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Managing trauma nightmares without clear memories of the abuse

From my "Ask Alisa" series
Content Warning

This story may contain descriptions of PTSD symptoms, discussion of child sexual abuse, and the effects of trauma.

In my Friday newsletters I have been answering questions readers have about trauma and healing. Here is a question from Everett (he/him) from Oregon:

Most of my CSA flashbacks take place during my night terrors, rather than during waking hours. Do you have any experience with this, or have heard of this from other survivors? Any tips for managing them? I wake up soaked in sweat almost every night, feeling like I just ran a marathon in my sleep. Additionally, I have struggled with legitimizing these flashbacks as “authentic” memories because it’s hard/impossible for me to recall the memories outside of dream-space. The themes of the night terrors are always the same, but the content changes. The themes always include being unable to escape, helplessness, and asking for help but never receiving it. Thanks for your consideration and for the work you do! You have helped me tremendously in my CSA recovery journey.

First, I want to thank you, Everett, for sending in this question. I know that so many other survivors are in the exact same boat as you and will feel less alone because of reading about your experiences.

Second, I want to say I’m so sorry you’re dealing with these constant nightmares. I know what that is like and it is so physically, spiritually, and mentally draining in a way that I can’t adequately express in words. It is a full time job just trying to live through that each night it happens. I personally think nothing in my life requires more courage from me than when I try to go to sleep the evening after a nightmare, knowing that another nightmare could be waiting for me. It is so hard and so exhausting. I hope that you are treating yourself with radical self-compassion.

gif from broad city of abby crashing on a couch and her legs flying in the air.

The most important thing I want to say to you is that you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong to “cause” these nightmares, but rather, they are symptoms of something that happened to you that was not your fault. The shame you may feel is not yours to hold, but rather, the shame of others who have harmed you and made you feel helpless, trapped and unsupported.

Like you, my nightmares ended up being the primary way I understood my trauma. I know that feeling you describe about feeling like it isn’t “legitimate” because the memories are alive only while sleeping. But the truth is, what you described experiencing is a super common and normal way for trauma to present itself in us!

Validating our nightmares as important insights into our trauma

I think it is really important to do whatever we can to validate and legitimatize our nightmare experiences because they are actually such a big way many of us can understand our trauma. One way I did that was by looking at my nightmares in an almost detached way, seeing them as data points, as though I was a scientist studying my own self.

gif of a dog with human hands with a microscope pretending to be a scientist.

Each nightmare is a data point that is my own personal “proof” or evidence that something happened to me that wasn’t okay, because it made me feel all these feelings of being trapped, helpless, violated and unsafe. While details may be murky, the emotions are very clear to me, and those emotions are very important to honor.

By looking at my nightmares with this lens, I invite myself to consider different things in my life that may be triggering the nightmares. For example, when I knew I had to speak or talk to my abuser my nightmares became constant and unrelenting. When I put up boundaries to protect myself from him the nightmares, while still present, lessened over time. I used that as evidence for myself about what I needed for my own safety and wellbeing.

What does it feel like for you to consider the emotions in your nightmares as invaluable critical data that helps inform both what you’ve been through and what you need in this present moment for your safety, wellbeing and healing? As tough as it is, and natural it is to desire to remember more than you do right now, you do actually have a lot of information available to you about what makes you feel safe and what doesn’t, and the nightmares, in their own tortuous way, are offering some clarity around that. I’m not trying to find a silver lining in an awful experience, I promise I don’t believe in that! But rather, I am saying that I believe that consistent nightmares like this are actually memories, maybe not of exact precise scenarios, but of very real and very important emotions that reflect our trauma and the harm we endured.

Additionally, I wanted to through out some coping mechanisms that have helped me with my nightmares, in no particular order:

  • Grounding in the present in the morning: With nightmares, we are time traveling back into the depths of our trauma. I find it’s really important to do activities that put me back into my present body and help signal to my nervous system that I am an adult in a safe place. I find it’s helpful for me to do things that really engage my physical senses. That can look like taking a cold shower, exercising until I feel myself fully “in” my body, doing breathing exercises, snuggling my dog and focusing on how it feels to pet him, going for a walk and paying super close attention to what I’m hearing, seeing, and feeling.
  • Expressing the nightmare in detail in a safe, consent-based way: That may look like writing about it, or sometimes when I need to say it aloud I just talk about it out loud to myself to get it out of me. If I want to share about the nightmare with a trusted person I first ask for their permission/consent before sharing anything, and find that talking out loud can help take away some of its hold on me.
  • Getting medical support where available: Healthcare is a privilege in this country, even though it absolutely should be a right, so I totally understand that the healthcare system may not be available to you. If it is available, I have found exploring different medications has helped me reduce the frequency of the nightmares as well as help me deal with night time anxiety about going to sleep. There are PTSD-specific meds that target nightmares, I have found for me the general anxiety meds work well for my specific body, as everybody is different! The same goes for accessing talk therapy if that is available and useful to you.
  • Rewriting the nightmare: Something I’ve practiced at the direction of my therapist is to rewrite my nightmare. I take a scenario that’s super common in my nightmares and I describe either by speaking or by writing down how I want the dream to turn out in an ideal scenario. Sometimes it leads to a better sleeping experience for me.

Continue to care for yourself and be radically compassionate towards yourself. You are doing a wonderful job in an extremely difficult time. Remember, you are never alone in this and, no matter what, you are worthy of safety and healing.

gif of animated person giving themselves a hug with the text

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