in the moment by eliminating the decision-making process.
Other ideas for grounding yourself after a nightmare include:
Calling a trusted friend or loved one after a distressing dream can help you feel comforted, grounded, and safe in the moment. If you feel comfortable, let someone close to you know that you struggle with nightmares and ask if they would be open to receiving a call during the night. Although not everyone will be able to accommodate the need, chances are someone in your life will be available to support you should a particularly distressing dream arise.
If you live with a partner or friend, talk to them about your nightmares and let them know that you might need to lean on them for support from time to time.
As you begin to shift your relationship to bad dreams and nightmares, consider keeping a log of what helps and doesn’t help. For example, if you have a nightmare, take note of what foods you ate the previous day, what time you went to bed, what kinds of activities you participated in, etc. Once you have enough information, you will likely begin to see some patterns arise.
Some factors that might affect the frequency or severity of your nightmares include eating certain foods, engaging in certain habits (especially right before bed), watching certain movies or television shows, etc. By taking note of these things, you can adjust your habits accordingly to reduce or eliminate the things that worsen your distressing dreams.
Although the nature of dreams is still a mystery to us, it’s generally understood that our dreams are an expression of our subconscious minds. By taking time during our waking hours to acknowledge and process our emotions, this can help keep our subconscious minds clear of unprocessed emotions that may come out through our dreams. Some techniques for consciously processing emotions include journaling, practicing presence and mindfulness, dancing, playing music, engaging in creative activities, and talking to friends and loved ones about our feelings.
If you’re interested in working with your dreams specifically, you can also try logging your dreams, writing poetry or stories about your dreams, creating art, music, or dance that expresses elements of your dreams, etc. While it may seem scary or overwhelming to think about giving more space to your distressing dreams, some survivors might find it helpful to face their recurring nightmares head on.
Dealing with sleep disturbances is exhausting and disheartening, and the work it requires to cultivate a healthy sleep pattern takes focus and energy. Amidst all of this, it’s important to practice patience and compassion with yourself. Remember that recovering from the fallout of a traumatic experience can take time and that your bad dreams and nightmares may persist. However, this does not mean that you’re failing in your recovery process. Try cultivating a kind inner voice by reminding yourself that it’s okay to not be okay, and that you’re allowed to take all the time you need to find balance again.
Ultimately, post-traumatic dreams are one symptom of the larger issue of trauma and post-traumatic stress. To truly move through a phase of life characterized by recurring stressful dreams, it’s important to focus on general trauma recovery practices. For more information on how to do this, check out our article “Your Step-By-Step Guide to Recovering from Sexual Trauma.”
Bad dreams and nightmares are unfortunately a common occurrence for survivors of sexual trauma. If you’re struggling with distressing dreams as a result of a traumatic experience, there are many things you can do to support yourself and your sleep. Although none of the techniques discussed above are guaranteed to eliminate bad dreams entirely, they will help you re-establish a healthy relationship with sleep and move through the difficult emotions that may be contributing to your unpleasant dreams.
Bad dreams and nightmares are an extremely common aspect of post-traumatic stress for sexual assaults survivors. Many survivors experience these dreams as flashbacks, while others might have more symbolic or cryptic dreams that still produce extreme amounts of stress or fear. One of the best ways to cope with post-traumatic dreams is to seek help from a trained mental health professional. Survivors struggling with these symptoms should seek out a therapist or counselor who specializes in sexual trauma recovery, sleep disturbances, or both. Other techniques for coping with bad dreams and nightmares include practicing good sleep hygiene, creating a sense of safety and calm in your sleep space, practicing grounding techniques when bad dreams arise, reaching out to friends or loved ones for support, taking note of what contributes to the bad dreams, processing emotions that may contribute to bad dreams, and focusing on general trauma recovery.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.
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