With PTSD, one of the many ways intrusive thoughts interfere with everyday life is through nightmares. Every PTSD questionnaire I’ve answered has asked if I have nightmares.
Until VERY recently, I assumed nightmares had to be excessively scary. When my daughter dreamt that a bear was chasing her and she woke up begging me to lock the bedroom door and then broke down sobbing “it doesn’t matter they’ll just bust through the door”…that was a nightmare. When I dreamt of being electrocuted in a pool and then wouldn’t go to swim practice for two weeks…that was a nightmare. Nightmares make you wake up because of overwhelming fear, right?
Turns out that nightmares are much broader. According to Mayo Clinic, a dream may be classified as a nightmare if:
- Your dream seems vivid and real and is very upsetting, often becoming more disturbing as the dream unfolds.
- Your dream storyline is usually related to threats to safety or survival, but it can have other disturbing themes.
- Your dream awakens you.
- You feel scared, anxious, angry, sad or disgusted as a result of your dream.
- You feel sweaty or have a pounding heartbeat while in bed.
- You can think clearly upon awakening and can recall details of your dream.
- Your dream causes distress that keeps you from falling back to sleep easily.
So…I have some kind of “nightmare” more often than not by those standards. Interestingly, my medication to address PTSD and the associated anxiety actually causes me to have extremely vivid dreams that I can recall in-full. My favorite was my rap battle with Trump…followed by us all eating graham crackers with Girl Scouts.
My least favorite are the dreams that I always grouped into the “nightmare” box on questionnaires but until recently thought that I’d have to deeply explain “they aren’t really nightmares because I’m not scared but they do cause significant distress.” These aren’t scary, but they are deeply emotional. There have been instances where I can’t get out of bed until mid-day because the dead are alive and so real in my dreams and I just want some time with them. Other times some people are alive but unreachable—I know they’re out there but I can’t get ahold of them. It’s abandonment, grief, longing, sadness, regret; all wrapped up in my blanket with me.
No fear. My fear usually just pops up when I’m awake.
The emotions are so strong and real that sometimes I am emotionally drained and borderline depressed for days after. When I was working this was super hard to deal with. There were times when I just couldn’t hide how drained I was, but I also couldn’t explain why I felt so shitty and was so internal. I’d always use my go-to “I’m just really tired” (usually also true as a mom).
My last therapist in VA, a LCSW, was not the best. I think I mentioned in a previous post or two that we did not jive. She was the first person to really ask about my dreams and when I explained some stuff to her she just said “is that a nightmare or just a disturbing dream?” That’s what prompted me to look into nightmares a little more. If I consider a dream to be excessively disturbing, then it’s a nightmare, right? That’s what I get from the definition of a nightmare.
So shove it, therapy lady.
Love others. Loves self. Love coffee.
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