Post-Domestic Violence PTSD and Nightmares - Helpful Ways to Cope
I hate the night. Since leaving my domestic violence abuser, nights remind me of the physical assaults that I endured in our home. For a long time I feared that nightmares awaited me as soon as I fell asleep, taking me back to that dreaded night. I’d wake up in a cold sweat crying and unable to go back to sleep. But I found some ways to cope, and I hope they can help you too:
1. See a Therapist
Professional therapists know what you're going through and have the expertise to meet you where you're at. I initially thought that therapists were for crazy people. I was very ignorant about mental health in general growing up because I just didn't know anything about it. I thought normal people didn't need therapists because they should be able to handle life by themselves. Now I see therapists as kind of like life coaches. There are so many things going on in my mind, especially during the days, weeks and months following trauma. A therapist helped me to make sense of the chaos. It also helped to have someone I could confide in. I felt very shameful about a lot of things that had happened, and I couldn't talk about them with my family members or friends. Therapists are legally bound to keep things confidential, so I felt relief in knowing that I was in a safe place talking with someone who was an expert at dealing with the types of struggles I was facing. I found my therapist(s) through my medical insurance plans, and you can even get free counseling from organizations like Center for the Pacific Asian Family.
2. Set a Healthy Nighttime Routine
A few hours before I go to sleep, I try to remove any activity that will increase the likelihood of me becoming triggered in any way. For example, I stopped watching TV programs containing aggressive behavior or any forms of violence. I can't watch Game of Thrones. It's even difficult for me to watch the local news. I'm aware that my mind can grasp onto anything that bothers me that can lead to nightmares. If I feel anxious, I try to have a cup of camomile tea and read something positive - the Bible, motivational books, etc. I may also take a long walk towards the latter part of my day at the beach or somewhere else that is tranquil. That way, I'm filling my head with a peaceful scenery while tiring myself out physically.
3. Consult With a Doctor About Medication
I am not a medical professional and don't recommend that you self-medicate. I'm only speaking on behalf of my personal experience and recommend that you see a doctor if you feel like this is an option you think you may need. When I was recovering from my domestic violence and sexual assault experiences, both my therapist and my primary care doctor agreed that I should try an antidepressant. I was severely depressed and experienced a roller coaster of emotions every day. The medication I was prescribed did not make me feel as if I was on a high. Rather, it stabilized my mood swings to where I felt more 'normal.' I initially resisted the idea of getting medicated, because I felt shameful of the fact that I couldn't control my own emotions. I also feared that I could become dependent on a drug. But my doctor assured that this was not a long-term plan. She explained why I was feeling the way I was feeling and tapered me off when she felt as if I was getting better.
4. Avoid Alcohol
My domestic violence experience resulted in me sustaining countless contusions to my head. I had constant headaches. Add to that a few glasses of wine or whisky, and the headaches became exponentially more painful. I understand the temptation to want to drink away your sorrows. I tried that a few times but learned that doing so did not make me feel any better. In fact, I felt worse and knew I was only harming myself and those who truly cared about me. So I learned to discipline myself. Alcohol will not cure your PTSD or keep you away from nightmares. In fact, it may increase the chances because you lose control of your own ability to make healthy decisions for yourself. A therapist can also help suggest alternative ways to cope while helping to keep you accountable when it comes to pushing away that bottle of wine.
When I wake up from nightmares, I try to write down everything that happened in that nightmare. I may be half awake and be tempted to go back to sleep, but I found that journaling every detail that I witnessed in my nightmare helped me to displace those horrific scenes from my brain to a notepad (or an iPhone note app). I almost think of it like baggage that you want to get rid of. By writing it down, I'm literally transferring the toxic memories from my mind to something tangible, like a piece of paper. I can gain control of when (or if) I choose to revisit those details.
6. Clench Your Fists
My therapist taught me this exercise that I thought at first was silly, but it ended up working out really well. Whenever I feel a lot of tension building up (especially after experiencing a nightmare), I start clenching my fists really tight. I just focus on bottling up all of my mental and physical energy into those fists - sometimes this takes 10 seconds, 30 seconds, etc. When I think I don't have any more energy to add to my fists, I let go. The sudden release makes me feel a huge sense of relief both physically and emotionally.
So these are just a few ways I've been managing over the past few years. I still get nightmares and actually have been getting more ever since I dedicated myself to creating content that helps fellow survivors. But I consider this to be a blessing in disguise, because I get to practice the tips that I'm sharing now and know that they still work! I'm also starting to see a therapist again after taking a break. I realized that as I'm getting more emotionally invested into this mission, my emotional roller coasters are getting steeper each day. That's my reality today, and I'll continue sharing some details of my day-to-day too, so you can get a realistic view of how I'm continuing to heal (and stumble sometimes) as life happens. :)