Combat PTSD and Recurring Zombie Dreams: What They Mean and How to Stop Them
I have worked with many military folks with Combat PTSD and combat experiences, and they often reported recurring dreams of zombies. I could never really figure out what the interpretation was. I think it is important to interpret dreams, especially with people who are so emotionally detached and struggling. The way I interpret dreams isn’t usually with a dream book or google, but by helping my clients identify feelings they had during the dream and upon awakening. I also process their thoughts as well. Usually the thoughts and feelings parallel what they are experiencing in waking life. The zombie dreams I couldn’t quite nail down. Was it helplessness, paranormal experiences dealing with death and bodies, or fear of being hunted etc? A few weeks ago I had a zombie dream of my own, and I think I’ve got it.
I was over thinking this one. Zombies are walking dead. I was being chased and killing them. I was pretty bad ass, like the chic in Resident Evil. I woke up still alive in the dream. I thought of all of my patients and people they knew who also had zombie dreams and had to figure this out. I felt dead. It is really quite simple. I had just had oral surgery and was taking opiates to relieve pain. I felt good, free of pain, had energy and was slightly buzzed. These pills are incredibly addictive, and I know how much more now than ever. Then they were gone. Fortunately I was on them for about a week, but it was enough to experience an emotional withdrawal. It was mild, but I felt foggy, depressed and zombified. Then I had the aha moment. They felt like zombies.
You see, while in a deployed setting, especially those that are shooting and being shot at and handling mutilated bodies, there is an adrenaline rush that I can’t articulate having not experienced it first hand. When we are full of adrenaline, it is like a high. It masks any fear and we feel alive, powerful and purposeful. Imagine that for 6-15 months then coming home, still feeling the adrenaline, but having nothing to fight. Then emotions of anger, depression and fear surface. They then often turn to the most effective and accessible means of quieting the adrenaline: alcohol, leading to more problems. So you see they feel like zombies, because they felt alive and useful, they had a mission and felt valued (this is all generalizations of course). When returning to civilization, they have to adjust to people and everyday living. They are highly sensitive to sounds, crowds and their emotions. Military folks are trained to ignore their emotions. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told, mostly by Marines and Army, that they would rather be in Iraq than deal with their intense emotions while in the US. They are good at what they do while in combat. With emotions, they are challenged to say the least.
So if you are coping with combat PTSD or acute stress, know that these dreams and feelings are normal and to be expected. However it is important to work with a professional to shorten the misery. PTSD is treatable. Many of my motivated patients left treatment without the diagnosis. For professionals, what I do is work toward balance. I have them lay off the alcohol and engage in adrenaline boosting activities that are healthy. Many come home and buy a motorcycle. That is fine as long as you are checking for passive suicidality, as many get reckless and impulsive, and downright stupid. They feel alive and free on bikes. In session I work on teaching them how to relax to reset their stress response. If they don’t have a top secret clearance I will do passive hypnosis, where they just listen. I also teach them how to properly breathe. These techniques along with cognitive processing has resulted in many successes. There are other techniques. Many people believe prolonged exposure is the way to go. I find that the 25% drop out rate is unacceptable to me, and I would rather spend more time working with people, as it also helps them in other areas of their lives. PTSD impacts everything, relationships, health, work performance, libido… I hope this is helpful for folks and opens the door for further introspection and exploration for people struggling with Combat PTSD and zombie dreams. Sweet dreams.