Nightmares Can Be Truly Traumatic — A Therapist Shares How To Cope With Them

When you wake up, don't know where you are, and feel your heart racing, try this.

man scared of a nightmare in bed pixelshot via Canva 

Nightmares are something we all experience at some point, yet many of us don't know much about them.

Sometimes we escape the feelings they inflict the second we wake up, and sometimes these bad dreams impact us mentally and physically for much longer.

Different Types Of Nightmares

According to clinical psychologist Jon Finch, there are three different types of nightmares:

1. Regular nightmares: horrible dreams that most people remember when they wake up. Even though they are unpleasant, you can typically move on with your day without thinking too much about one after you wake.


2. Night terrors: nightmares that involve intense fear, screaming, and thrashing around. People typically do not remember these.

3. PTSD-related nightmares: nightmares that mimic the trauma that lies at the root of their cause. The content of these nightmares may be about the actual trauma, or it may just inflict the same feelings of the trauma. Like regular nightmares, we usually remember these — at least pieces.

Therapist and EDMR consultant, Dr. Pria Alpern, shared some insight into how we can deal with these traumatic nightmares in a recent Instagram post.

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Why Traumatic Nightmares Are Disorienting And How To Cope With Them

According to Alpern, there are two reasons traumatic nightmares are so disorientating.

First, survivors of traumatic experiences may have nightmares based on the trauma they've experienced.

A survivor of domestic violence, for instance, may find that their dreams take them back to that distressing situation. Often, these scenarios feel real for survivors so it may be hard to ground themselves back into reality.

"The second reason why you may experience traumatic nightmares is because they feel too realistic and chaotic," says Alpern.

These nightmares are chaotic because they lack order and cohesion, which causes us to be both scared and confused.


Regardless of the reasoning, how do we cope with these traumatic nightmares and refocus back to reality?

Alpern suggests engaging in this orienting exercise as soon as you wake up from a traumatic nightmare:

  • When you wake, look around your environment and question what you see. Where are you and what looks familiar to you?
  • As you take in your environment, ask yourself what can you hear and smell in your environment. Does it seem familiar or unfamiliar to you?
  • Now that you've grounded yourself back in reality, try moving different parts of your body. Move your fingers, toes, and legs. Is everything functioning normally?

This line of questioning and exploration will eventually help you break out of freeze mode.



RELATED: How To Control Your Dreams & Stop Nightmares In 7 Steps


Why does trauma show up in our dreams?

The exact reasons trauma affects our dreams are unknown, but researchers now think our dreams may "help to integrate our experiences into long-term memory, a process called memory consolidation. When our experiences are traumatic, dreams may reflect the body’s attempt to cope and learn from these situations."



Through memory consolidation, our dreams help us learn from our trauma and confront it head-on.

Nightmares may occur from stress, anxiety, irregular sleep, medications, mental health disorders, and PTSD.


A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that 80 percent of people with PTSD have frequent nightmares.

RELATED: Experts Share 4 Subtle Signs You're Still Living With Trauma

Marielisa Reyes is a writer with a bachelor's degree in psychology who covers self-help, relationships, career, and family topics.