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Distressing Dreams and Nightmares

Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, RMT, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

For many survivors of trauma, intrusion manifests through distressing dreams, commonly called nightmares. The human mind may use dreams in an effort to help us adaptively process trauma and distress. Interestingly, the German word for dream is actually traumen. It derives from the same Greek word that we introduced in the first chapter, traumatikos, meaning wound.

For some survivors of trauma, nightmares occurred nightly. For others, the nightmares are less frequent and unpredictable. Fortunately, with treatment the nightmares subside. With children, dreams may not have any particular or recognizable content. Still, they have the potential to cause a great deal of distress or terror. Akileh is a twelve-year-old who wakes up in the middle of the night screaming. Yet, whenever her mother comes to comfort her, Akileh cannot recall why she was so terrified. During her treatment, Akileh recognized that these night terrors linked back to an experience of becoming unconscious when she was a small baby having an unexpected seizure. Many clinicians find that these dreams with unrecognizable content are also common in adults who experienced trauma that occurred before the age of memory or verbal fluency.