Night terrors and nightmares can be scary for the person who is experiencing them. But they can be especially frightening for a spouse or bed partner who finds himself or herself a helpless bystander.
Anyone can experience nightmares or night terrors, but as many as 96% of people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffer from vivid nightmares that can feel overwhelmingly real. And unlike garden-variety bad dreams, those nightmares are more likely to involve physical thrashing or other bodily movements. For some, that can make sleeping in the same bed difficult, if not dangerous.
Nevertheless, there are things that you can do to support your partner during the day that will set you both up for a better night’s sleep.
Working through the experiences that led to PTSD is something that your partner has to do. What you can do is take care of you, whether by talking to a therapist or spending time with supportive friends. Also, ask your doctor if there are any PTSD support groups in your zip code or search for a virtual one online—talking with others who are in a similar situation may help you feel less alone and gain valuable advice.
Avoid Alcohol and Drugs.
Drinking and using drugs are coping mechanisms that some people use to deal with PTSD, but they come with serious risks. For one thing, they can ruin both your relationship with your spouse and your sleep. They can also lead to addiction. Try to replace a nighttime ritual of drinking with something else entirely that's healthier, like an evening workout or closing your eyes and breathing deeply for five minutes and then having a cup of decaf tea.
It can be tempting to try to awaken your partner from a night terror, but it’s actually very difficult to do so. Even if the person appears to be awake, he or she is likely to sleep right through the episode and forget all about it in the morning. Instead, wait it out.
Adjust Your Sleeping Arrangement.
In an ideal world, maybe you’d snuggle peacefully next to your loved one in a quiet, dark room until morning. But for some couples, PTSD or night terrors make it difficult for both partners to get the sleep that they need if they’re together in a bed. A separate space to sleep, even occasionally, may make sense. Likewise, if adding a nightlight helps your partner feel more secure, it’s okay to break the dark bedroom rule.
There’s only so much that you can solve in the dark of night. Set the stage for better sleep by working on good communication with your spouse throughout the day, being proactive about managing stress, and spending a little time doing something that you enjoy every day—whether that means watching Netflix, knitting a sweater, or playing fantasy sports. Add in a healthy bedtime routine (think: shut down electronics a half hour before bed and read something calming) and you’ll both be on the path to better sleep.