How do you avoid nightmares?
April 9, 2012 1:09 PM   Subscribe

Sleep eludes me as the anniversary of a violent crime looms. Is there anything I can do to keep the nightmares from ruining my entire week?

Two days hence and more than ten years ago, I was the victim of a terrifying violent crime. I didn't get therapy afterward when I could have and should have, and right now I can't get therapy for financial and geographical reasons. This doesn't usually happen that I get the nightmares, but it has happened before around the anniversary.

I live alone, and I'm in a new relationship, so I can't talk to my partner about it, I'm afraid this kind of baggage would scare him off before we establish something more permanent. I keep having very bad nightmares (night terrors?) the past two nights where I wake up dreaming about the event, screaming, shaking, and I can't think straight. I'm emotional during the day, jumpy, having trouble focusing on my work, overreacting to everything and being irritable, and then when I get home I'm scared to fall asleep and I cry a lot. Once I do fall asleep, it starts. I had two separate nightmares last night, resulting in my getting an hour of sleep and feeling very panicky all morning and right now even. I compulsively keep looking over my shoulder, and my posture can best be described as a cringe. My shoulders and neck are so tight I can't straighten up.

Is there anything I can do to make sure I get sleep without the nightmares?
Is there a food that causes deep sleep?
Aromatherapy? (I don't know anything about it and have never tried it, but I'm willing to consider it if it would help.)
Would drinking wine or other alcohol before bed help or make it worse? Pot? I don't have access to prescription drugs.
Should I try to be more tired or less tired when I fall asleep? Does it matter?
I'm willing to try just about anything.

Have you experienced this before? Do you know any tricks to get rid of nightmares?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried EMDR therapy? It's worth a shot, it's super quick (relatively speaking; just a few sessions, not years), and it's worked for people I know in situations similar to yours.

(It worked for me, too, but my situation isn't analogous.)
posted by small_ruminant at 1:18 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're in the SF Bay Area, memail or email me and I'll give the name of the person I went to.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:18 PM on April 9, 2012

I'm so sorry you're going through this still. I find alcohol doesn't really help me - I often wake up more, even if I get to sleep initially. I have found melatonin can help, chamomile tea, warm baths: basically anything that helps me feel safe and warm and cared-for.

As an aside, you may not want to go into this deeply with your new relationship, but you might want to just give them a heads up that you seem jumpy and overtired, it has to do with the anniversary of a long-ago trauma, and you'll tell them more about it later. Anybody who likes you will be willing to be extra kind in the face of this.

On preview, I've also had friends with PTSD do well with EMDR. Good luck!
posted by ldthomps at 1:21 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Alcohol, for me, generally induces a dreamless sleep. I can't in good conscience recommend that you start drinking and I can't guarantee that a few drinks is not going to make it worse.

I wonder if you would be open to trying out some kind of relaxation technique, or listening to a meditation cd before going to bed. There must be something like this on Youtube or itunes or whatever music service you have access to....

I have had a lot of success with affecting my dream patterns and subjects by "asking" for types of dreams or qualities of dreams before going to sleep. I also find that putting some kind of talisman under my pillow helps me to focus on what I want, using the talisman as a touchstone.

Lavendar is very relaxing. You could put some of the essential oil in a bath, mix it with body lotion, or spray some of the diluted oil on your bedding. The more the better so that it's powerful.

I have a better sleep when I wear warm socks to bed.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 1:24 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Though I did not experience a violent crime, I went through a period where I could only fall asleep on my couch with all the lights on. The feel of having the couch cushions at my back made me feel more secure and safe, while the bed seemed to contribute to feeling exposed and made me anxious and prone to insomnia and bad dreams. Sometimes I have a bad patch and go sleep on the couch.

I also hung a small chime in front of my door, so nobody can get in without setting it off.

For deeper sleep, I've had good luck with valerian, playing rainstorm MP3s as white noise (this really calms me and puts me out), hot showers/baths and getting a massage.
posted by griselda at 1:24 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I know you said you couldn't talk to your boyfriend about it, but is there anyone else around you can talk to? Even on the phone? Or could you just ask him to stay over and tell him that you're having some issues without going into details? That might help him understand what's generally going on.

Otherwise, to answer your questions, I would say alcohol won't help. It might help you fall asleep, but your sleep is more likely to be disturbed (which you obviously don't need right now).

What about doing yoga or some sort of meditation right before you go to bed? Have you ever tried anything like that? Even if it doesn't help in the next couple of days, I would encourage you to try it out because it might help longer term.

Additionally, you could try a warm bath with some soft music and candles right before bed might help.

Good luck over the next few days.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 1:25 PM on April 9, 2012

My heart goes out to you.

Drinking is likely to worsen it rather than ease it. Pot can intensify anxiety for some, but some respond positively.

This is general coverage of foods (and other consumables) in relation to sleep, but note that the amount of tryptophan you'd have to ingest to really influence your sleep considerably would require an inordinate amount of food.

Some people use Benadryl to get solid, dreamless sleep for short periods. I've seen doctors recommend this, even. But it doesn't work for everyone - some people are made nervous and jittery by Benadryl. It's perhaps worth a try for a night or two to get your keel balanced.

Aromatherapy can actually be helpful - not every scent works for every person, but lavendar and vanilla seem to have positive effects for most. You can buy essential oils that can be used in various oil diffusers, dab it on pillow (or wrists, even) before sleep, use in your bath, and a million other applications. Most shops that have essential oils will have a variety of ways you can dispense them for best effect.

Being well-exercised can quiet your mind and weary your body, making restful sleep more likely. Just make sure you're not picking a time that excites your system, instead (some people sleep great if they exercise an hour before bed, and some are put into irrevocable alertness by same...only experimenting will let you know which type you are).

Here is a useful article on sleep hygiene, one of the first things offered to insomniacs and those with disturbed sleep due to trauma.

Know that if it gets too bad, intense anxiety and mental/emotional trauma can warrant a trip to the emergency room - if you feel like you're unraveling or becoming nonfunctional, this could be an option.

Some massage schools do close-to-free or free sessions - you should be able to call in and ask if there are any options along those lines and, if yes, if there are students particularly focusing upon therapeutic massage.

Focusing on your breathing when anxiety/panic begins so that you are taking steady, slow, deep breaths can circumvent some of the chemical effects that would otherwise amp your system.

This may sound silly, but perhaps consider getting a plush animal and bringing it to bed with you. Many trauma survivors find this practice comforting, even if only during really intense waves of reliving/remembering.

I hope you are able to find some comfort in any of the suggestions offered here. I hope you are able to have a peaceful heart again soon. I also hope you'll have access to mental/emotional healthcare at some near point in the future.
posted by batmonkey at 1:30 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

ps: if you do experiment with Valerian, know that you can increase the efficacy and cut the narcotic after-effect by combining with Skullcap.
posted by batmonkey at 1:31 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, also!

Load your mind with as much positivity as you possibly can. Read affirmative or uplifting books, watch silly programs, seek out good news - all of this helps to rebalance the information being processed.
posted by batmonkey at 1:34 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would suggest you rethink your decision not to tell your new partner. He or she is going to know something is wrong regardless, and would you not rather they understand there is a good reason? You don't need to get to explicit, but say simply "I just wanted to give you a heads up that I went through some stuff a while back and apologies if I seem a bit jumpy, break plans or want to spend some nights alone. It'll be over soon, now pass the waffles."
posted by rocketpup at 1:38 PM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would certainly work out so much that I get really tired. All the anxiety and emotions and such are causing a fight or flight reaction propelling you to MOVE. Staying still only makes it worse.

Also, have you learned to protect yourself in your everyday life? Learned self defence, how to use a gun, bought a gun and consistently used it for practice? Not sure what state you are in, but knowing I could protect myself should anything ever actually happen would give a little piece of mind.
posted by eq21 at 1:40 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

And for god's sake, stay away from Law and Order and the like!
posted by eq21 at 1:41 PM on April 9, 2012

In case you've never tried them, my experience with over-the-counter sleep aids like diphenhydramine hydrochloride (Unisom generic) or doxylamine succinate (Unisom-2 generic) is that they actually work better than prescription ones: they completely knock me out and I continue to feel tired and drowsy for 20 to 24 hours, whereas prescription ones have an effect that lasts 6-8 hours.

So, not a really great solution if you have to work the next day but it might be something to buy and keep handy so that if other techniques don't work and you find it getting later and later, you have a fallback to just get to sleep and forget it all.
posted by XMLicious at 1:47 PM on April 9, 2012

I'm sorry you are dealing with this. If the assault was any flavour of sexual violence, you can call RAINN. It really helps to talk to a stranger. If RAINN is not a good match for you, I would suggest you see if you can find a violent crime or PTSD support group near you. Unloading the secrecy and telling your story genuinely helps to unbottle your brain and your dreams.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:49 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

You might try calling the police or the DA's office in your jurisdiction to find out whether they have a crime victims' services program. A lot of cities have this, and you may be eligible as the victim of a crime for free therapy or financial assistance to find a private provider. Even if the city itself doesn't offer it, they might know of nonprofit or other private groups that can help you.
posted by decathecting at 2:03 PM on April 9, 2012

I have found it really helpful to sit down and write (by hand or by computer) exactly what I am feeling and why, and kind of play out scenarios that way. If your nightmares are your subconscious trying to work through something, maybe starting your conscious mind working through things is a good start. I also think it helps to just get some of it out, release it if you will. If you're going to be thinking about it anyway, it might give you some peace to work through some thoughts on it. I have found it very helpful for extremely stressful situations and nightmares, although I don't have experience with your exact scenario.

On a purely practical note, those Thermacare heat pad thingies are really helpful with tight shoulders and necks. I think it's about $7 for a pack of three (single use) - the Tylenol targeted pain or whatever are crap, the Rite Aid version is good, CVS version is okay.

Hang in there, thinking positive thoughts for you.
posted by mrs. taters at 2:08 PM on April 9, 2012

I'm not sure where you are or what season you're in...but being too hot in bed makes many (most?) folk have nightmares.

Are you in a headspace to be able to give yourself an orgasm before you sleep? All those fab hormones could really help. Good luck possum, cyber hugs for you.
posted by taff at 2:13 PM on April 9, 2012

Perhaps it would be a good idea to write down your dreams in a journal. Sometimes by writing them down, you can better understand your feelings. Sometimes, you can really learn a lot from your dreams.

I would also encourage you to contact a good friend who is aware of the event that happened to you. Describe your dreams to him/her and ask what he/she thinks is bringing them on. Getting an outside perspective on your dreams might help you understand why you are having these problems.

Good luck.
posted by WestChester22 at 2:26 PM on April 9, 2012

I'm so sorry you have to manage this without much support. I have had some success managing my dream states using the 61 point relaxation technique. Perhaps it will help! Wishing you a restful and peaceful sleep.
posted by gubenuj at 2:50 PM on April 9, 2012

Also came in to suggest Valerian for short term and EMDR as long term treatment. Good luck. Sending thoughts of support.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:50 PM on April 9, 2012

Oh, I know this kind of anxiety and disturbed sleep well. I have to nth intense exercise as the most healthy and effective way to combat this. It's by far the best way to expel all the energy your nervous system is producing right now. Good luck...
posted by curtains at 3:04 PM on April 9, 2012

I am on medication which causes extremely vivid dreams, many of which (for me) are pretty horrifying nightmares. My husband is also a policeman so I hear about lots of awful things happening in my neighborhood which doesn't help at all. My spouse also works nights a lot of the time which means I get to be all alone in my apartment with these nightmares and worries.

So some days I turn every light in the house on before I go to sleep, then I make a full circuit of the whole house. I check every room, closet, behind all the doors, under the bed, etc., just like you would for a child who is afraid of the dark. I make sure all the doors are locked and that all the windows are latched. I leave the lights on, because somehow this makes me feel better. (I know it's a terrible waste of power, and I only have to do this rarely, but for me, it helps.)

Then I drink a glass of wine and take my kindle to bed with me, reading until I fall asleep. I leave the booklight on, which emits some light, but it goes out after 15 minutes or so. If I wake up due to a nightmare, I read my book for a little while until I feel less freaked out, then I try to sleep again.

Sometimes, at least for me, waking up from a nightmare doesn't really make the nightmare end -- it picks right back up where it left off when I go back to sleep. So I have found that I have to more firmly interrupt the nightmare by being awake for a little bit before I try to sleep again, or I'll just keep having the nightmare the whole night.

I think a lot of this is very individual, so as always, YMMV... I feel for you, and I hope you can get some help when circumstances and geography are more cooperative.
posted by Arethusa at 3:05 PM on April 9, 2012

In a similar situation I didn't / don't find alcohol helpful because it clouds my thinking which makes me feel scared because at those times I feel like I need to be alert to danger and ready to respond. Drinking too much also makes me more anxious the next day. One glass may be OK though.

Is there someone you can stay with for the next few days?

Also, whatever you end up doing, try to give yourself permission to be scared - 'yes, I am scared right now, that's OK and understandable but I have felt like this before and I will feel better in a week'. Could you call in sick to work or make it clear to work and your partner that you are not feeling 100% at the moment (you don't have to go into detail beyond that)?

A therapist once suggested to me sleeping in a different room to break a pattern of nightmares. I think this will only be effective if you have a room you feel safe in and if you don't think you will feel disorientated waking up somewhere different.

There are on-line resources if you are awake and feel like you need someone to talk to.

In my experience I think over the short term your aim should be getting through it and minimising the impact until you reach a less triggering time.
posted by Laura_J at 3:07 PM on April 9, 2012

Are you getting enough exercise? Vigorous walking or dancing or any other aerobic exercise will help release some of the tension, but don't do it just before bed. Can you afford a massage therapist? There are also relaxation recordings you can find online for free that might help. Here's a link to one site that has some that put me right to sleep. And soothing music, maybe even with headphones.

I find the over the counter diphenhydramine (Benadryl) works for me, it helps me to sleep very soundly for about 5 or 6 hours and I wake up fine, your mileage may vary.

Like griselda above I've also found sleeping on the couch can be comforting.

I hope you feel better soon and get the help and support you need.
posted by mareli at 3:11 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was having severe anxiety (turned out to be a side effect of an antibiotic I was on) my doctor gave me some Benadryl to help me sleep peacefully. It definitely helped. I wasn't exactly suffering from nightmares, more like such strong anxiety that I couldn't get to sleep at all, so maybe it's not a perfect match. But it seems like a pretty easy and low-risk thing to try.
posted by ootandaboot at 4:57 PM on April 9, 2012

I use melatonin strips when my ability to sleep well and regularly is wrecked by my shifting night/day work schedule. I pass out quite hard from a low dose and never remember any dreams that occur during REM.
posted by zarah at 2:41 AM on April 10, 2012

I have nightmares quite often when I'm cold. Make sure you have plenty of covers on hand. Sometimes I can stave off the nightmare if I realize that I am cold right as the nightmare is beginning. If I can rouse myself out of it, I cover myself, give myself a few minutes of awake time to orient myself, choose a new sleeping position and fall back asleep. It works most times if I am patient about getting back to sleep. I am not a sock person while sleeping, but sometimes if I am especially cold, I will wear socks to bed if I anticipate a chilly evening.

I also practice Dark Time (I learned this trick from MeFi!). Before sleeping, I will gradually start to taper off my activities for the day. I'll turn some of the lights off in the house, take a bath in low light, and then bundle up warmly before I hit the sack. Before I go to bed, I'll read a book passively (something light, not too mentally taxing), or I'll knit a few rows on a simple project. I keep my mind sort of lightly occupied and then once my eyelids start to get droopy, I go brush my teeth, have a small cup of cool water, and climb into bed.

I have nightmares around the anniversary of my Life Event, so I know your pain. I hope that this helps, and you try what others have suggested, and that you eventually find the peace you are looking for.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 7:17 AM on April 10, 2012

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