Why People Dream About Traumatic Experiences

What do car crashes, physical assault, and workplace explosions have in common? They all can trigger cases of PTSD. While PTSD has a variety of symptoms (anxiety, fatigue, flashbacks), one side-effect is undoubtedly the worst: reliving the traumatic experience through dreams.

Why We Dream About Trauma

As dreams are an elusive part of the human experience, scientists and researchers can only theorize as to why people have reoccurring nightmares about traumatic experiences. One theory, which we think is reasonable enough to suggest, is related to how our brains deal with trauma as it occurs. Research shows that when traumatic events occur, our brains can “overload” and stop functioning correctly.

Our brains overload during traumatic experiences because:

  • Our emotions are so high that our brain cannot place thoughts with the feelings we are experiencing (disconnect between the left side of our brain (rationality) and the right side of our brain (emotionality);
  • We have never experienced anything quite like the situation at hand, so our brain cannot process how to respond to it (becoming child-like in thought due to our ignorance of this kind of experience);
  • Our situation is so terrible that our brains “snap” (the brain shuts down as the only reasonable response to what is occurring).

Regardless of why the brain shuts down, it’s crucial to understand that these responses are not “weaknesses” or “controllable responses.” Your brain is protecting you when it reacts to an experience this way, and you should never feel guilty or stupid for such a reaction.

Mental trauma stems from the mind’s inability to process a traumatic experience. However, after the experience occurs, your brain still has the “raw data” of the experience. This raw data impacts people, and they often have no idea that it does. For example, if someone’s trauma came from a car accident, his or her brain may subconsciously resist getting in a vehicle, leading to uncontrollable fear and anxiety when the person attempts to get into a car.

Processing the Impossible

While you’re awake, you are continually processing things around you. Your brain is blocking out unnecessary sounds, deciphering what your eyes are seeing, and all sorts of cool stuff. However, when we dream, our brains attempt to repair themselves from all the work they accomplished throughout the day. It is during this time that researchers believe that the brain attempts to categorize and sort “raw data” that has yet to be processed.

As previously mentioned, the brain turns off during traumatic experiences, which means the traumatic experience becomes a heap of raw data. Therefore, while we dream, the brain attempts to sort out this raw data, thus leading someone to relive their traumatic experience in their dreams while their brain sorts through it. Ultimately, this theory suggests that the brain is trying to push past the trauma, but this, unfortunately, forces us to relive the experience through our dreams.

Ultimately, your dreams are the brain’s attempt to heal from the trauma, so while it's terrifying and scary to relive a trauma, it is a step towards ultimate victory over the tragedy you suffered.

If you or a loved one suffered mental trauma due to someone else’s intentional or negligent actions and are experiencing PTSD as a result, call (267) 457-5570 to talk to an attorney to discuss your recovery options.

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