Nightmares can be terrifying and all-encompassing for an individual who has suffered child abuse. Nightmares are one of the symptoms of Complex PTSD. They can happen out of the blue without anything triggering them in our conscious brains. They just happen because our unconscious mind is dealing with a specific memory. Some survivors have nightmares all the time and living with repeated terror is absolutely draining. It can consume an individual and start to take over their waking hours and affect their ability to function. Another survivor may have sporadic nightmares every now and then without having specific triggers causing them. This can also be tiring for an individual as they don’t know when a nightmare will hit. A few lucky survivors don’t often get nightmares and when they do, they are in response to something that triggered them during the day. It doesn’t matter how much you are affected by nightmares, these are normal symptoms of Complex PTSD.
When I talk about triggers, I mean anything that triggers a flashback or memory of childhood abuse. A trigger is usually sensory and triggered by one or more of our five senses (smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing). All survivors are unique in their healing journey and what happened to one survivor is different from another because of our abuse stories. That means that our triggers are different too. Some survivors may get triggered by objects like rope, cable ties, or handcuffs, whereas another survivor may find certain sounds or smells tricky. Another survivor may find certain foods tricky to handle or see something happen like an argument. A survivor may also be triggered by multi-sensory events. Triggers do exist and they are everywhere. Most of the time we learn what to avoid so we don’t get triggered but other times we may get caught in complete surprise and I’m talking about bad surprises here, not the good kind!
I am a survivor of child sexual abuse and horrific trauma. I have lived with triggers all my life. Life is always going to have good days and bad days but for an individual suffering from Complex PTSD, some bad days can be overwhelmingly painful. I have been there many times and I hope my experience of how I got myself out of this darkness will help you – my fellow survivors.
In this blog, I aim to explore what happens to an individual during a nightmare and techniques on how we can overcome these and return our bodies back to normal. I am only describing my own experience here from a survivor’s viewpoint. I am not a doctor or a psychiatrist. If you are suffering from persistent nightmares, consider seeking professional help if you feel overwhelmed. Believe me when I say, I have been there and I know how painful nightmares can be.
The physical traits of a nightmare
Recognize some of this or maybe all of it?
You go to bed, fall asleep, only to wake up suddenly to a room shrouded in complete darkness. You are dripping with sweat as you sit up like a lightning rod, pulling off the comforter and panting like you are running a marathon but the air doesn’t seem to go into your lungs. You pant harder, faster and you try and scream but no sound comes out. Your heart is drumming so hard in your chest that it feels like it’s about to rip out of your body and pound out of the room. All your muscles are tense, eyes wide open but not seeing anything apart from the nightmare that woke you up. You may even be living the nightmare, half awake and half asleep. Then you hear yourself scream, the most earth-shattering scream that can be heard a mile away. The scream wakes up the neighbors.
Waking up like this is terrifying because your unconscious mind has given you a nightmare of a horrific memory from your childhood. Your mind may have retrieved this memory and it feels like you are re-living it just like it happened. You are feeling disoriented and confused when you wake up. You have no clue where you are, who you are with, and what time it is. Sometimes you don’t even remember who you are and how old you are. Having a nightmare of child abuse that happened decades previously is not an easy thing to go through or explain to loved ones. Yet, most survivors do have regular nightmares to varying degrees of severity. Some are easy to handle and others can take days to process afterward. Those are the kind that spills into your conscious mind. They run on constant flashing movies, like a bee in your bonnet that refuses to go away.
So, how do you handle nightmares?
It can take a few minutes to get your bearings when you wake up suddenly from a vivid, often traumatic, nightmare. This is how I handle most of my nightmares. My husband is usually next to me and wakes me up by touching my hand and shaking it gently, drawing me back to the present. He knows not to overwhelm me by hugging me because that makes me lash out at him believing at that moment he is my abuser. If I don’t respond and am still in my nightmare he rubs my back and that repetitive action wakes me. The comfort of being touched and his voice grounds me back to the present moment. He then turns the light on and talks to me in a soothing voice reminding me of where I am and what year it is.
When my husband is traveling and I wake from a nightmare, it takes me much longer to “come back” to the present. I find that “Grounding techniques” work best in the pitch black of the bedroom. At first, I look around the room and try and make sense of the shadows around me as I calm my breathing. As I realize my nightmare is losing its grip on me and I wake, the room is still just darkness and often deadly silent. Most often I start panicking and I scream but then suddenly something in the room brings me back to the present moment and I grasp that I am no longer in my nightmare but I am somewhere else. The shadows are different and confusion hits me. I then mentally tell myself my name, how old I am, where I am, and where I live. I remind myself of my life, and my kids and by this point, I am back in the present and reach for the light. It still takes me a while to get my breath back and stop shaking. I notice my breathing and I take charge of my body by breathing controlled breaths in and out, pause, in and out, pause, etc. I feel my heartbeat slow down and then I tense and relax my muscles in turn starting from my face down to my toes. This is also my mental check to make sure I am still in one piece and not hurt. Yes, that may sound strange but if a nightmare is about being stabbed in the stomach then the first thing I do is to check my stomach for bleeding. The same thing goes for nightmares about being raped. The first thing I check is that I am not hurt or bleeding. Once I have got down to my toes, my body is no longer tense and I have got my control back. A cup of herbal tea helps calm me further or I might be exhausted and fall back to sleep.
How can you prevent nightmares?
This is a personal question because we are all different in our healing journeys and we are different as human beings. I know what my personal triggers are and I also know that some things can easily turn into triggers. I can only speak about my own experience in reducing triggers and some might help you with yours. I try not to be on my cell phone or on the computer right before I go to bed. I also avoid movies and TV shows that are scary right before bed as I know those could trigger me, especially sexual violence and murders. I like to listen to music to calm down.
If I have had a nightmare that keeps coming back, I try and expose it and thereby reducing its effect and grip on me. I write about my nightmares and I talk about them to selected individuals. It helps to expose these memories and deal with how they affect me. A lot of my very early childhood memories come back often and those are the ones I find hard to process myself. I go to a therapist who helps me with these deeper memories. The ability to reflect and talk about trauma memories is something survivors find difficult. This is because we were young children and we did not understand what was happening to us or our bodies at the time of abuse. It is impossible to explain something we don’t fully understand. Part of our healing journey is trying to understand what happened as well as come to terms with how it has and still is affecting our lives.
When I am ready to go to bed, I try and make myself as calm and relaxed as possible. I enjoy reading and writing and those activities calm me down. Sometimes I pick up my guitar and play for a while. When I am ready and put on my pajamas, I leave all my stresses and worries behind with the washing. I go through getting ready for bed and mentally clear my mind. I say my prayers and relax in bed.
Going to bed for me is a ritual similar to putting a child to bed. I try and calm myself down as much as possible and I never go to bed angry. If I have something on my mind that won’t go away, I try and reason it away or mentally shelf it for the next day. Sometimes, I try a few mindfulness exercises like telling myself 3 good things that happened that day or 3 things I am grateful for. Focusing on the positive can be hard after a difficult day, but it is worth it.
I hope that some of my experiences of dealing with nightmares are of help to you, my fellow survivors. Take care of yourself and remember that you are not alone.
Elizabeth Woods grew up unwanted, in a world of brutal sex offenders, murderers, and inconceivably neglectful adults. She got caught up in a secret sex ring where her so-called father was in charge and loaned her out to vicious sexual predators for their enjoyment. She suffered sexual abuse throughout her entire childhood and desperately tried to seek help from the adults around her. She was let down by doctors and psychiatrists who knew she was being abused but was sent back repeatedly to be harmed again. She was forced to witness several brutal murders. Memories that will forever be ingrained in her mind.
Elizabeth survived in an environment where most people would not and she is now able to help other survivors heal from trauma. Elizabeth lives in a happy home with her husband and children. She has friends all around her and is working a job she loves. Elizabeth has written a book, telling her childhood story: The Sex-Offender’s Daughter: A True Story of Survival Against All Odds, available on Amazon Kindle. https://www.amazon.com/Sex-Offenders-Daughter-Story-Survival-Against-ebook/dp/B0BBSV97VF/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1W93IR8PLCYOH&keywords=the+sexoffenders+daughter&qid=1668277897&sprefix=the+sexoffenders+daughter%2Caps%2C151&sr=8-1