What It’s Like to Wake Up From a Trauma Nightmare
I startle awake around 2 a.m. I’m disoriented, frantically trying to figure out what is real and what was just a dream. I run through the events in my head, and they weren’t quite accurate. I realize all of it was a trauma nightmare, but that doesn’t slow down my heavy breathing. I’m covered in sweat.
I lie there for a few minutes or an hour, I’m not sure, breathing audibly in and out. In and out. Eventually, I’m awake enough to start dialing through my supply of available coping skills. I crawl out of bed and pick up my weighted blanket from the floor. I curl into a ball and drape it over my body, breathing in and out. In and out.
I lie there, feeling intense emotions as heavy as my weighted blanket. Though the events of the dream weren’t quite real, the residual emotions sure are. I label them: Fear. Sadness. Anger. Fear.
Tears well in my eyes. I know I would feel better if I cried, but I can’t seem to let myself tonight. So I just lie there, eyes closed, breathing in and out. In and out.
My breathing picks up, in-and-out, in-and-out, and I have to remind myself to slow it down. I don’t need a hyperventilating panic attack right now. I’d like to fall back asleep to distance myself from the intense emotions, but I’m also scared I’ll have another trauma nightmare. I take deep breaths and move on to another coping skill.
I text my closest friends to see if anyone is awake and can talk, but everyone is asleep as they should be. I consider calling my boyfriend, but I feel bad waking him over a bad dream. I have the tools to handle this on my own.
To distract myself, I look up nearby adoptable cats. By now, my own cat has realized I’m awake and slinked into bed with me. She climbs on my stomach, adding to the comforting pressure. I give her an “I love you” kiss and a few gentle strokes. Adopting another cat isn’t realistic right now, given the size of my apartment, but looking does help slow down my breathing.
At some point, I fall back asleep, and thankfully the nightmares don’t return. I wake up a couple of hours later around 4:30 a.m. and then again, later at 7 a.m. I’m disoriented each time. And the emotions still sting, but I’m a little less scared as the morning progresses. I pet my cat and fall back asleep for a few more hours.
When I awaken at 9 a.m., I decide to get up for the day. The sleeping on and off is getting annoying, and I can always take a nap later in the day if I’m tired. This is the hard part. It can take all day for my adrenaline to go down to baseline. I alternate between distraction coping skills, letting myself feel the emotions and a timid nap.
Getty Images photo via Tero Vesalainen