Research shows that there is a commonality between nightmares and PTSD victims. Nightmares are often a side-effect of PTSD and can explain much about traumatic events people endure. Nightmares also often correlate to impaired functioning of parts of the brain, daytime distress, awaking in the middle of the night, and significant sleep loss. Another driving factor of nightmares is the emotional life of the day before. Suppression of unwanted emotions or thoughts are revisited in dreams in disturbing quality. These emotions and thoughts appear in ones dreaming after a traumatic event.
When people have nightmares after a traumatic event, they endure a series of distinct phases. The nightmares immediately following the event will be reoccurrences of the event itself. The dreams will force the dreamer to relive the terrorizing events and keeps the suppressed thoughts in their mind. Next, the dreamer will have dreams with a general, central image of the event that evokes an intense sense of fear or terror. This stage will not show the entirety of the event but will rather focus on specific details and keep the dreamer engaged with the severity of the suppressed emotions. The dreams will then morph again and contextualize guilt or shame from the event. The dreams then will subside and contain grief or sorrow. The dreams will no longer hold true to having terror associated with the event but will instead keep a constant internal battle will loss and pain.
Psychotherapists often look to methods for helping clients with these traumatic aftermaths through specific therapies. These therapies include modern psychodynamic, existential, cognitive-behavioral, and cognitive-experiential. These therapies will often illustrate the potential of dreams of personal conflicts and salient issues during waking life. They also emphasize the affective responses of these themes, contributing to insight, awareness, and understanding.
On another note, dreams and nightmares are often interpreted through a cultural filter of tradition and personal values which effects one’s self-esteem and the well-being of the dreamer. In the study done in this article, the researchers helped two clients with their PTSD through recollection of their dreams through the clients’ cultural background. In both case studies, the nightmares caused the women to awake in the middle of the night, indicating a greatness in vividness and emotional load.
One client, Luisa (names were changed for anonymity), was a West African woman who had nightmares after becoming a refugee of war and fleeing her home to Finland. In her dreams, she saw and interacted with people who have died and felt a need to escape in many of her dreams. In her culture, ancestors appearing alive after dying in real life in dreams is a decent into madness and spirit possession or death. In the West African cultures, dreams can also be used for the curing of trauma through specific rituals and practices.
Another client, Shirin, was a Middle Eastern woman who had nightmares after also becoming a refugee who relocated to Finland. She dreamt about people who died who she held close to her welcoming her and attempting to pull her away from the living. She tried to pull away and scream, but to no avail. In her culture, these dreams had the singular meaning that she was to die soon. She did not trust that her life was going to last past the next few months.
In this study, the aims of the researchers were to use and describe dream work as a useful, therapeutic tool in psychotherapy using two culturally different refugees, to examine how the content of dreams shows change in the trauma-related distress, and to change the levels of each clients’ PTSD-symptoms and well-being. In order to achieve this, the researchers met with the women once a week to record a session speaking about the dreams and traumas each woman has experienced. The women were subjected to a psychodynamic focus with an addition of cognitive-behavioral techniques in order to achieve substantial results for the studies.
In the results, both women showed an improvement in their PTSD-symptoms and well-being. Luisa’s IES-R score dropped from a 57 to a 39, and Shirin’s IES-R score dropped from a 73 to a 40. Both women spoke about feeling less physical pain in day to day living and felt more at ease with their life and themselves. Luisa spoke about eventually studying and beginning a relationship with a man. Shirin spoke about having a better comfortability with being a mother and with the relationship she has with her daughters.
Through discussion of the dream content, emotions, and messages of the clients’ dreams, the researchers could understand each woman’s culture further. The clinicians concluded that it is most beneficial to combine multiple methods to a psychotherapeutic work, which include psychoanalytic methods, cultural studies and correlations, and a series of trust-building exercised to allow patients to open up without fear of retribution. When working with the refugees, the clinicians found it useful to use cultural theories to connect dream work with easing traumas.