Many people who were abused as children experience problems with sleep in later life. These problems can include:
- Nightmares about the abuse.
- Waking up in a panic.
- Being unable to sleep.
- The slightest noise or disturbance awakening you.
- Finding that having sex triggers memories of the abuse and prevents sleep.
General hints about sleep, rest, and bedtime
- Make sure the place where you are going to rest is physically comfortable.
- Use whatever relaxation works for you to decrease tension prior to bedtime.
- Establish some regular habits. If bedtime was spoiled for you, as a child, by your abuser this may feel difficult.
Try to establish a new ‘going to bed’ ritual which will break the pattern of fear. This may involve:- what time you go; whether you read in bed; whether you sleep alone or with a partner; whether you have the light on or off.
- Try to get into the habit of taking regular exercise during the daytime.
- Avoid drinking tea or coffee during the evening – they are stimulants.
- Avoid reading literature about childhood abuse issues just before bedtime.
- If you’re with a partner see what help they’re prepared to offer – talking with you, reading to you, giving a massage – think about what may help.
- Avoid alcohol and non-prescribed drugs. If you’re not sleeping it’s tempting to knock yourself out but it rarely works. Alcohol and non-prescribed drugs carry a danger of addiction and can also impair your ability to achieve quality sleeping time.
- Difficulty sleeping may also be an early sign of depression – consider talking to your GP.
Coping with Nightmares
People who have been abused as children often experience distressing nightmares. The nightmares can include:
- Direct re-creations of the abuse.
- Children being harmed or killed.
- Scenes of death or violence.
- Being chased or otherwise assaulted.
- Being humiliated or put in a powerless position.
The emotion attached to a nightmare is often one of pure terror and often represents the abuse suddenly breaking through into conscious awareness. This is distressing and hard to get rid of and, whilst it is difficult to cope with, some guidance might be useful:
Make sure you have some ‘talking help’ with the issue of abuse. Being able to talk to a trusted friend or counsellor about the way sexual abuse has affected you should reduce the number and intensity of nightmares over time. Being able to share it seems to reduce the need for the abuse to ‘break through’ in the form of nightmares.
- Whilst they are terrifying and mentally painful, nightmares are also a part of the healing process. It’s the subconscious mind remembering events and trying to make sense of them.
Some people suggest you can ‘take charge’ during your nightmare so as to turn the tables on whoever is attacking or abusing you. This may be possible in a few cases but it’s not true for everyone. Don’t give yourself a hard time if this isn’t true for you.
If you wake up in a panic
Waking up panicking from a nightmare is a terrifying experience, so:
- Be kind to yourself immediately afterwards. Make yourself comfortable. Take whatever relaxation measures work for you.
- Try to remember that having the nightmare, as painful as it is, is part of your remembering and healing.
- Decide what will support you best right now.
- It can be good to talk about how you are feeling. If you’re with a partner who is willing to be woken then tell them what is happening and how your feel. Ask them for the support you need.
- If you’re on your own is there anyone you can ring to talk it through? Consider using our Helpline or Samaritans if you need to. Try to tell a supportive person as soon as practical afterwards. Sharing the nightmare is a way of breaking the isolation and getting support with the terror of it.
- Be gentle and caring with yourself for the rest of the day. Be prepared for the nightmare to leave you feeling shaky, unsettled and more vulnerable.
Nightmares are terrifying, and when you experience such fear you can feel vulnerable. This does not mean you are weak in any way. Nightmares are a part of the process of recovery even though they are an unpleasant part. It takes courage and strength to experience them and reach out for the support you need so as to overcome them.
Norwich Rape Crisis’ “Coping” advice
and Survivors of Sheffield advice, with our thanks