What to do about nightmares? Throughout my experience with betrayal trauma, I have been plagued by nightmares. It happens almost weekly. At the worst point, I had horrible dreams almost every night. I wake up exhausted and with a horrible headache, I can actually feel that my body has been pumping stress hormones all night. Is there anything I can do to make this better?
First of all, I just want to say, I’m sorry that’s really hard. Our sleep is vital to our functioning and when you’re not getting good sleep, especially when it’s due to ruminating over some horrible things, it can be verily disruptive to our lives and I understand how a bad night’s sleep can affect our abilities to even think and reason and be present in our lives, those around us. So I hope that you’re able to do some things that will mitigate those factors and that exhaustion, in the meantime, until these nightmares subside. And I am happy to hear that it’s once a week versus every day although, of course, we don’t want them at all.
Second of all, know that nightmares are extremely common when it comes to any kind of trauma. And it’s our brain’s way of trying to process the things that have happened and to make sense of it and then file it away so that we’re not experiencing it all the time.
However, with spousal betrayal that becomes a little bit more difficult because likely if you’re still with the person, you’re still trying to work through some things and there’s probably fears and anxieties and other things that are going on that make it difficult to file it away and be done with it, if that makes sense. So, dreams are your brain’s way of trying to process.
So, you can help your brain to process it faster, quicker in lots of ways. Writing it down and looking at what aspects of the dream are reoccurrent or the nightmare are reoccurrent. Is there a common theme or a feeling that you have in the dream? Is it the same one or is it different? But find those commonalities. A lot of the time there’s like a feeling in it like a helplessness or a why am I not being seen or what’s going on or just some kind of feeling that kind of runs through each nightmare. And if you can identify that, then it’s helpful to be able to process it out.
What I have done for my clients who have dreams like that is actually do EMDR on the dream, and there are lots of therapists that do that. So that you take the negative thought that you have about yourself in the dream and then process the dream and it’s been very effective. So in my experience, that is the fastest way to help some of these dreams resolve. Although I can’t say for sure that it’s just going to stop. It really depends on what else is going on for you and in your marriage. There’s other factors I would want to know. How long have you been in recovery and how long ago did you find out about the betrayal? Has there been additional discoveries or is more information coming out? Is your spouse in recovery? All those things play a part in how we process things and how long it stays around for. So those things would be good to know and to take into consideration and to be kind to yourself around. You’re trying to get through a really hard thing, and your body and brain are just doing the best they can to help you heal from this. And maybe some additional compassion and allowing yourself to take some downtime, if possible, when you’re exhausted and give yourself that space to acknowledge that what you’re dealing with is hard and that’s okay. And it’s okay to be worried and to not know what the future holds or to worry about what your spouse may do in the future or what they’ve done and how it’s affected your life.
Did you have other trauma, any kinds of trauma, prior to the spousal betrayal that could be playing into the nightmares that might be intensifying them? That’s something that you can consider as well. There are some techniques where you play out the dream, but you imagine yourself doing things differently in it. And a lot of the times people are able to incorporate that in their dream, and then it feels different. Because what you’re talking about, like you said, is the feeling. It’s not even necessarily what you’re seeing. But our brains don’t know the difference between reality and a dream, and so it feels just as real as if it actually was happening. As a side note, that’s actually why positive affirmations and gratitude and things work and thinking of happy memories, cause it fires all those places in your brain as if it’s happening right now. Almost like you can program your brain to believe what you want it to. So, use that to your advantage maybe.
I think you could also write it down and then destroy it in some way that makes you feel in control of that nightmare a little bit more. So that there isn’t that helplessness and hopelessness that goes along with feeling like you have no control over what’s going to happen in these nightmares at night.
So hopefully that’s helpful and I wish you the best of luck. It’s not fun, and it can really, like I said, affect your life. And I hope that you’re able to move through this sooner rather than later. Thanks for your question.