This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation
Experiencing or witnessing upsetting events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that affects 7.7 million American adults. The disorder can cause people to feel anxious and afraid, leading to flashbacks and nightmares. In fact, up to 96 percent of people with PTSD have these upsetting dreams. Fortunately, there are several approaches to treating PTSD-related nightmares. If you or someone you love is dealing with PTSD, read on to understand how it impacts sleep, and available treatment options.
The Nightmare Connection
For people with PTSD, nightmares aren’t just generic scary dreams—they generally revolve around the person’s traumatic experience, forcing survivors to relive the pain on a regular basis. Someone who witnessed a shooting, for example, may find that the event replays in his or her nightmares.
For some people, nightmares start soon after the traumatic event; others may go years before having their first bad dream. The nightmares typically occur earlier in the night, and people may react physically to them, thrashing around in their sleep or shouting.
What You Can Do
PTSD treatment can help lower the frequency of trauma-related nightmares. There are several approaches to treatment, and the optimal strategy varies from person to person. It may involve types of cognitive therapy, meditation, medication, and more.
If the nightmares don’t stop after PTSD treatment, imagery rehearsal therapy may help. This technique involves having people who are experiencing nightmares recall their bad dream and come up with a new ending while they are awake so that it no longer upsets them. They then “rehearse” the new ending over and over in their mind, with the goal of it carrying over the next time the nightmare occurs, eventually reducing the frequency of the upsetting dream.
Medication is rarely prescribed for PTSD-related nightmares, but if nothing else is working—or if the nightmares are severe—talk to your doctor. Research shows that certain drugs, such as sympatholytic medication used to treat high blood pressure, may help. Remember, while PTSD is serious, many people are successfully treated and go on to live full, happy lives.