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Why Trying to Rest With PTSD Can Feel Like a Nightmare

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When someone doesn’t feel well, most people are quick to suggest they “go get some rest.” On my harder days with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I feel anything but well. My brain feels distant and foggy, I’m weak and frightened, and everything feels generally awful. However, going to get some rest isn’t always a good idea. Often it can do more harm than good.

• What is PTSD?

While people may think sleeping would provide a welcome escape from the symptoms of PTSD, it often doesn’t. Instead, my flashbacks turn into nightmares or night terrors, but my coping skills can’t come along when I fall asleep. This essentially leaves me having prolonged, constant flashbacks without the ability to control or calm them. Helplessly, I lie there, asleep, watching as I relive it all. When I wake up, my body is still reacting as if what happened to me years ago actually happened just moments ago, and even though I know it didn’t, every other part of me feels as if it did. The rest of the day, and sometimes longer, continues as if the event did actually happen to me just hours ago. I’m exhausted, constantly on edge with anxiety, distracted and tense.

Sleeping takes far more time than the amount of time an ordinary flashback lasts. Most of my flashbacks now, after intensive treatment, only last for a few seconds. Don’t get me wrong, those few seconds are gut-wrenchingly terrifying and absolutely have ruined an entire day for me before. The most intense my flashbacks I have ever gotten involved multiple flashbacks occurring back to back, each one lasting about two minutes, continuing on for about an hour. Obviously, at that point, I couldn’t function. However, a night of sleep, usually lasts far longer than an hour. So not only am I unable to carry with me the coping skills that have made my flashbacks manageable when I fall asleep, but I’m asleep far longer than the longest amount of time my flashbacks have ever lasted, meaning my PTSD has far greater opportunity to remind me, with alarming clarity, exactly what my trauma did to me. This means I often relive several traumatic circumstances throughout the night, waking up feeling as if all of them just occurred moments ago. Additionally, going to sleep means I’m not aware of what’s going on around me. This means that the constant scanning of my surroundings that I do when I’m awake is not possible, and this feels like a weakness to my hyper-vigilant mind, causing intense anxiety. Of course, intense anxiety makes it nearly impossible to go to sleep. The fact that I happen to have multiple comorbid conditions is not at all helpful to this circumstance, but unfortunately, this is a relatively common occurrence for individuals with PTSD.

Even with two medications specifically treating my insomnia and PTSD every night, I still have nights when I struggle to relax to fall asleep or have horrible nightmares and awaken more exhausted than I was. As a matter of fact, as I write this, I’m yawning, because I’m physically exhausted, but still wide awake psychologically. I am trying to get my mind to settle and calm. I’m constantly dealing with physical and emotional exhaustion, but can rarely get a restful night of sleep. This is just another typical occurrence that comes with living with PTSD. I certainly never asked for or wanted this, but I was dealt this card, so I suppose I have to play it somehow.

Some things do help me calm my mind while I’m awake and help me fall asleep. I’ve also found I typically have fewer nightmares when I felt calm as I went to bed. For me, one of those things is writing, which is part of why I’m writing this right now. I’ve learned these skills through a lot of trial and error as I worked through things in therapy and learned what was helpful for me. But it’s not 100 percent by any means. I had awful nightmares just a couple of nights ago, even with utilizing medications and skills from therapy.

I wish my PTSD was as simple to escape as “getting some rest,” but unfortunately that’s not the case. Sometimes sleep is the worst possible option. Other times, I’m so exhausted that nothing else stands a chance. With my PTSD, trying to get some rest has become a nightmare.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

Thinkstock photo via Ocus Focus.


Originally published: April 19, 2017
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