Nightmares After Trauma

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by Patricia Garfield, Ph.D.

Experts say that nightmares are normal after a trauma.

If you are having nightmares after the recent tragedy (or any other trauma), be assured it’s a natural reaction. Whenever people feel threatened and anxious, their minds try to cope with the situation. Having nightmares is actually a good sign that you are struggling to make sense of the horrific situation. It’s the brain’s way of attempting to accept the unacceptable. You might have dream replays of the traumatic event or other nightmares in which you or loved ones are hurt or in danger.

You cannot change what has happened, but you can change your dreams about it.

The past is behind you, beyond your ability to change it. However, you can affect the present, which will in turn transform the future. Strange as it may seem, you can influence your dreams by planning your behavior in them and changing how you act during them. You can shift from the role of passive victim to one of active participant. Instead of running or hiding, you can overcome the dream danger. By transforming your dream, you develop more confidence in dealing with waking threats. You can focus your energy more directly on any waking problem you face.

Start by changing any nightmare in some small way for the better.

Get help in your dream. Help yourself as much as you can. Find shelter. Ask other dream characters for assistance. Plan to help those in trouble in your nightmares. Save those in need. Treat the injured. Look for any positive image in the dream you had, such as trying to call for help. Build on this as a base for improving the dream. Picture the help arriving. As you take action in your nightmares you will be helping yourself to gather your resources for coping in the waking world.

Use your imagination to prepare for better dreams.

In the drowsy period before you fall asleep, picture your usual dream scenario. Now picture it changing for the better. Visualize what you could do to improve the dream. Find the lost dog. Break free from the kidnapper. Make telephone contact with rescuers. Make the dream better.

You have many more options in your dreams than you know.

What you do in your dreams makes a difference, just as it does in waking life. By changing your dream behavior you are improving your life skills.

Each nightmare you can change for the better is a step toward recovery from trauma.

Your dreams are an inner resource that can lead you through difficult times. Use them.