Trauma Dreams: Connection, Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

illustration of a trauma dream

Dreams and trauma share a profound and intricate connection, often explored through rigorous research in psychology and neuroscience. Traumatic experiences can deeply influence our dream patterns, sometimes offering a window into our subconscious attempts to cope with distressing events.

From the effects of trauma on dream content to the potential of dreams to trigger psychological distress, this exploration will delve into the causes, symptoms, and potential treatments for trauma-related dreams.

What is the Relationship between Dreams and Trauma?

The relationship between dreams and trauma is a complex one, often explored in the field of psychology and neuroscience. Research suggests that traumatic experiences can significantly influence dream activities, with dreams potentially serving as a coping mechanism or a reflection of the emotional distress caused by trauma.

In a study titled “Trauma and dramatherapy: dreams, play and the social construction of culture” by Phil Jones, the relationship between dreams and trauma is examined through the lens of dramatherapy. The study suggests that dreams can illuminate the processes that occur in individuals who have experienced trauma, and that play, as a component of dramatherapy, can help resolve people’s experiences of trauma.

Another study, “Psychopathological Symptoms as a Function of Trauma, Dreams, and Inhibitions” by C. Yu, investigates the cumulative effects of lifetime traumatization on dream activities. The study found that psychopathological symptoms can be predicted by emotional trauma, accumulated traumatic experiences, and thematic dream content.

Research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic also provides insight into the relationship between dreams and trauma. Two studies, “Narratives of Dreams and Waking Thoughts: Emotional Processing in Relation to the COVID-19 Pandemic” and “Dreaming in quarantine: linguistic analysis of referential process of dreams during COVID-19 pandemic lockdown”, explore how the trauma of the pandemic manifested in dreams. These studies suggest that dreams can play a role in processing and integrating traumatic experiences.

What Causes Trauma Dreams?

Trauma dreams, often characterized by nightmares and anxiety dreams, are typically a reflection of traumatic experiences you’ve encountered while awake. These dreams tend to incorporate similar feelings and sensations to those experienced during the trauma. Researchers suggest that trauma-related dreams are triggered by the brain’s fear response and may represent your mind’s attempt at processing and working through the traumatic experience.

Can You Be Traumatized by a Dream?

Yes, it is possible to experience trauma from a dream. However, it’s important to note that the trauma doesn’t originate from the dream itself, but rather the dream can trigger or exacerbate existing psychological distress or trauma.

Research has shown that intense, disturbing dreams can lead to increased levels of psychological distress. For instance, a study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that individuals who experienced higher levels of fear, depression, and trauma were more likely to seek psychological help. This suggests that distressing dreams, particularly in the context of a traumatic event like a pandemic, can contribute to psychological distress and trauma.

Another study found that patients suffering from facial trauma had significantly increased levels of mental state disorders such as PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder. While this study focused on physical trauma, it highlights the complex relationship between trauma, mental health, and the potential for dreams to exacerbate these conditions.

Can Trauma Cause Nightmares?

Yes, trauma can indeed cause nightmares. This is supported by various research studies that have explored the link between traumatic experiences and the occurrence of nightmares.

A meta-analysis conducted by M. Casement and L. Swanson found that individuals with post-trauma nightmares experienced significant improvements in nightmare frequency, sleep quality, and post-traumatic stress symptoms after undergoing imagery rehearsal treatment. This suggests that trauma can lead to nightmares, which can be managed with appropriate treatment.

In a case series by V. Mysliwiec, Brian M O’Reilly, Jason Polchinski, Herbert Kwon, A. Germain, and B. Roth, disruptive nocturnal behaviors and nightmares were observed in trauma survivors. The nightmares were replays of the traumatic experiences, further establishing the connection between trauma and nightmares.

Another study by Dilan E. Y├╝ccel, A. V. van Emmerik, C. Souama, and J. Lancee compared the efficacy of imagery rehearsal therapy and prazosin in treating posttraumatic nightmares. Both treatments showed efficacy, indicating that trauma-induced nightmares can be treated pharmacologically and psychologically.

How to Stop Trauma Nightmares

To stop trauma nightmares, research suggests two primary treatments: pharmacological treatment with a medication called prazosin and psychological treatment with Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT).

Prazosin is a medication that has shown moderate to large effects on reducing nightmare frequency, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and improving sleep quality in trauma survivors. It’s important to note that prazosin should be taken under the supervision of a healthcare provider due to potential side effects such as dizziness.

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is a cognitive-behavioral technique that involves changing the ending of your nightmares while you’re awake. It’s a recommended treatment for trauma-related nightmares and has shown small to moderate effects on reducing nightmare frequency, posttraumatic symptoms, and improving sleep quality.

Depression also plays a significant role in the relationship between sleep disturbances, trauma-related nightmares, and suicidal ideation. Treating depression in patients who present with sleep difficulties may subsequently help mitigate suicide risk.

Childhood Trauma and Dreams

Childhood trauma can significantly influence your dreams and overall mental health. Research indicates that traumatic experiences in childhood can lead to symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which often manifest in dreams. For instance, a study led by R. McNally, Alexandre Heeren, and Donald J. Robinaugh found that adults who experienced childhood sexual abuse often had dreams about the trauma, suggesting a strong link between traumatic experiences and dream content.

Another study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that individuals with a history of childhood trauma showed increased levels of psychological distress and PTSD symptoms, including distressing dreams. This study, led by D. Janiri, L. Moccia, L. Dattoli, and others, also suggested that emotional dysregulation could mediate the impact of childhood trauma on psychological distress.

Moreover, a study by Katja I. Seitz, K. Bertsch, and S. Herpertz found that individuals with a history of childhood trauma experienced an increase in general psychopathology and PTSD symptom severity during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study emphasized the importance of social support in mitigating the detrimental effects of public health crises on individuals with a history of childhood trauma.

These findings underscore the profound impact of childhood trauma on an individual’s mental health and dream patterns.