After someone is exposed to a traumatic event or experience they are likely to experience a few nightmares related to the traumatic incident that they experienced. Some people are not as fortunate as this and they will experience recurring nightmares for a long period of time. These recurring nightmares play a large role and are a defining symptom in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs after an individual has experienced a traumatic event such as participating in combat, a natural disaster, or being a victim of rape or sexual assault. Patients who develop and then suffer from PTSD will re-experience their traumatic event through in-depth thoughts, dreams and actions and feelings as if the event were reoccurring with an extremely high level of stress. These patients will tend to avoid stimuli that they associate with their traumatic event and many times they are incapable of recalling certain aspects of the traumatic event. Thus, these individuals tend to develop hyper-arousal and will experience problems with sleeping because they will wake themselves up deliberately in order to avoid having traumatic nightmares which deal with the event. When these patients do actually sleep, they will often experience the exact replica of the traumatic event in a nightmare form. These recurring thoughts, nightmares and dreams are chief symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Those who suffer from PTSD nightmares often will awaken feeling terrified, most likely with physical signs of arousal such as labored breathing and sweating. Often they are unable to fall back asleep right away and may be awake for several hours or for the remainder of the night. Many war veterans feel that the recurrent nightmares that they experience are the single most disturbing and distressing symptom of their disorder. This is probably because they continue to relive the horrible event or experience, which brings fear and a feeling of helplessness.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder nightmares are often confused with other exceptional sleep characteristics such as night terrors and ordinary dreams. These three categories of sleep are all extremely different. Ordinary dreams are those which are experienced occasionally by individuals not exposed to traumatic situations. These nightmares differ in every person, but many times they feature the dreamer being chased or threatened by an unwanted attacker. Ordinary nightmares and PTSD nightmares differ in their content and in repetitiveness. That is, many people who have ordinary nightmares havent experienced a traumatic event. Posttraumatic nightmares are repetitive and possess more memory intrusion of the traumatic event than ordinary nightmares. Their content consists of an exact replay of an actual scene or event from the disaster or traumatic event. This replay of event phenomena can occur not only during nightmares, but also while awake. When these replays occur during the day they are called flashbacks rather then nightmares. The repetitive PTSD nightmare is a memory, in contrast to ordinary nightmares. These memories can intrude into the consciousness as if the event is happening all over again. Night terrors also differ from PTSD nightmares in that they occur during non-REM sleep, before rapid eye movement has began in the sleep cycle. A considerable amount of body movement occurs during night terrors and the individual will often awaken from their sleep and not remember what they were dreaming about.