Updated at: 13-04-2022 - By: Jane Brody

After a distressing event, it is typical to have nightmares and anxiety dreams since our dreams often reflect what we see and feel when we are awake. Disturbed dreams frequently contain the same kinds of emotions and experiences that the traumatized person felt in the real world.

Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS)

It’s not uncommon for people to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS) after going through a traumatic or stressful incident. Post-traumatic stress disorder affects nearly everyone who has survived a terrible event. When a person is in a state of high anxiety, such as after a traumatic experience, the brain orders the body to tighten its muscles, increase blood flow, and speed up breathing. When confronted with a threat or challenge, the body’s “fight or flight” response activates.

How Trauma Can Affect Dreams: How To Cope | Sleep Foundation

The following are examples of possible PTS symptoms:

  • Increased blood flow to the heart
  • Unsteady feet
  • Nightmares
  • Anything that brings back memories of a painful event is avoided.
  • Nervousness and apprehension

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS) typically fade within a few days of the traumatic experience; PTS does not have a long-term impact on a person’s daily life.

PTS is not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as many people believe (post-traumatic stress disorder). Instead of subsiding within a month after the trauma, the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might remain for months or even years.

What is Trauma?

An emotional reaction to a frightening or painful experience is known as trauma. Natural catastrophes, vehicle accidents, and assaults are all instances of common traumatic experiences. At any given moment or place, trauma can strike anyone, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. It is estimated that 60% of men and 50% of women have experienced at least one trauma in their lifetimes.

Men, on the other hand, are more prone than women to suffer the effects of traumatic events including sexual assault and child sexual abuse, as well as accidents, physical attack, war, natural catastrophes, or witnessing the death or injury of another person.

There are numerous signs and symptoms that may accompany a traumatic encounter, such as:

  • Headaches, nausea, and dizziness are all examples of physical symptoms.
  • Sadness, rage, denial, terror, and shame are all examples of strong emotions.
  • Having trouble falling asleep or having nightmares
  • or a change in sleeping habits
  • The inability to keep existing relationships going or to form new ones
  • Anger is one of the more common emotional responses.
  • Intestinal issues

Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can result in many of these symptoms and feelings, and they are all completely normal. However, these symptoms may persist for some time without going away. If left untreated, it can progress to a mental illness, the most common of which is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Why Does Trauma Affect Dreams?

While scientists have long speculated about this relationship, there isn’t universal agreement on why trauma impacts our dreams. Early on, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, suggested that dreams provide a window into the unconscious. Repressed wants, according to him, keep people awake at night by causing them to worry about their repressed feelings.

In response to veterans’ nightmares, later hypotheses were established. Dreams, according to some theories, are a way for people to revisit and move with past trauma. Nightmares were frequently interpreted as a sign that a person had failed to overcome or overcome the trauma. Another group of researchers believed that dreams were a means for the mind to turn guilt into terror.

Freud’s views have evolved over the years, yet newer theories are remarkably congruent with them. It is widely accepted that dreams aid in the consolidation of our experiences into long-term memory; this process is referred to as memory consolidation. Dreams may reflect our bodies’ attempts to deal with and learn from painful experiences.

Dreams can be used to test out different responses to dangerous situations. While we sleep, we may be able to access parts of our brain that are critical for creativity and decision-making. We are more inclined to approach dangerous situations in our dreams than to flee from them, according to recent studies on dreaming.

Nightmares and PTSD

Approximately 4% to 10% of the population suffers from nightmares on a weekly basis. Nightmares are more common after a distressing incident has occurred.

It is possible that nightmares are a powerful representation of the body’s ability to deal with trauma, so powerful that they wake the sleeper. When the body’s ability to handle trauma breaks down, it might cause nightmares. For the most part, trauma-related nightmares fade away within a few weeks or months for the vast majority of people.

How Trauma Can Affect Dreams: How To Cope | Sleep Foundation

Fight, flight, or freeze is the body’s natural response to a stressful situation. When our bodies release stress hormones, our pupils dilate, and our heart rates rise, we become more sensitive to dangers than we normally would be. It is common for this alarm system to shut down once we have had time to comprehend a stressful event.

Persistent hyperarousal and difficulty lowering the brain’s terror response are both implicated in chronic, recurring nightmares. Even after a traumatic event has passed, the fight-flight-freeze response may still be active in the brain.

Psychological disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are associated with recurring nightmares, although this isn’t the case for everyone who experiences them (PTSD). Only a small percentage of trauma victims are estimated to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that occurs as a result of a terrible experience. Involuntary memories of the event can occur during the day (such as flashbacks) or at night for those who have been diagnosed with this disease (nightmares). It is common for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder to avoid both external and internal reminders (people, places, activities) of the traumatic incident. There can be a noticeable shift in their demeanor as they become more quickly frightened and hyperaware of potential danger.

Can Nightmares Cause Trauma?

There is something disconcerting about having vivid dreams or waking up with vivid memories of nightmares still fresh in your mind. There may not be much research on the concept that nightmares might produce trauma, but it depends on how trauma is defined if the answer to this question is to be found.

Over time, our understanding of what constitutes a traumatic event has evolved. The term “trauma” was first used by psychologists to describe occurrences that were deemed too extreme to be considered part of a person’s regular experience while they were conscious. In later definitions, trauma has been enlarged to include a wide range of trauma origins and the cumulative effects of several traumas.

DSM–5 states that trauma can be experienced both directly and indirectly, and this is based on current research. This suggests that we don’t have to be exposed to a traumatic event first-hand in order to be prone to it later in our lives. As an example, hearing about the trauma of individuals they assist on a regular basis can cause secondary or vicarious trauma in professionals such as teachers, counselors, and psychologists. It’s possible that dreams can cause indirect trauma, but that’s still up for debate.

Whether nightmares can cause trauma may also depend on a person’s culture. Historically, Western dream theories focus on how waking life affects dream content. In other cultures, including several Native American traditions, there is less distinction between the dreaming and waking worlds and dreams can significantly affect waking life. Dreams have powerful spiritual connotations in many cultural traditions, so it’s certainly possible that dreams can be a traumatic experience for many.

How to work through trauma-related nightmares

Whether nightmares can create trauma may also depend on a person’s culture. Historically, Western dream theories focus on how waking life impacts dream content. Many Native American societies, for example, do not distinguish between the waking and dreaming worlds, and dreams can have a substantial impact on a person’s daily life. Dreams have profound spiritual connotations in many cultural traditions, therefore it’s absolutely feasible that dreams might be a distressing experience for many.

It is possible that a person’s culture influences whether or not a person’s dreams can be traumatizing. Dream content has always been the subject of Western Western dream theories. A difference between the waking and sleeping worlds is less obvious in other cultures, including some Native American traditions. Dreams have a substantial impact on the waking world. Many cultures attribute significant spiritual significance to dreams, so it’s understandable that having a bad dream could be upsetting for some people.

  • Depending on a person’s culture, dreams may or may not be a cause of trauma. Dream content has traditionally been the emphasis of Western Western dream theories in the wake of the scientific discoveries of the 20th century. In some societies, especially some Native American traditions, there is little separation between the waking and dreaming worlds, and dreams can have a substantial impact on daily life. It’s no surprise that dreams can be traumatic for certain people, given the strong spiritual associations they carry in many cultures.
  • Rescripting and relaxation therapy are examples of exposure (ERRT).

Visualization (imagining a scene or activity in your head) and nightmare rescripting are common features of these treatments.

Visual imagery and nightmare rescripting can be demonstrated in this way:

  • Think of a recurring nightmare that you’ve had before.
  • How do you feel right now? During and after the nightmare,
  • Instead, how would you choose to feel?
  • What alterations would have to be made to the plot for this to occur?

It’s hard to convey the nuances in this technique. A professional therapist can provide additional assistance by providing you with instruction on how to appropriately rescript your nightmares (to address the last two points).

Treatment for Nightmares

It’s hard to convey the nuances in this technique. A professional therapist can provide additional assistance by providing you with instruction on how to appropriately rescript your nightmares (to address the last two points).

How Trauma Can Affect Dreams: How To Cope | Sleep Foundation

The subtleties of this technique are difficult to express. If you want to learn how to correctly rescript your nightmares, see a professional therapist (to address the last two points).

It is typical to have nightmares and difficulties sleeping following trauma, and many people recover without treatment. For others, these issues may raise concerns about the development of a more serious condition such as PTSD.

Dreams and problems sleeping are common following traumatic events, and many people recover without the need for treatment. Others may be concerned that these symptoms portend the emergence of a more serious ailment, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Exposure and desensitization therapies are methods that make use of gradual reintroductions of feared thoughts and memories into the patient’s mind. As a means of coping with stress, relaxation techniques are frequently taught.
  • Image rehearsal therapy (IRT): IRT involves writing down a nightmare and turning it into a story or script. The story is then rewritten in a way that resolves the dilemma or crisis and this new story may be read before bedtime.
  • Image rehearsal therapy (IRT): IRT involves writing down a nightmare and turning it into a story or script. The story is then rewritten in a way that resolves the dilemma or crisis and this new story may be read before bedtime.

Grounding and Relaxation skills to try yourself:

It’s called “image rehearsal therapy” because it entails creating a plot or screenplay out of a person’s worst nightmares. Afterward, the narrative is modified to address the problem or crisis, and the new version can be read aloud to the child before night.

Make sure you wake up from a nightmare entirely before continuing on with your day. When you’re drowsy or asleep, it’s impossible for you to become oriented in the here and now and reestablish your sense of safety before you go back to sleep.

Having a nightlight or lamp near your nightstand can help you get your bearings in the here and now.

After getting out of bed, perform this grounding exercise.

In this game, your senses are the most important consideration. Focusing on:

  • A look at these five things:
  • The following are four things you can sense.
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can hear
  • There are three distinct sounds you can hear.

Grounding techniques might be followed by a simple breathing exercise, if you need a little extra aid.

Breathing Exercise skill to try yourself:

  • Sit or lie down in a posture that is comfortable for you.
  • Close your eyes when you’re ready (or set your gaze to a point in your surrounding)
  • For four counts, inhale through your nose (1-2-3-4)
  • Four counts of exhaling nose-first (1-2-3-4)
  • In any case, you should repeat this procedure at least three or four times.

It is my goal that this post has been useful to you or someone you know who is having nightmares triggered by trauma.

The downloadable booklet below has extra information about sleeping better (sleep hygiene tips) if you’d want to learn more.

Sleep Hygiene After Trauma

If you’re dealing with the repercussions of trauma, it may be beneficial to try sleep hygiene practices as well.

  • If you have trouble sleeping after a terrible encounter, that’s completely understandable. Please remember that your body is working to process and cope with the experience, and be kind with yourself during this time.
  • Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. After a traumatic event, it may be tempting to withdraw or alter our everyday routines. A good night’s sleep can be achieved if you follow a regular bedtime regimen.
  • Instead of attempting to force yourself to go to sleep, focus on finding techniques to relax your mind and body before you go to sleep. Disconnect from all electronic devices and experiment with various sleep-inducing techniques.
  • Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep: Insomniacs may build an unhelpful link between the bed and their inability to sleep. Get out of bed and do something soothing like reading or listening to soft music if you find yourself awake for longer than 20 minutes.

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