Approximately half of people who suffer nightmares following a traumatic event have nightmares that relive the incident. Survivors with PTSD are more likely than survivors without PTSD to experience nightmares that are precise repeats of the events. Lab studies have revealed that dreams following trauma differ in certain ways from nightmares in general. For example, when subjects are given acetylcholine injections into the brain's memory center (the hippocampus) before they sleep, they more often remember their dreams the next day. The brains of those who have just experienced trauma are also producing more of this neurotransmitter than normal, which may explain why survivors with PTSD tend to remember their dreams more clearly.
It is not unusual after experiencing a trauma such as abuse or violence to find its images recurring in your dreams. These dreams may be vague impressions or full-blown scenes that replay the traumatic event. It is important to understand that these dreams are a product of your unconscious mind and are not signs that something bad will happen. They are simply your body's way of processing what has happened.
Dreams can also serve as a source of protection. For example, if you experience a dangerous situation while you are sleeping, your brain will produce a dream version of it that can help you react appropriately if it turns out to be real. Nightmares, on the other hand, may seem like reality but they are actually the result of your subconscious trying to tell you that something bad is about to happen.
Trauma survivors who develop PTSD are more prone to experience nightmares. Nightmares are one of the 17 PTSD symptoms. A research comparing Vietnam soldiers to civilians found that 52 percent of combat veterans with PTSD reported nightmares on a regular basis. Of these, about half said their dreams were so violent they woke up feeling frightened.
Nightmares can be frightening for many reasons. They may represent events in the person's life (such as losing a loved one) that they try to avoid thinking about, or they may reflect feelings such as anger or fear that need to be worked through. Military personnel and victims of trauma other than military personnel have been shown to suffer more frequent nightmares as a result of their stressors. Stressors include experiences with violence, accidents, disasters, and illnesses/injuries. Psychological stressors include memories of traumatic events, thoughts about future threats, and mental images related to stressful situations.
It is common after experiencing a nightmare to want to avoid sleeping again. However, not sleeping enough increases stress levels and makes it more likely that you will have another nightmare. It is important to talk about your nightmares with someone you trust- either a doctor or therapist or friend.
Trauma. Nightmares are prevalent following a stressful incident such as an accident, injury, physical or sexual abuse, or other traumatic event. Post-traumatic stress disorder patients frequently have nightmares (PTSD). A lack of sleep can also cause or exacerbate nightmares.
Medical conditions. Many medical conditions can lead to nightmares. For example, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and cancer may all cause insomnia, which can lead to nightmares. Drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs such as amphetamines or benzodiazepines (such as valium or temazepam) can also cause or contribute to nightmares. Depression and anxiety are common among cancer patients and these conditions can also cause or exacerbate nightmares.
Psychiatric disorders. Psychiatric disorders are very common among people who suffer from many types of nightmares. These include anxiety disorders such as panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders such as addiction to nicotine or caffeine. Psychosis is when someone loses touch with reality due to a serious mental illness like schizophrenia.
Sleep disorders. Sleep disorders are very common among people who suffer from many types of nightmares. These include obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and restless legs syndrome (RLS). OSA is when your airway becomes blocked during sleep, causing you to breathe heavily through your mouth or nose.
Locate a Trauma or PTSD Therapist. According to Hartmann (1998), dreaming is a means for the brain to process with trauma, and dreams are frequently based on the predominant feeling the person experienced during the event or experiences when recalling the trauma. Freud believed that our dreams reveal what we want most in life, so if you're struggling with depression or anxiety, then your dreams may be telling you something important about yourself.
If you're dealing with trauma or stress in your daily life, it's important to understand that this will have an effect on your sleep patterns. Trying not to think about certain things will help you relax and get some rest, but only if you work at it hard enough. Using relaxation techniques before bed can help you achieve that goal.
Hartmann also suggests that if you're having frequent dreams about past trauma, then this might be a sign that you should see a psychotherapist to discuss these issues. Talking through your problems with someone who isn't involved in your day-to-day life might just help you come up with some solutions.
In addition, she notes that if you're having disturbing dreams about future events, this could be a sign that something bad is going to happen. It's important to remember that dreams are simply thoughts projected into our minds by God, so anything is possible.
Is it possible for a dream to be traumatic? Certainly, in our experience. We've awoken from dreams with affects that can linger all day. Often, our nightmares contain all-too-real components from our trauma background, exacerbating the situation.
Our brains are very good at filtering out what doesn't belong in our minds. This is why we often only remember fragments of our dreams. However, if something disturbing occurs during sleep, the brain has no way of knowing whether or not it actually happened. This can cause us to feel traumatized even though we're asleep.
There are two ways in which our nightmares can affect us: directly and indirectly. Directly, a nightmare can be so frightening that it causes us physical pain or stress hormones to be released while we're awake. This can result in feelings of terror or anxiety. Indirectly, however, a nightmare can put us in dangerous situations or release memories that haunt us later. For example, someone who has experienced violence as part of their trauma history might find themselves in threatening situations while they're sleeping. If they have another fear associated with violence, then this could cause them to have a bad dream that releases these emotions again.
It's important to understand that although nightmares can be distressing, they don't necessarily mean that your past trauma is coming back to haunt you.