What are nightmares?
Have you ever been awakened by a bad dream and had trouble getting back to sleep? Or have you been bothered during the day by the dreams you had at night? Almost everyone has bad dreams on occasion, but nightmares are different. They are often long and complex and may make you feel horror, fear, rage, or shame.
You might have nightmares that seem to play over and over again, like an instant replay of a disturbing scene. Perhaps your nightmares feel like you are reliving a situation, but with some different details or slight changes.
It is more common for people who have been through a traumatic experience to have nightmares than people who have not. Nightmares in adults are usually connected to an upsetting experience or ongoing stress. For example, some Veterans who have experienced combat during their military service can have nightmares about war. Other Veterans who may be dealing with the loss of someone close to them, a serious accident, or sexual assault may have nightmares related to these events. Although some nightmares may appear to be related to specific events, sometimes it is the intense emotions that are familiar, and the details don’t seem related to specific causes.
“It’s like my body and my mind wouldn’t allow me to move past this one thing. I must have relived it over and over in my sleep for the better part of a year.”
Because prolonged nightmares can prevent you from getting enough sleep, other aspects of your life — such as your work and relationships — can be affected. Some people try to prevent recurring nightmares by taking sleeping pills or drinking alcohol, but that can cause other problems and does not reduce the frequency of nightmares in the long term.
If I’m having nightmares, what can I do about it right away?
There are steps you can take to deal with your nightmares over time. Lifestyle changes that can help include:
- Practicing relaxation methods before sleeping, such as deep breathing or taking a warm bath
- Writing brief descriptions of your nightmares in a log or journal (during the day, not before bed)
- Writing brief descriptions of the nightmare, but changing details throughout
- Avoiding exercise, strenuous activity, and planning the next day’s activities just before bed
- Adopting some of these ideas for getting a good night’s sleep
To manage upsetting feelings right after a nightmare and help you get back to sleep, try the following:
- Focus on what’s real after you awake from a nightmare by touching and describing real objects around you.
- Take slow, deep breaths to help you calm down the physical sensations of being on edge.
- Remind yourself that the nightmare wasn’t real life.
- Stretch your arms and legs, gently roll your head side to side, or squeeze and release your fist without getting out of bed.
- Try to acknowledge — and then let go of — negative thoughts and feelings like “I’ll never get back to sleep” or “I’m losing my mind.”
- Distract and ground yourself by thinking through the steps of simple, everyday activities or counting mundane objects.
If you are unable to fall back to sleep within 10 or 15 minutes, get out of bed for a short time. Go to another room (without turning on the lights, if possible) to wash your hands or get a drink of water, but try not to do any strenuous activity. Avoid watching television, using the computer, or checking your phone, as doing so can make it harder to fall asleep. Do not drink alcohol or take drugs to help you sleep unless it is a medication prescribed by a doctor.
“My wife had to shake me awake. My dream was so bad that I had grabbed her and rolled onto the floor without even knowing it. That’s when I knew it was time to reach out and get help.”
Your close friends and family may notice that nightmares are interfering with your life. Turn to them when you're ready to talk. It can be helpful to share what you’re experiencing, and they may be able to provide support and help you deal with the your nightmares.
Take the next step: Make the connection.
Every day, Veterans connect with useful resources and effective treatments for getting better sleep. If nightmares are affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:
- Your doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does.
- A mental health professional, such as a therapist.
- Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center. VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans.
- A spiritual or religious adviser.