Trauma, PTSD, and Dreaming: Understanding recurring dreams and nightmares.

I’ve written before about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and dreaming, that is, on the way that severe trauma can alter the dreaming function of the unconscious. Keep in mind the “severe trauma” can not always be easily assessed by the person who experiences it. For the most part, individuals who experience trauma are likely to minimize what they experienced. Even if the trauma itself can be catalogued as a part of war or an assault, the individual who underwent the difficulties (the shock and likely psychic or physical experience of near death) is not always able to see clearly how traumatic an experience they endured. Our psychic self-protections are strong. We can become tough as nails to defend us from terrible difficulties and it is not until those defenses begin to soften (often over time, with a lot of patience and love and gentleness, assurances of safety, and good body work and therapy), that an individual can acknowledge how terrible the trauma they experienced truly was.

The official diagnosis for an individual who becomes affected by a traumatic event is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, known simply as PTSD. This label can address a variety of symptoms, both physical and mental, but the exploration of how an individual becomes afflicted with dreams that repeat the traumatic event, having to relive what they experienced in recurring dreams, remains under-explored. A few years ago, I wrote a post about the work of Dr. Barry Krakow, refuting the notion that his work with the dreams of patients suffering from traumatic recurring dreams was new work, or non-Jungian. Indeed, as far back as the beginning of the 20th century, Jung understood what was happening within the unconscious of traumatized individuals, as well as how to cure the further trauma of recurring dreams.

Recurring Dreams and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

I came upon this passage today from a seminar that Carl Jung delivered in 1938 that explores the dreams of individuals suffering from “Shell Shock” the diagnosis of psychologically affected returning soldiers that preceded the modern diagnosis of PTSD. Jung explains how recurring dreams from trauma (“shell shock”) indicate an absolute shift in the psychic system, and are a singular exception to the way dreams typically process and digest material from life.

The dream is never a mere repetition of previous experiences, with only one specific exception: shock or shell shock dreams, which sometimes are completely identical repetitions of reality. That, in fact, is proof of the traumatic effect. The shock can no longer be psychified. This can be seen especially clearly in healing processes in which the psyche tries to translate the shock into a psychical anxiety situation. (Carl Jung, Children’s Dreams, pp. 21-22)

Jung continues in his explanation, elucidating the way in which some traumatic experiences must be altered, slowly, into more symbolically rendered shocks in order to be metabolized and integrated into the individual’s psyche. (Ultimately, this is very similar to what Dr. Barry Krakow and others are currently working on; it must be pointed out for historical record that Jung was already treating patients in this manner over 75 years ago.)

The reaction of shell-shocked patients is that a knock, or anything reminiscent of a shot or an explosion, suffices to trigger nervous attacks. The attempt to transform a shock into a psychical situation that may gradually be mastered can also succeed toward the end of a treatment, however, as I have observed myself in a series of dreams of an English officer. In this man’s dreams, the explosion of the grenade changed into lions and other dangers that he was then able to tackle. The shock was, so to speak, absorbed. In this way, the dreamer was able to master the effect of the shock as a psychical experience. Any time we are confronted with a shock in its “raw,” not yet psychical, form, our psychical means are not sufficient to overcome it. We are not able, for example, to cope with physical injury or a physical infection [directly] by psychical means. … It also seems that a shell shock is so hard to cure because in most cases it is accompanied by  heavy, bodily shocks that probably cause very fine disturbances of a nonpsychical nature in the nervous system. (Carl Jung, Children’s Dreams, pp. 21-22)

That’s a lot of material to digest! But the summary of Jung’s work here is pretty simple to summarize and is (thankfully) being integrated into work today with PTSD patients and the recurring dreams and nightmares that they suffer. The summary is that typical dreams are never just repetitions of daily events (they always include telling, important differences), but total repetition can occur if the dreams are the  result of a traumatic event. These dreams seem to overpower or overwhelm the symbol making function of psyche and likely also come with a physical residue of trauma that must also gradually be worked through (the field of Somatic Experiencing is doing very interesting work in this area).

If you are suffering from recurring dreams or traumatic nightmares, there are methods of treatment that are very effective and that can provide relief and renewed health. It is critical, however, that you seek treatment. The loss of sleep and anxiety that can result from traumatic recurring dreams, along with all of the other pain being experienced, can be detrimental — not only to you, but your loved ones. Seek out a mental health professional who has experience with tending to recurring dreams and traumatic dreams.

Click here for Support with Recurring Dreams or Nightmares in Portland, Oregon

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21 comments

  1. Pingback: How do I Stop Recurring Nightmares? | Jungian Psychotherapy and Dream Interpretation from the practice of Portland Psychotherapist, Satya Byock
  2. Johnny Bocchetti

    Since 1999 I’ve had the same dreams daily, it revolves around a home i had in the mountains. I had a lawyer/judge who collected my escrow payments and he kept putting the property of the home of my five children in jeopardy, his name is Ellis and he’s a fucking crook. Anyway Keep having this dream in a variety of themes. The last time Ellis tried to take the home all the family members fled with their mom to the next town. They never came back. Lost to time. I eventually saved the house from Ellis’s actions, paid off the mortgage and sold the home, (Chalet) in the Cascade Range. A decade spent defending myself against a district judge in the state of washington..I know this is the origin of my diagnosed PTSD.

    • satyabyock

      I’m so sorry to hear about the suffering you’re enduring from this long event, and now from the dreams themselves. Are you working with body-oriented therapies to find relief from the PTSD?

  3. Pingback: Re-Dreaming with PTSD: Dr. Barry Krakow and a (Jungian) approach to Healing Recurring Nightmares | Jungian Psychotherapy and Dream Interpretation from the practice of Portland Psychotherapist, Satya Byock
  4. Margaret

    i have been having recurring memory nightmares for years. There are several different scenarios involving years of physical abuse at the hands of an ex. They are exact replicas of certain fights. Sometimes i also have bad dreams that are not memories. They bring the same fear, they also involve the abusive behavior, but they aren’t memories. It is a though they are happening now. I have not been with the ex in 12 years but in the bad dreams he invades my home and hurts my children. Any suggestions on how to stop the bad dreams? It’s hard enough to sleep when the nightmares are triggered but the bad dreams don’t appear to have triggers. They are random and play oftener than the nightmares at times.

  5. Pingback: “The Physical Abuse Keeps Happening, Night after Night.” Abuse Against Women, Nightmares of Trauma, and the Loss of Imagination. | Jungian Psychotherapy and Dream Interpretation from the practice of Portland Psychotherapist, Satya Byock
  6. rochelle

    I’m 17. I’m diagnosed with PTSD- my parents left me one month apart from eachother and personally I feel as if they’ve died (I don’t actually think this, I simply feel they’re dead to me) and I’ve been having recurring nightmares about people I love dying. this has been happening for 2 years. they’ve been gone for 3-3 1/2 years. is this a form of PTSD? is this normal?

    • satyabyock

      I’m so sorry to hear this. Yes, this is a form of trauma, certainly. You’ve experienced tremendous abandonment, instability, loss, among many other things I’m sure. I’m not surprised that you would have recurring dreams like this. You fear more loss and have not been able to metabolize the loss you’ve already experienced (no one would, given your age). I encourage you to find a good therapist to work with through this stuff. I think you’ll want someone who does psychodynamic work, not cognitive behavioral. Find someone you trust and like. I wish you the best.

  7. Lilly Gelista

    Hi im only 18 years old and I’ve been having strange nightmares of being sexually and physically assaulted.
    Ive been sexually abused in the past so im wondering if it has to do with the nightmares.
    Ive been assaulted by many people in the past but in this particular dream its just one specific person.
    I have dreams from where im falling off of things and hitting the ground so hard i wake up out of my sleep.
    I’ve had dreams of seeing myself die from cancer and watching them pull the plug.
    Ive had dreams to where ive lost something and i wake up (sleep grabbing) the blanket to find it.
    Ive had dreams of being hurt and i just want a better understanding of what is reoccurring inside my head…
    I dont know if its PTSD, sometimes the same dream will happen again. But i just dont know if its traumatic stress or just a disorder..

    • satyabyock

      I’m so sorry to hear of all these nightmares you’re having. It’s heartbreaking for me to hear that you are experiencing this on a regular basis, and I am sorry that you have suffered from sexual abuse. No one should have to survive abuse from another human being.

      While the psychiatric world has very specific outlines for what PTSD is, the true clinical parameters are a lot more fuzzy. Based on what you’ve written, I don’t doubt that you’re still experiencing the ramifications of your trauma, and the search to move from the death process of trauma to the next, generative, rebirth cycle that shows an integration of all you experienced and an ability to move through it. If you have insurance or other resources, I strongly encourage you to find some support so that you can move into adulthood with a stronger sense of safety in the world. It’s out there. Find a compassionate therapist who works with dreams if you can, and/or join trauma oriented yoga or Qi Gong workshops. You can also look for therapists who work with EMDR and Somatic Experiencing — those are both trauma oriented therapies. Finally, I encourage you to get into art, writing, dance, or theater, if you’re not already. Art practices will help you to “digest” the trauma you incurred so that it can more fully process through your system, leaving you with only the lessons and growth. Sending you warm wishes.

  8. Anonymous

    Hello, I stumbled across your website and I am amazed. No other “searches” about dreams gave me perspective like your website.

    Anyways, I keep having recurring dreams/nightmares. Most of my nightmares are taking place in my childhood town and usually occur when I am in high school. I kind of think it is because of my ptsd. In high school I was abusing drugs (prescription meds, ecstasy, weed, alcohol) and long story short I witnessed my best friends death. (heart murmur mixed with pills) After this his parents seemed to hate me, I couldn’t even attend the funeral because they put blame on me. I felt like I lost all my friends and ended up moving away. With no real closure. I’ve been drug and alcohol free for about 4 years.

    To the dreams I am always getting demons, devils, monsters trying to possess or kill me. Some dreams I fight them off by shouting a prayer and others I just wake up without getting hurt in any way. Other ones I developed a phobia for aliens(could be from movies?? lol) a recent one was I was seeing a falling star and just thought of aliens (in my dream) these dreams are very stressful for me I always think it’s a vision or something. I also have a phobia for health problems. For example: if I have nose problem I always think it is cancer or some rare disease. I some how think all dreams are related to health health but snap out of it and get logical again. My anxiety goes wild. A lot of my dreams are good visuals for a horror movie in short, just a lot of disturbing images that sometimes ruin my whole week.
    I just want to know what these mean as I now am trying to find the root causes of these dreams.

    Sorry for the ramble but another dream I’ve had twice was about crows. There were two of them and were screaming while eating another crow. I was running in an unknown house from a demon trying to get me.

    • satyabyock

      Thanks for writing. I’m sorry to hear that you’re plagued by all these images.

      If you have the resources or health insurance, I would strongly encourage you to seek out a Jungian analyst to help you engage these dreams and heal from the trauma you’ve experienced. You shouldn’t be suffering like this night after night. If you tell me where you are located, I may be able to help you connect with a good analyst in your area. You’re going to need sustained support to help you heal from what you’ve experienced and integrate what these nightmares are saying.

      I’m glad to hear you’re drug and alcohol free. I would also encourage you to stop watching scary movies — or much TV at all if you can help it. You likely need even more mental space and quiet and rest. Make sure you’re getting regular exercise, but exercise that respects your body not overriding its needs for pace/rest.

  9. Bet

    Apologies in advance for spelling/typos and grammar, English is my first language but I’m also dyslexic so these things can slip by me when I’m typing fast and an essay haha)
    Can you tell me what this kind of dream is called please (pretty please)
    So when I was about 7 (I don’t remember exact ages) I had this dream
    Dream 1 – me and my mum and dad are in the living room at home (very vivid and real as if I’m awake) with a guest, a tall(about 5ft 8), white,bald,middle aged man who’s average build. The only thing that different in the room is a long rectangular concrete coffee table. Him and my dad argue about something and he goes to storm out but falls and hits his head on the coffee table. My parents panic and I watch them ‘hide’ the body by opening the living room door and throwing it into the hall way. (Dream logic eh)

    Dream 2- (the very next night after the first dream)
    I’m in the living room now on my own. I look at the door to the hall way (again so real I feel like I’m awake) and it starts to bang as if someone (aka the dead guy) is trying to get in. I’m petrified and push things against the door to stop him coming in.

    Dream 3- (the next night)
    I’m in the living room again but now the banging has stopped, my curiosity makes me move the things I put In front of the door last dream, I open the door and I’m in a big room.
    The room has a curved wall in it. It’s not connected to the ceiling or are either end and is about 3-4ft thick. The end of one side of the wall is straight in front of me about a meter away. On the left side I can see a massive rectangular gap in the floor that goes from this partition wall to the outside wall of the room (no windows and very high ceiling). As I step through the door I get a birds eye view of myself (kinda like u do in wow for the wow players amount is lol) I see myself walk over to the gap in the floor and look down, it’s a very deep hole and it’s black. I then see the man (complete with bloody gash to his head on the right just above his eyebrow to where his hair should start) he walks behind me and pushes me into the hole. Altho I’m still watching myself I feel myself falling and then see myself dead at the bottom of the hole (man now vanished)
    I’m then shown a book and it has a Polaroid like picture stuck in of me dead at the bottom of the hole.

    Dream 4- (again the next night after dream 3)
    Same thing go into room,birds eye view, see him coming BUT I manage to drag him in with me, falling feeling, the book then shows me both of us dead at the bottom of the hole.
    The book is just shown no one is holding it etc I’m just looking at it.

    Dream 5- (night after dream 4)
    Same old – go into room, birds eye view, see him coming,BUT this time I manage to throw him down after a short struggle. This time I walk around the other side of the curved partition wall get to the other end and there is a book shelf (like a kids one that shows the front of the books) on each of its 4 shelfs are 3 of the same book, I pick one up and each page is a picture (in order) from dream 3-5 (so me dead, then both of us dead, then him dead)

    I had the same series of dreams missing dream one (when he dies) again a few weeks/months later. Identical in every way and I couldn’t change anything about it. It again lasted 4 nights in a row. Then when I was about 9, 12/13, 15/16, 19ish and 21ish I had it again identical 4 nights in a row from dream 2-dream 5.

    I havnt had it for about 7 years now my mum remembered it (dunno how it came up lol) as it’s the strangest dream we’ve ever heard of.

    Also every time I have the dream I’m the age I am in real life I’m not the same age as the first dream.

    I cannot find a dream similar on the interwebs- one that progresses yet repeats in a series.
    I still remember it vividly and would love to know what my brain was/is trying to tell me cuz I can only come up with my ‘fear’ of men (I’m not scared of men but I feel uneasy around men, even my own father. But not My husband because I don’t consider him a man not in a bad sense but in the fact he’s close to my age and I dont feel like a ‘grown up’)
    My husband thinks I had/have (I never know if it’s gonna come back) this dream because of some sexual abuse I suffered at 5yrs old but I wouldn’t think it would take 2years (ish) for this to start.

  10. Vivian

    I have had the exact same recurring dream that started at the age of 4. I’m a young child that is in the middle of the woods no roads or anything going home. THere is a big White House and I go inside I presume it is supposed to be my home but in reality it’s not I step inside nonetheless and as soon as I close the door behind me the house is completely engulfed with flames it’s burning to the ground. I hear screaming of my name it sounds like my family I look to my right and at the bottom of the stairs there is a ring of fire. Inside the ring of fire are 5 people I’m guessing my parents and siblings but in reality I only have one brother and in my dream they don’t even look the same. But I run over and try to get them out but can not the ring of fire starts sinking down into the ground with these people who in my dream I feel is my family. Suddenly they are all gone the ring of fire is gone the house is gone and there I am a small child left all alone in the middle of the woods crying. Then I wake up. They are still recurring and I’m now 26. As far as I know I have never been through any traumatic experience.

    • satyabyock

      Thank you for sharing this dream. I would encourage you to find a therapist who works with dreams — a Jungian therapist who can support you to explore what these images are bringing up for you. If they’re recurring, some information is trying to get into your conscious mind. You’ll be very glad you spent time with them.

      If you want to explore this on your own, the book “Children’s Dreams” by Carl Jung may be interesting for you.

  11. Dani

    In December of last year my uncle tried to touch me and it never was rape but it got real close. I always dream that he raped me or he raped my sister very constantly. In other dreams I’m being attacked and men are trying to rape me. I’m constantly thinking about it. Could this be PTSD?

    • satyabyock

      D —

      Yes, certainly this could be / is indicative of trauma. But the first question is: are you safe? Have you spoken with an adult about what occurred? Please email me to follow-up. This is a serious matter, and it’s imperative that you and your sister (and other girls/women around your uncle) are not in danger.

      Satya

  12. joy

    I have C-ptsd from multiple trauma incidents as a child and teen and a young adult.
    I guess you would say I have house dreams…each stage of my life has houses in them, in my dream life i walk through and visit, some times I am in the dream other times i am just a visitor…..I have had them for years and some have attics I find I am afraid to go near although I have been in them once never to return, they feel as though if I get to close to the opening I will get sucked up never to return. other times in the same houses I will just go to put my children to sleep and then go down the strairs and clean….everytime I leave a long term relationship or move my brain creates a house…..I realized this is how i process my feelings……they are quite vivid with lots of rooms and floors…..I have learned to live with them as I feel it is away my brain has learned to process emotions that I cannot or have not been able to handle. It doesnt bother me anymore to dream so much and remember them, I actually feel at times they are healing.

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