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Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an illness affecting those who have lived through a traumatic or life-threatening event, such as combat, rape or natural disasters, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It can arise immediately after the event or manifest years later without warning. Symptoms include flashbacks, feelings of worry, anger, loneliness and guilt, thoughts of harming yourself or others, difficulty sleeping and nightmares.
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Incidence and Impact of PTSD Nightmares
Post traumatic stress disorder nightmares affect up to 68 percent of war veterans and 25 percent of trauma survivors, according to “Nightmares and Disorders of Dreaming," by Dr. J.F. Pagel, published in the April 2000 issue of American Family Physician. Pagel explains that nightmares are a key symptom of post traumatic stress disorder and typically involve a replay of the traumatic event. The dreamer experiences a range of emotions during the nightmare, from intense rage to grief. While occasional nightmares are typically harmless, frequent nightmares that disrupt the sleep cycle can lead to excessive daytime drowsiness, difficulty concentrating and slower reaction times while driving or performing other physical tasks.
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Medical Strategies for Resolving Nightmares
Treating post traumatic stress disorder nightmares may involve psychotherapy, medication, lifestyle changes, relaxation techniques or a combination of the four. Therapy options vary from one-on-one psychological counseling to group therapy with others learning to cope with PTSD. Finding the right therapist and type of therapy is vital to resolving PTSD nightmares because you need to feel comfortable discussing your experience and feelings in depth. Look for a therapist who explains the treatment strategy in detail, treats your input with respect, and easily adapts to a change in strategy if the treatment is not working.
Medications for treatment of PTSD and related nightmares include anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Prazosin, an alpha-blocker medication typically used to treat high blood pressure, shows promise for the management of PTSD nightmares. A small 2007 study performed by the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Purdue University found that the medication significantly improved PTSD-related sleep conditions. Additional larger studies are underway to validate these findings.
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Complementary Therapy and Lifestyle Changes
Preliminary research indicates that acupuncture may be an effective complementary therapy for combating post traumatic stress disorder nightmares, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Although the pilot study was too small to provide adequate scientific findings, researchers found that the effects of acupuncture were similar to those of group therapy. Complementary therapies are meant to co-exist with medical therapy, so do not stop taking medications and talk to your doctor before undergoing alternative treatments.
Lifestyle changes, particularly bedtime habits, can benefit those with PTSD-related sleep disruptions. The National Center for PTSD recommends sticking to a bedtime routine that includes avoiding stressful situations and strenuous activities at least two hours before bedtime. Avoid nicotine, especially at night, as it is a stimulant and may keep you awake. Use relaxation techniques such as meditation, listening to pleasant music or taking a warm bath.
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National Institute of Mental Health: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Nightmares and Disorders of Dreaming
National Center for PTSD: Treatment of PTSD
PubMed: Prazosin treatment of nightmares related to posttraumatic stress disorder.
National Center for PTSD: Sleep and PTSD