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Dreams that are frightening and seem to be threatening are called nightmares. We’ve all had them at one time or another. But for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, nightmares are all too common.  PTSD survivors experience intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares causing them to re-live their traumatic experiences week after week, month after month and year after year after the traumatic event.  Post traumatic stress nightmares are distressing, but common symptoms of PTSD.

The Prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Nightmares

The statistics on posttraumatic stress nightmares show the frequency among those who’ve suffered trauma is higher than that of the general population:

General Public reporting nightmares only = 5%

Vietnam Veterans as compared to civilians:

  • Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have nightmares fairly often = 52%
  • Civilians who have nightmares fairly often only = 3%

70-90% of trauma survivors who have PTSD are may be expected to have nightmares and most survivors diagnosed with PTSD report having post traumatic stress nightmares several times per week.

Post Traumatic Stress Nightmares

One of the hallmarks of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is re-experiencing the traumatic event.  Post traumatic stress nightmares are one way in which people with PTSD may re-experience the trauma.  When someone experiences a traumatic event the nightmares that cause them to re-live the event have the same frightening elements that occurred during the incident. Examples would be survivors of Hurricane Katrina who had nightmares involving hurricanes and floods. Their dreams contained themes of trying to escape, of ducking into shelters for safety and the fear that accompanied the real life event. Someone who was the victim of mugging might then have recurring nightmares about the mugger or about being rubbed and beat up on the street.

It’s not to say that every nightmare following a traumatic event is a play-by-play of the event. Research shows that approximately half of those who suffer from post traumatic stress nightmares after a traumatic event have the same theme replaying over and over again in their dreams. PTSD sufferers have a higher likelihood of having nightmares that are similar to the traumatic event as compared to those survivors that don’t have PTSD.

Attitudes about Nightmares Differ with Cultural Background

There are some cultures which interpret nightmares as meaning that the dreamer is opening themselves up to physical or spiritual harm. There are other cultures which view nightmares as containing messages from the spirit world or they forecast future events. People having these beliefs may take steps to protect themselves from these frightening messages or forecasts or may work through the dreams to reach a different understanding of the dream that is not so frightening.

Treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Nightmares

People suffering from nightmares may receive help with treatment that are typically used for people with PTSD. If the nightmares continue there are certain treatments that can minimize the frequency.  Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy are the most effective types of treatment for post traumatic stress nightmares. Medications have also been shown to be effective.

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) has been shown to be an effective treatment for recurring post traumatic stress nightmares. The person with the recurring nightmare, while in a conscious awake state literally re-writes the ending of the dream. They replay the dream over and over in their mind with the new ending which isn’t frightening. This has been used effectively to reduce the frequency and frightening nature of the nightmares.

People who have problems breathing during sleep often receive treatment to help their breathing and it’s been shown that this treatment is also effective in reducing or eliminating their nightmares. Trauma survivors are prone to high levels of disruptive breathing problems while sleeping. With treatment, this subsides and so do their nightmares.

Because our treatment for depression and anxiety programs rely on evidence based practices, our Intensive Outpatient Program shares many common methods with other successful PTSD treatment methods.  The foundation of our treatment program for relies on the principles of the stages of change, cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused treatment, skills training and identifying repetitive dysfunctional behavioral relationship patterns to promote recovery from PTSD, depression and other mental health disorders.  In fact, our Intensive Outpatient Program in Memphis, TN that has been proven to be effective in the treatment of these disorders in six peer reviewed treatment outcome studies.   Our treatment center provides services to those who need more treatment than one hour a week, but less than 24 hour care, by providing three hours of treatment per day, three to five days per week, in an intensive outpatient setting. It is also important to keep in mind that women and men often experience depression and PTSD differently and therefore the presence of depression may also appear differently based on gender. If you or a loved one is showing signs of depression or anxiety, including PTSD, they should be assessed by a trained mental health professional who can help design a treatment plan for PTSD and depression that can result in recovery.  Treatment for depression and anxiety can be highly successful.  People who have completed our program have provide very high consumer satisfaction scores and reviewsCall us at 901-682-6136 to schedule an appointment.