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What It’s Like to Wake Up From a Trauma Nightmare

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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.

photo of contributor's gray cat lying on a blanket

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

Originally published: May 11, 2020
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