Dreams and Trauma: How Nightmares Can Reflect and Process Emotional Distress

Explore how trauma affects dreams, causing nightmares, and what those who experience nightmares can do to limit their recurrence.


Everyone has nightmares from time to time, the heart-pounding, fear-inducing dreams that can send your blood rushing past your ears when you wake as you try to remember that it was all a dream. However, for those with trauma, while the nightmare itself isn’t real, what is contained within often was. 

Our dreams can offer a glimpse into the inner workings of our minds, and nightmares may be a sign of emotional distress. However, by seeking help when nightmares recur, you can address the trauma and heal, halting all nightmares and taking back control of your nights. 

Continue reading to learn more about how trauma can affect your dreams, how nightmares can be treated, and other ways to promote a relaxing night of sleep.

Can Trauma Affect Your Dreams?

The unfortunate fact is that, even when you’re asleep, you may not be able to escape your trauma. While scientists have not been able to agree on how it is that trauma affects our dreams, they have long speculated that the connection nevertheless exists. 

Research into war veterans revealed that many of them experienced repetitive nightmares, creating some hypotheses that have stood the test of time. Namely, it’s suspected that dreams occur when we turn our experiences into long-term memory, and trauma can cause dreams where our mind attempts to learn and cope with the situations, often manifesting as a nightmare. 

The appeal of a dream is that, since it occurs in our mind, we can visualize threatening events and try out different responses, finding the most effective one. It is our mind’s way of preparing for what may happen during the waking hours. Furthermore, exposure to these threats while you’re asleep may reduce your fears surrounding them, as you now know how to handle them. 

When you’ve been through a traumatic experience, your mind latches onto it and forms dreams around it so that you may continually modify your response until it is no longer as frightening. Additionally, the longer that trauma affects you during the day, and the more of your mind that it consumes, the more your brain may use it for dreams as it processes the thoughts from the day. 

Research has also revealed that the region of the brain that controls our reaction to fear can be overly sensitive or overactive during a nightmare, just like it is during daytime flashbacks and anxiety. This information further demonstrates the connection between trauma and nightmares.

Do Nightmares Have Meaning?

There’s a mixed consensus regarding whether dreams have meaning. Some believe that the elements and tropes in your dream may signify something in real life, acting as your mind’s way of expression. For example, dreaming that you are running late for school (even if you graduated 20 years ago) may be from a fear of failure in your present life. However, others theorize that the meaning of a dream has more to do with how you interpret the dream. 

That being said, nightmares, as a type of dream, may also be how your mind processes what is happening in your life, but they often involve things that cause unpleasant emotions such as fear and terror. So, if you have a scary experience, you may have nightmares as you revisit the event or emotions in your sleep. This is supported by evidence that nightmares become even more common after experiencing a traumatic event

Repetitive nightmares are not indicative of a mental health disorder, but they are common for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Still, not all individuals who are victims of trauma develop PTSD. 

If you experience frequent nightmares, this may be a sign that your body is trying to process something that it has long suppressed and cannot focus on during the day. By considering what occurs in your nightmares, you may be able to work out what traumatic experience is behind them. 

For those with trauma, the nightmare will often involve elements of the trauma itself, and those with PTSD are more likely to have nightmares that put them through the traumatic experience again and again. As expected, this can be unsettling.

Overall, having nightmares may be your mind’s way to process frightening and unknown scenarios, but if the nightmares are recurrent, their cause may be related to trauma. By looking at what occurs in the nightmares or what feelings they bring up, you may be able to better understand what is causing them. 

Treating Nightmares

While you may wish to forget about your trauma and move on—and may even think that you’re successful—the mind doesn’t always forget. Even more, the more you try to ignore or suppress your thoughts and feelings, the more often you may have trauma-related nightmares—it’s your mind’s way of begging you to face the trauma and move on instead of avoiding it. 

If you’ve suffered a traumatic experience, a vital part of healing from it is being able to ask for help. Counselors, doctors, and therapists are available who can help you treat the cause of your nightmares and other complications arising from the traumatic event. You may be unaware of just how much of your life can be affected by trauma until you fully heal from it. 

While many people will stop having dreams related to their trauma without treatment, others may benefit from trauma-focused counseling or psychotherapy, such as:

  • Image rehearsal therapy: writing down a nightmare and turning it into a story or script, which is then rewritten to resolve the crisis.
  • Desensitization and exposure therapy: Using controlled exposure to memories and fearful thoughts to reduce emotional reactions. 

Encouraging a Good Night of Sleep (Free of Nightmares)

While seeking help from a therapist or counselor is the best way to manage the lasting effects of your trauma, there are also things you can do to make your sleep more relaxing. 

If you’ve had nightmares, sleep may soon become something you fear, knowing that you can get sucked into the nightmares. This fear can increase the likelihood of a nightmare, so the best course of action is to begin equating bedtime with relaxation instead of fear. 

Some sleep tips include:

  • Following a sleep routine every night
  • Trying relaxation methods before bed, such as listening to soothing music or trying mindful meditation
  • If you cannot fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing until you’re tired enough to try again. 

Some of these habits, such as relaxation methods, can be helpful if you have a nightmare and cannot fall asleep, as they can help to calm the mind and body once again. 

Remember, difficulty sleeping is normal after a traumatic experience, so be gentle with yourself as you try these habits and recreate a healthy relationship with sleep.

Dreams as a Window to Emotional States

If you’re suffering from recurring nightmares, don’t ignore them. It’s suspected that dreams occur as our mind processes the information from the day, and while they aren’t usually clear in what they say, the underlying emotions are. If you have dreams where fear is a common emotion, it may be a sign that your mind is trying to work through something of a similar nature. 

Not only can nightmares be distressing, but they can interrupt your sleep and leave you feeling unrested come morning. To put yourself in the best state, reach out to a doctor or other healthcare professional if you’ve gone through a traumatic experience or are experiencing recurring nightmares; they can help you work through them so that your mind can finally heal and sleep more peacefully.


Written by

Jessica G

Medical writer freelancer who has written hundreds of articles on varying topics. Masters of Engineering degree in Biomedical Engineering.

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