Health conditions

Nightmares and flashbacks

Many people seek counselling because they are experiencing constant reminders of a traumatic event in the form of flashbacks and nightmares. These reminders can be incredibly intrusive and can contribute to the development of anxiety problems, sleep disturbance and feelings of being out of control. Some people feel that they are going crazy. Some people believe they should not be affected so greatly by the event.

Important things to remember

  • People who have experienced a traumatic event often experience flashbacks and nightmares.
  • You are not going crazy.
  • There are some things you can do that can help you manage these reminders of the trauma.

Flashbacks

Flashbacks occur when we are triggered to remember what has happened. A flashback can be a terribly frightening experience, involving all of the senses. Many people say that they can see, hear, smell and feel everything that happened to them during a flashback. Some people feel as if they are reliving the trauma.

Identifying your triggers can help you to know why a flashback may occur.

  • A trigger is something that causes us to subconsciously switch into a flashback. It can be something like seeing someone who looks like the assailant, hearing a word or a phrase that reminds you of the event, driving past the area where the trauma happened, birthdays or anniversaries, childbirth, or television shows. It can be anything. People have their own trigger or triggers that are unique to them.
  • Sometimes new memories or things that don’t quite make sense may surface in a flashback. This means that your mind is still processing the trauma and trying to make sense of things. Human memory is not like a computer memory where things are straightforward and in a line, it is interwoven with emotion, thoughts and experiences.
  • ‘Grounding’ is a tool that people use to help manage flashbacks. It is used to help you remain in the here and now and not feel like you are reliving the trauma. Some people carry an item that they can grab hold of if they are feeling like they may be triggered, such as a piece of jewellery or a rock. Others remind themselves where they are by looking around and saying what they see.
  • It is important that you remind yourself that you are safe and that you are not reliving the trauma, no matter how bad it feels.
  • After the flashback is over, try to understand it. Perhaps write it down or talk about it with a trusted friend or a counsellor.
  • Sometimes it is helpful to rate the flashback, with, for example 10 being the worst, 0 being the best. It can help you get an idea of how things are going for you over time.

Nightmares

A lot of people experience nightmares. The nightmare can be a replay of the trauma or may be quite bizarre and seemingly unrelated.

  • Sometimes writing the dream down can help you to make sense of it. Also writing it down and then changing the ending, giving yourself a positive outcome and reading the new ending before you go to sleep at night may change the content of the dream (you may need to do this a few times).
  • Try drawing or painting the nightmare. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece.
  • Creative visualisation can help. Visualise yourself having a refreshing night’s sleep or having a protective barrier around yourself or your door. Visualise a different ending to your dream.
  • Talk about your dreams with a trusted friend or counsellor. Talking can make you feel your dreams have less control over you.
  • Try to understand why you are having nightmares. Nightmares can occur as a result of triggers. If you have not had nightmares for a while or they are getting worse, there could be something happening in your life that may be triggering these nightmares.

Sleeping difficulties

People often experience difficulties with sleeping. They may have trouble falling asleep. This may be because they are worried about having nightmares or they feel unsafe. Others wake during the night after nightmares or hearing noises and have trouble getting back to sleep.

There are some things you can do that may increase your chances of getting a better night’s sleep.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor.
  • Visit a GP after hours.
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222
  • Mental Health Emergency Response Line (MHERL)
    Metro callers 1300 55 788
    Peel 1800 676 822
  • RuralLink
    Rural and remote areas 1800 552 002

Acknowledgements
Sexual Assault Resource Centre

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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