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Sleep problems and nightmares

If you have trouble sleeping or have nightmares, you can try out these helpful tips.

It's common to have difficulties with sleep after experiencing sexual violence.

You might experience some of the following:

  • Fear of falling asleep and having nightmares.
  • Having nightmares - more than just bad dreams, you might feel like you're re-experiencing sexual violence.
  • Feeling tired due to poor sleep.
  • Insomnia - being unable to sleep.
  • Waking up throughout the night.

Sleep problems can have a big impact on how you feel and your everyday life. You might feel:

  • Tired all the time.
  • Grumpy and irritable.
  • Cold.
  • Anxious.
  • Stressed about being unable to get to sleep at night or worried about having nightmares.
  • Mentally exhausted from constantly thinking about sexual violence through your nightmares.

We know that this can be really hard to deal with. We have some ideas below to help.

What can help you sleep

If you're having problems with sleep, there are some things you can do to help.

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We know it can be really hard to get a good night's sleep. Try to be kind to yourself - some of these things might not work right away.

You might also want to talk to someone about how you are feeling.

During the day


Be active during the day

If you are able, try and be active during the day. This might help you feel tired when it's time for bed.

You don't have to take up a new exercise if that doesn't feel right for you. You could go for a walk outside or do some yoga at home.

Try to keep a regular sleep cycle

If at all possible, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This way your body can set a regular sleep pattern, which means you should feel sleepy as it approaches your bedtime.

Keep your bed for sleeping

By keeping your bed for sleeping, your mind will associate your bed with sleep and you will feel sleepy when you lie on it. 

Do this by avoiding watching television, gaming, eating or reading in bed during the day.

Before going to bed


Create the ideal sleeping space

Try to make sure that you'll be comfortable at night so sleeping is easier.

  • Make your bedroom as comfy as possible. Try a soft blanket or gentle lighting.
  • If you get anxious in the night, having something comforting near you, like a teddy bear, or photo of a loved one.
  • Take a glass of water to bed in case you get thirsty.
  • Make sure your bedroom is the right temperature. Try and keep the room cool if you get too hot.
  • If light bothers you, try to make your room as dark as possible. You can use a sleep mask if that helps.
  • If you're disrupted by noise, try earplugs.

Wind down and relax

Winding down before bed can help to prepare us for sleep. You could:

  • Avoid watching anything upsetting or too exciting before bed.
  • Avoid looking at screens or gaming. You could try reading instead if that's something you enjoy.
  • Take a hot bath or shower.
  • Have a hot drink (decaffeinated - tea or coffee might keep you awake!).
  • Not eat for at least a couple of hours before bed and especially avoid sugar and rich food.
  • Try mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, yoga or meditation before bed.

Ideas for relaxation before bed

Relax your mind

Try to switch off your mind and ignore thoughts of things you have to do. 

Keep a notebook and pen by your bedside so that if a thought enters your head you can write it down. This gets it out of your head and means you've got a note of it so you can come back to it in the morning.

Listen

Listening to something can help us relax. Try listening to calming music or nature noises. You could also try listening to an audio book but better to avoid anything too exciting. A story you already know might be good.

Visualise

Visualisation can also help keep us relaxed. Think of yourself in a relaxing place like lying on a deserted beach listening to the waves or in a sunny meadow listening to birds. 

Thought exercises

Repetitive thought exercises can help send you to sleep. 

If counting sheep doesn't work, imagine drawing a big circle on a white board. Write 99 in the circle then carefully rub it out without damaging the circle. Now write 98 before rubbing it out again. Repeat until you fall asleep.


When you can't sleep

It can be really frustrating or upsetting when you can't fall asleep.

Try not to get annoyed at yourself. Instead, if you wake up at night and know you won't get back to sleep, get up and do something else for a bit until you feel sleepy again.

Managing nightmares

It's common to have nightmares after experiencing rape or sexual violence. Below are some ways you can try to manage your nightmares.

Nightmares are very scary and can feel real. They might be similar to flashbacks except they occur when we're asleep. They often wake us up and can make us scared of going back to sleep.

Here are some things to help you deal with nightmares.

Remind yourself it's a nightmare

Remember it is just a nightmare, or a memory of something that is in the past. You are safe.

Ground yourself

Look at our grounding section to learn how to ground yourself after a nightmare.

Comfort yourself

This might be by holding a comforting object, drinking a hot drink or having a hot shower. 

Relax

Try to relax through deep breathing, meditation, yoga or anything that helps you feel less anxious.

Keep a diary of your nightmares

Remembering your nightmares may sound like the last thing you want to do! But, it can help you identify any patterns.

It might be that your nightmares involve certain images or content, which you might be able to dispel by writing or talking about them.

You might also be able to identify triggers. For example, did you have a nightmare after talking about your experience? After watching an upsetting film? 

Talk to your partner

If you sleep with a partner, talk to them. There might be something they can do to help after you've had a nightmare. This might be giving you your space or it might be offering you comfort - discuss what feels right for you.

Whatever it is, they should respect your needs and wishes.

Getting help and support

We know that sleep problems and nightmares can have a real impact.

It could help to talk to someone about how you are feeling or speak to a Rape Crisis counsellor.

Get in touch if you would like help and support.

About Rape Crisis services
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