One of the most common “side effects” of sexual abuse is nightmares. Like flashbacks, nightmares are the mind’s way of working out some of the feelings of fear, terror, helplessness, vulnerability and betrayal that a sexual abuse victim experiences at the hands of her attacker/abuser.
During REM sleep (Stage 1) the mind will often replay life events or interpret life events into dreams—interpreting meaning the animals or people or objects in the dreams may be symbolic of the feelings throughout a person’s day, sometimes in really odd ways. But REM sleep allows the mind a form of stress release.
Unfortunately, with nightmares, the dreams are all focused on reliving—either directly or symbolically—the emotions or actually physical experiences of sexual abuse. If the sexual abuse happened over a long period of time, or there were multiple instances in a person’s life, the nightmares may last for a long time, or like flashbacks, sometimes come when you least expect them.
When You’re Awake
“Nightmares can produce the following effects:
• Feelings of loneliness, distress, vulnerability, fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt and shame.
• Physical reaction, such as breathing difficulties, chest tightness, sweating and shaking.
• Sleeping difficulties – problems going to bed and to sleep, fear of sleeping alone or sleeping with someone” (www.livingwell.org.au)
A victim can be left feeling not only emotions but physically as if she has just been raped or abused again. Living through the experience once is enough, let alone having to relive it. But nightmares and flashbacks are a mind’s way of processing the experience, and are part of the recovery process.
Taking Control of your Nightmares
One method that has helped me in the waking aftermath of a nightmare is directed dreaming. Well—that’s the Star Trek term for it—the actual name psychologists and counselors use is “lucid dreaming”. It’s a way of taking control of the dream and changing the events in the dream and/or perhaps the outcome. It may be talking to the characters in the dream and perhaps fighting back.