Nightmares can be very disturbing It is not unusual for men to experience trouble sleeping and have nightmares following child sexual abuse or sexual assault. The trouble with nightmares is that they can not only be unsettling in and of themselves, but can bring back painful, upsetting memories associated with sexual abuse or sexual assault. Nightmares can occur days, weeks, months or years after an abusive event, appear just once or be recurring. They can appear from nowhere, be hard to understand and if their content refers to sexual abuse be difficult to explain to others. Below is some information about nightmares, along with some suggestions as to how to deal with them.

Some effects of nightmares

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.

Unfortunately, societal expectations that a man should always feel in control and be able to handle anything that is thrown at him can add to men’s difficulties in dealing with these common effects. These unrealistic gender expectations can have men evaluating themselves in relation to their capacity to manage nightmares and can make it difficult to ask for help.

Afterwards, I just didn’t sleep. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, all tensed up. My house mates told me they could hear what sounded like a muffled scream. I just couldn’t tell them.

Understandably, following nightmares men can become preoccupied with their content, trying to sort them out and make sense of them. However, often the silence and secrecy surrounding sexual abuse can get in the way of men speaking with partners, friends and family.

Things you can do to manage nightmares at the time

Nightmares happen and there are things you can do in the short term and long term to deal with them. Below are some ways of managing nightmares when they occur:

  • Reassure yourself that you are safe and that the traumatic event that you are remembering is NOT happening now.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Be aware of and understand your body’s response as natural physiological reactions to a traumatic experience; try to slow these physical reactions by continuing to breathe deeply and slowly, try to see and imagine your muscles relaxing.
  • Locate yourself in the present; check your present reality by looking around, touching things, stamping your feet, looking in the mirror or talking to yourself.
  • Confirm your physical safety – turn on the lights, walk around the house, check the locks.
  • Have a drink of water.
  • Wash your face or have a warm bath or shower.
  • Focus on something else: read a book or magazine, watch TV, listen to the radio or relaxing music.
  • Talk with a partner, friend or relative who is supportive.
What you can do if nightmares persist

If, in the morning, you can put aside the nightmare and concentrate on getting on and doing what it is important to you then do. If, however, a nightmare persists or becomes particularly disruptive you might try the following exercise.

  1. Pick an unpleasant dream/nightmare, one that is not a direct replay or a re-enactment of a distressing event and write it down.
  2. Write the unpleasant dream down in as much detail as you can.  Only in this telling of the dream change the ending so that it suits you.  Remember it is your choice to do this and that you can stop writing or thinking about the dream and do something else any time you want.
  3. Now, get to know this new preferred version of the dream, rehearse it each night for about 5-15 minutes prior to going to sleep.
  4. Once you have rehearsed the dream, perform a relaxation exercise, one that you are familiar with and helps you to fall asleep peacefully. If you wake up, it can be useful to repeat this relaxation exercise, breathing deeply and slowly.
  5. When you are satisfied that you have re-storied the unpleasant dream to better suit you, you can choose to work on another nightmare that is slightly more intense than the last. Make sure that this process is a gradual increase in intensity and do not work with more than 2 nightmares in one week. Also take care of yourself; you do not have to over describe the upsetting content within the dream.

This is just one way of dealing with nightmares. If it isn’t working for you or if you find it is inviting of flashbacks during the day then stop. Some people have found it useful to write down the dreams and their reaction to it in a diary or a journal, as a way to get it out of their head. If you continue to be disturbed by nightmares or feel there is something you wish to work out, it can be useful to find an experienced counsellor who you can work with.

Acknowledgement: Adapted from information provided within Brisbane sexual assault service, information sheet – ‘Managing Nightmares’ and Krakow Hollifield et al, “Imagery Rehearsal Therapy for Chronic Nightmares in Sexual Assault Survivors with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”. Journal of the American medical Association  Vol. 286 No 5, 1 August 2001



  1. Comment by Aplin

    Aplin Reply July 5, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    I was sexually and physically abused several times during childhood and also when I was a teenager. I have seen psychiatrist and therapist over the years, but still not better. Any suggestions on what I should do? Thanks

    • Comment by Jerry

      Jerry Reply September 16, 2016 at 11:09 pm

      The therapy and psychiatry are not designed to make you better. They are forms of study that can bring you down a path of healing, should you take that path. Best of luck to you my friend.

    • Comment by Beat

      Beat Reply September 21, 2016 at 6:20 pm

      Hey Alpin,

      I too was sexually, physically and mentally abused growing up. It wasnt until college age that I was in a safer place to work on the past I tried to shove into the back of my mind.

      I did a LOT of things to heal and be normal and here’s what I did:

      – Stick with a good therapist. One that is on your side and understands things. You need that healthy response from a support system.
      – Join a mens small group for sexual abuse. This actually helped me more than I could ever say. I found real people who went through similar (some of them worse) and shared that they experienced daily after effects just like me. It helps to lessen the burden of feeling the only “messed up one” or “crazy one” that I normally get.
      – Read a lot of articles and recovery books. I purposely desensitized myself by reading other people’s stories. I even read those of transgendered people because they had experienced what I went through, just in a different setting.
      – Prayed a lot. It doesn’t matter to me what you fill in the blank for religion/spirituality. But I’m not going to lie that talking to God didn’t get me through it. I was able to be angry, yell, question and hold my assailants guilty (as they will never be tried in a human court), and just talk out the crap. While I never had a red sea parting moment, I did in baby steps, heal from PTSD. Of course this is very personal and may not apply to everyone.
      – PROCESSED THE EMOTIONS. This is the most important part. It is recommended you do this with a therapist as it can be overwhelming by yourself. The more abuse you went through, the more times you will have to do this, as it is best to take it one event at a time.

      Good luck to you Aplin! It takes time but I know you will get better.

    • Comment by Jess [Living Well Staff]

      Jess [Living Well Staff] Reply October 5, 2016 at 11:14 am

      Hi Alpin,

      First I want to commend you for taking steps to work through your difficulties, and for not giving up. I know it can be disheartening when things progress slower than you would like – it can be helpful to keep in mind that sometimes this is what is needed. To move through things at a pace that isn’t overwhelming, knowing that you are processing things in the background and always moving forward, even when it feels otherwise.

      The first step is to look after your own health and wellbeing. Engage in self care – physical and mental. Build up your safety and stability, as this will bring you to a place where you can manage and cope with the things underneath.

      And finally, while I know therapy hasn’t been helpful so far, I can’t recommend enough that you find a therapist or counsellor with experience in trauma and/or sexual abuse. This is a very specialised area that in which a therapist needs specific training and experience. Keep trying to find one who works for you, as all professionals have their own style and it may not always be the first, second or even third that suits you as an individual.

      Know that recovery is possible and help is available. I wish you the best.

      And a big thank you to everyone else for your comments. While everyone’s experiences and recovery are different, it is wonderful to hear what has worked for some, and to see people reaching out to support each other.

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