A simple way to manage nightmares

During the course of my work, I regularly hear from people that experience nightmares. The ones that leave you feeling shaken and with vivid memories of the event. Ones that feel eerily real. When we are talking about a nightmare, I talk to the principles that sit behind them;

  1. Nightmares can be a deep form of cognitive processing that happen during in the middle of the night or early morning, when REM sleep and dreaming are more common.
  2. They can indicate healing of a particular issue in your life
  3. Dream content should be interpreted symbolically, not literally i.e. try not to be afraid.

Recently I completed some PD on nightmares for people who have experienced trauma, and it was during this education that I first learnt of a process to manage nightmares. Prior to this, I just assumed nightmares were things that had to be tolerated with no recourse. It turns out this isn’t true.

Here is a nightmare protocol developed through the work of Babette Rothschild. The original document is published multiple times on the internet as a free resource.

“Nightmares can be a common problem for people who have experienced traumatic events. They can feel like they are a re-experiencing of the actual events and are very distressing. The following is a protocol that can help you manage nightmares both before they happen and afterwards. Read this protocol through before going to sleep and keep a copy of it handy and read it and follow it after you wake up from a nightmare.

  • Today I have been feeling really scared of ____________________.
  • So, I might have a nightmare and wake up feeling __________. (e.g. scared, sick, angry, sad, etc.)
  • If that happens, I will tell myself that I had the nightmare because I am remembering ____________________. (e.g. “the bad thing that happened,” “the bad person,” “all that awful stuff,” etc)
  • I will then turn on the light and look around my room and name 5 things that I see in the room.
  • And I will then tell myself that I just had a nightmare and that ____________________  is not happening to me now or any more.
  • If necessary, I will get up from bed and do something for 10 minutes or more (e.g. have a glass of water, look at, name and touch 5 objects, listen to some calming music, talk to somebody) that will help remind me where and when I am and that what I am remembering is not happening right now.
  • When I am sufficiently calm I will return to bed.
  • I will repeat this protocol every time I have a nightmare”.

Kent Smith (2009) with content repurposed from Babette Rothschild.

Completing this process will help you feel as though you have some control over your nightmares, which always feels better.

How do you manage nightmares?

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