What can nightmares teach us?

Photo: Red glow above setting sun.

Few of us make it through childhood without getting the wits scared out of us by a nightmare. Michel Jouvet, professor of experimental medicine and author of The Paradox of Sleep, theorizes such dreams may be behavioral rehearsals for survival, connecting emotions with corresponding actions. The dragon chasing you in your childhood dream is Nature’s version of virtual reality, a zero-consequence environment teaching the emotion blood-curdling fear naturally accompanies the behavior run like hell. The jolt that jerks you out of sleep makes sure you’ll remember the connection. Screaming for Mom reinforces using your attachments (and tribe) as a secure base.

You’ve got to hand it to Nature–nightmares are an ingenious way of cultivating survival.

Nightmares arising from trauma may also be opportunities to learn life lessons. Yet it’s hard to imagine looking for the meaning of a nightmare when it is about the most horrific moments of one’s past. What lesson could be learned from such terror and suffering?

Psychology researcher Matthew Walker and Dr. Murray Raskind suggest using the drug prazosin to end nightmares associated with PTSD. Prazosin, a drug originally marketed to treat blood pressure, also makes people less sensitive to the stress hormone noradrenaline. In our more benign dreams, when noradrenaline drops off, emotional intensity also diminishes. And emotional intensity is what makes nightmares feel real and frightening.

While recognizing the importance of emotions, Walker believes repetitive nightmares are a sign that traumatic stress has lasted too long. From an interview with Amy Standen of NPR:

 “But I don’t think it’s adaptive to hold onto that emotional blanket around those memories forever,” he says. “They’ve done their job at the time of learning, then it’s time to hold on to the information of that memory, but let go of the emotion.”

I agree with Walker in principle. It’s best to learn life’s lessons and get on with the business of living. Yet I also have faith in two million years of human evolution. And I believe medicating the symptoms of distress can interfere with natural and evolved capacities for overcoming trauma.

John Briere, a psychologist at USC, looks to “ethnocultural” beliefs to augment the Western understanding of trauma. An ethnocultural lens examines both how cultures address trauma and what is perceived as traumatic experiences. According to Briere, many non-Western cultures equate soul loss with what the West calls PTSD. Similarly, Peter Levine wrote about a culture that described trauma as rape of the soul. Universally, trauma can lead to isolation, and isolation leads to soul loss. We need meaningful connections to keep soul alive.

Soul loss also occurs in the West, even though the word soul is avoided, especially in medicine. Yet you know you are at risk of losing your soul if after a traumatic event (or series of events) you spend a great deal of time hypervigilant, looking for signs the traumatic event might recur. Over time, the unrelenting fear and anxiety become too much, and solace is sought, often in addictions. Behavior is also inhibited to avoid being triggered. Without intervention, the habit of avoiding reminders of the original trauma leads to an isolated existence. For some, this may mean literally shutting out the world. For others, not letting people get to know them becomes the primary defense. For many, addictions create a wall against humanity.

For millions of years humans lived in close-knit groups in which everyone played a vital role in the clan’s survival. It wasn’t an option to have someone cooped up in the house, isolated, watching TV, drowning distress in alcohol—or whatever a traumatized caveperson might have done to avoid reminders of trauma. That would never happen, and not because there weren’t TVs or houses. Survival was too precarious for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to feed and shelter a traumatized person unable to contribute to daily needs. (In US history, one of the original appeals of mental institutions was the opportunity to house family members who couldn’t work and thus drained family resources.)

In a society that listens for the meaning of dreams, nightmares might alert the group to the presence of threats too big for one person to handle. Traumatic stress is by nature communicable. In psychotherapy we have a term for the contagious quality of trauma: vicarious traumatization. I have come to believe the infective quality of trauma is part of its so-called symptomatolgy. Traumatic stress may have evolved to be somewhat “contagious” since any experience that is traumatic to one of us is potentially a threat to us all.

Perhaps in our isolated and medicalized society, prescribing drugs for nightmares is the most humane response. When traumatic stress results in a life lived in isolation, it can be daunting to get back in the world, amidst all the potential triggers. Having a drug to dampen traumatic defenses is not an unreasonable initial form of support. Yet ultimately, we need opportunities for collective responses to trauma that keep the traumatized person from becoming isolated in the first place.

Research shows that when people find meaning in traumatic experiences they can recover (and often without professional help). Survivors of Pearl Harbor who interpreted their nightmares as reasonable responses to the bombings were able to get on with their lives. Yet knowing that responses are reasonable often requires talking to others about our experiences.

If isolation is the downward spiral of trauma, then perhaps nightmares are the phoenix’s call from the ashes. Even in trauma, nightmares have a lesson to teach. Yet deciphering their meaning may need the entire tribe’s attention. In the case of returning Veterans, nightmares of war may be a call for Americans to collectively address war’s scourge on the souls of young soldiers, along with the intergenerational impact of war, which as a nation we have a long history of ignoring.

If you would like to support Veterans who could benefit from someone listening to their stories, visit When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home.


Grob, Gerald N. 1994. The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jouvet, Michel. 1999. The Paradox of Sleep: The Story of Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Levine, Peter. 1997. Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Stevens, Anthony. 1993. The Two Million-Year-Old Self. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).