Trauma nightmares can not only rob you of sleep but make you dread going to bed at night. They can become a force that destroys you mentally and emotionally. It's important to learn techniques for handling them so they don't handle you.
Why do nightmares occur?
Nightmares can be your brain's way of working things out. Think of your brain as a problem solving machine. Ruminating about things over and over again is one way your brain solves problems. If you experienced a traumatic event, your brain is highly motivated to solve this "problem" in order to avoid getting hurt in that way again. Let's imagine that you were in a serious automobile accident where an 18 wheeler swerved over into your lane and broad-sided you. You sustained serious injuries, were in the hospital a long time and required several months to recuperate after being discharged. Your brain may play this scenario over and over again, trying to figure out a solution.
Nightmares may also be your brain's way of talking to you. If you have repressed the memory of something which hurt you and refuse to acknowledge it while awake, your brain may bring it up while you are asleep. This is why it's important not to stuff things down. You may not be able to face them head on at first and it may be important to develop some coping skills for processing tiny bits of the memory at a time, but completely denying that it happened at all goes far in the opposite direction. Your brain will be driven to bring this information into your awareness so you can figure out how to avoid it in the future.
The most vivid dreams occur in the deepest level of sleep, often called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Therefore if you are to access dreams successfully it is important that you get a good night's sleep and that you are able to reach this depth of sleep. REM sleep is not reached until about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. It then cycles back up to light sleep and back down into deep sleep approximately every 90 minutes. The more time you allow for sleep the more stages of REM you will pass through and the more dreams you may have to remember and work with. This is why some people only start to experience dreams after they received medication to help them sleep. Though the medication does help them sleep, they may also start to experience nightmares because they are now able to get down to this lower level of sleep and are now able to dream as a result.
How do I start? You will need two skills: 1) dream recall and 2) reality testing.
Develop your dream recall.
In order to deal with nightmares you have to remember what they are. Some people wake up from a nightmare absolutely terrified, but they cannot remember what they were dreaming. If you can't remember what you were dreaming you can't work with it.
The most effective way to strengthen dream recall is to keep a dream journal by your bed. Our dreams are most powerful when we first wake up. The sooner you can record the dream in all its vibrance, the more information you will preserve about the dream.
However, some people are not into writing. Whether you journal them, draw them, paint them, dance them or sing them, expressing your dreams will heighten your recall of them. This will take patience and persistence, but you can do it. Be kind to yourself and let it happen at your own pace. If you are working with a friend, partner or therapist do not let them determine how quickly you move. Your brain will release more information as it feels safe to do so. And no one else can determine what that speed should be.
When you are able to remember 1-2 dreams per night you are ready to try lucid dreaming.
Practice reality testing.
It's important to be able to distinguish when you are awake and when you are dreaming. This may sound silly, but what makes a nightmare so scary is that it feels real. Right? So practice testing reality. This may seem silly when you are awake, but if you get into this habit, you will find this tool available to you when you are dreaming. If you can simply realize that what you are experiencing is a dream and not reality this will take some of the fear out of it and give you some control. How do you practice reality testing?
Start when you are awake. Look around. How can you know that what you are experiencing right now is real? Tap the computer screen. You can feel it. Knock on the table top. You can hear it. Touch the walls. Smell the coffee in your cup. Feel its heat in your hand. Tap your feet on the ground. It's all simple enough. Now let's look at dreams or nightmares.
Look through your dream journal for things which defy reality. Breathing underwater, walking through things, weird landscapes, being in places you've never visited, monsters or other supernatural creatures can indicate that you are in a dream.
Now come back to the real world and compare. The hands on the clock move. You are not able to walk through walls. Nothing supernatural is occurring. You can touch things and determine they are real. Getting into the habit of doing this while awake will make it more natural to do it when dreaming.
Once you've mastered these two things you can try lucid dreaming to take hold of the nightmare and control it. There are at least two ways to do it: 1) rewrite the script and 2) improvize.
Rewrite the Script
This technique only works with recurring nightmares. Once you are able to recall the dream, practice having it while you are awake. Lie down somewhere quiet where you will not be disturbed. You may want to have some warm fuzzies around so when you finish (or if the nightmare scares you) you can comfort yourself. Practice having the dream, but change what happens. If a monster comes up behind you and is trying to grab you and you fear you can't get away, imagine you come across something that will allow you to outrun it. If something is choking you, grow big hands that will allow you to break free of it. Whatever it is that is attacking you, design a way to escape or overpower it. It's important that you escape or overpower it by your own means. You don't want to script a dream where someone else rides in and saves you. This does not empower you. The purpose of these exercises is to empower you to overcome whatever is threatening to harm you.
Once you've rewritten the script to satisfy yourself practice it over and over. This rewritten script will eventually take place of the nightmare.
Joan has a recurring dream of being chased by a huge, dark presence. In the dream she feels very small and weak and unable to run fast enough. She wakes up with her heart pounding, sweating and terrified. With a little practice she eventually becomes aware that it is a dream and rescripts it. The huge, dark presence is chasing her, but she manipulates the dream so that instead of being small and weak she starts to grow, and grow, until she is much larger than the presence. She becomes a fiery ball of fury and blasts the dark presence out of the dream by the sheer force of her anger.
Another form of lucid dreaming involves the process in which you are conscious that you are in a dream and you actively participate in the dream and change its direction. This is difficult to describe and there is no pat way to do it. Simply being told I was able to do this and practicing my reality testing allowed me to be able to script my own dreams on the fly. I was dreaming one night and suddenly realized, "Hey, I'm dreaming!" That awareness combined with the knowledge that I could change the dream allowed me to direct it. The objects and things in the dream did not change, but I was able to change course and direct my actions to do what I wanted. The dream then went from being scary to being intriguing and fun. I was more curious about what I could do than I was afraid.
Most of the fear of nightmares comes from being powerless and unable to control what is happening to you. If you can do anything which will give you more control and help you feel less powerless it will dampen the fear. This is the purpose of lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming is difficult to learn, but worth the effort. It's important for you to go at your own pace and to be patient. If things get too intense, back up and take a breather. If working with your dreams is bringing up too many painful emotions or causing you to lose too much sleep you may choose to work on your dreams only on the weekends when your work will not be impaired. Success will come in very small steps. You must first become aware that what you are experiencing is a dream, not reality. This awareness may be only for a moment during your dream, but will increase as you are more in tune. This realization alone may be all you need to take the terror out of your nightmares.