Category: Brain Science

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

“What about dreams related to PTSD?”

Dear Satya:

Q: What about dreams related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? How do you interpret those?

A: This is a really critical question and, while it’s not a standard dream exploration, I think it’s an important inquiry. For our readers who are less familiar with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), this is the diagnosis that returning soldiers are often given, along with many other individuals who have experienced a traumatic event and/or endured stress over a long period of time. When the body cannot just “shake off” a bad situation, the experience can sort of get stuck, and its residue can be very hard to get out of our systems. Reflections of that residue can show-up in dreams. PTSD often includes symptoms such as a pervasive feeling of unease and negativity in the world, restlessness, sleeplessness, anger, irritability, paranoia, confused thinking, and often lots of nightmares. Nightmares related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are in many ways very different animals from other nightmares and recurring dreams in that they are so persistent, viscerally real, and often relatively true to events actually experienced.

Dreams related to PTSD can feel like a skipping record or a repetitive movement. There is a sense that rather than the unconscious engaging in it’s normal, healthy digestion and processing of events (as can be seen in a great number of dreams, and as I tend to explore here), something is broken and blocked. Nothing is moving, there is no end game, things are just stuck and repeating. Repeating. Repeating.

So what does one do with these dreams? First and foremost, if you are being woken in the middle of the night even occasionally by disturbing dreams, it would be valuable to go talk with someone to sort through where they’re coming from. In general, no amount of ignoring or avoiding these dreams will get them to go away. Not all scary dreams, even recurring ones, are related to a diagnosis of PTSD, but their existence suggests that you could be supported in your well-being by working with someone on them.

Working with PTSD dreams can involve interesting techniques of “re-dreaming,” consciously recreating a negative dream by altering the images and events. This work should be done with the support of a trained person, but the overall structure of this technique begins with re-telling the awful dream and then finding more comforting images within your psyche to offer healing. The symbols are unique and ingrained in each person, but one might replace an image of death with one of life, an image of violence with one of a comforting scene. This happens more intuitively than you might imagine, and the very act engages the unconscious just as we do in sleep, but through intention instead. In this way, one can help to jump-start the psychic rebirth cycle that is natural to all of us. With a little conscious charge, one can support the unconscious skipping-record to get back on grove.

Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!

Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in Jungian psychology and the years of Quarter-Life.