Nightmares and PTSD
Nightmares are dreams that are threatening and scary. Nearly everyone has had a nightmare from time to time. For trauma survivors, though, nightmares are a common problem. Along with flashbacks and unwanted memories, nightmares are one of the ways in which a trauma survivor may relive the trauma for months or years after the event.
How common are nightmares after trauma?
Among the general public, about 5% of people complain of nightmares. Those who have gone through a trauma, though, are more likely to have distressing nightmares after the event. This is true no matter what type of trauma it is.
Those trauma survivors who get PTSD are even more likely to complain of nightmares. Nightmares are one of the 17 symptoms of PTSD. For example, a study comparing Vietnam Veterans to civilians showed that 52% of combat Veterans with PTSD had nightmares fairly often. Only 3% of the civilians in the study reported that same level of nightmares.
Other research has found even higher rates of nightmares. Of those with PTSD, 71-96% may have nightmares. People who have other mental health problems, such as panic disorder, as well as PTSD are more likely to have nightmares than those with PTSD alone.
Not only are trauma survivors more likely to have nightmares, those who do may have them quite often. Some survivors may have nightmares several times a week.
What do nightmares that follow trauma look like?
Nightmares that follow trauma often involve the same scary elements that were in the trauma. For example, someone who went through Hurricane Katrina may have dreams about high winds or floods. They may dream about trying to escape the waters or being in a shelter that does not feel safe. A survivor of a hold-up might have nightmares about the robber or about being held at gunpoint.
Not all nightmares that occur after trauma are a direct replay of the event. About half of those who have nightmares after trauma have dreams that replay the trauma. People with PTSD are more likely to have dreams that are exact replays of the event than are survivors without PTSD.
Lab research has shown that nightmares after trauma are different in some ways from nightmares in general. Nightmares after trauma may occur earlier in the night and during different stages of sleep. They are more likely to have body movements along with them.