The impact of traumatic experiences on our dreams

Dreams commonly reflect what we feel and see while awake, so it prevails to have nightmares and anxiety dreams after a distressing experience. These disturbing dreams generally consist of similar feelings and sensations to those experienced throughout the trauma.

There is no broad consensus regarding why trauma affects our dreams, but researchers have long wondered about this link.  Freud’s early perspective suggested that dreams allow a view into the unconscious and protected sleep by containing the anxiety associated with repressed desires.

Lately, other hypotheses were developed for explaining the recurring nightmares experienced by war veterans (Greenberg, R., Pearlman, C. A., & Gampel, D., 1972). Scientist assumed that dreams permitted individuals to revisit and attempt to work through old trauma.

While science has come a long way since Freud, more recent hypotheses are surprisingly consistent with these early principles (Nielsen, T., & Levin, R., 2007). Many neuroscientists and psychologists think that dreams help integrate our experiences into a memory consolidation process called long-term memory (Perogamvros, L., Dang-Vu, T. T., Desseilles, M., & Schwartz, S., 2013). When our experiences are traumatic, dreams may reflect the body attempts to cope and learn from these scenarios (Scarpelli, S., Bartolacci, C., D’Atri, A., Gorgoni, M., & De Gennaro, L., 2019).

When dreaming, we can replicate and expose ourselves to threatening events while safely asleep (Revonsuo A., 2000). This process might reduce our fears and permit access to other brain areas crucial in creativity and decision making and enable us to try different responses. This concept is supported by research that shows that we are more probable to approach threatening situations in our dreams than to avoid them (Malcolm-Smith, S., Koopowitz, S., Pantelis, E., & Solms, M., 2012).

Nightmares are quite common, and they are experienced by a range between 4 and 10% of the population weekly (Levin, R., & Nielsen, T. A., 2007). After a traumatic event, nightmares are even more common and might be an intense expression of the body working through the trauma.

Nightmares can trigger the sleeper to awaken due to their intensity and represent a breakdown in the body’s ability to process trauma. Trauma-related nightmares generally decrease after a few weeks or months in many cases.

The fight-flight-freeze response is activated to protect us from harm each time we are involved in a frightening event, and our body releases stress hormones, our pupils dilate, and our heart rate increases. After processing the traumatic experience, this alarm system generally quiets and returns to normal functioning.

Nightmares recurring for the long-term are connected to difficulties in reducing the fear response of the brain, combined with persistent hyperarousal (Gieselmann, A., et al., 2019).  In this case, the fight-flight-freeze response can continue to be activated long after a traumatic experience has finished.


Greenberg, R., Pearlman, C. A., & Gampel, D. (1972). War neuroses and the adaptive function of REM sleep. The British journal of medical psychology, 45(1), 27–33.

Nielsen, T., & Levin, R. (2007). Nightmares: a new neurocognitive model. Sleep medicine reviews, 11(4), 295–310.

Perogamvros, L., Dang-Vu, T. T., Desseilles, M., & Schwartz, S. (2013). Sleep and dreaming are for important matters. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 474.

Scarpelli, S., Bartolacci, C., D’Atri, A., Gorgoni, M., & De Gennaro, L. (2019). The Functional Role of Dreaming in Emotional Processes. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 459.

Revonsuo A. (2000). The reinterpretation of dreams: an evolutionary hypothesis of the function of dreaming. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 23(6), 877–1121.

Malcolm-Smith, S., Koopowitz, S., Pantelis, E., & Solms, M. (2012). Approach/avoidance in dreams. Consciousness and cognition, 21(1), 408–412.

Levin, R., & Nielsen, T. A. (2007). Disturbed dreaming, posttraumatic stress disorder, and affect distress: a review and neurocognitive model. Psychological Bulletin, 133(3), 482–528.

Gieselmann, A., Ait Aoudia, M., Carr, M., Germain, A., Gorzka, R., Holzinger, B., Kleim, B., Krakow, B., Kunze, A. E., Lancee, J., Nadorff, M. R., Nielsen, T., Riemann, D., Sandahl, H., Schlarb, A. A., Schmid, C., Schredl, M., Spoormaker, V. I., Steil, R., van Schagen, A. M., … Pietrowsky, R. (2019). Aetiology and treatment of nightmare disorder: State of the art and future perspectives. Journal of sleep research, 28(4), e12820.

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