Trauma and Dreams

By Giovacchini, Peter | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Trauma and Dreams


Giovacchini, Peter, American Journal of Psychotherapy


DIERDRA Br, ED.: Trauma and Dreams. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996, 272 pp., $36.50, ISBN 0-674-9055-20.

A group of experts explores dreams in a particular context, namely, their association with trauma. The book is divided into three sections. Part 1 deals with dreams after childhood trauma; Part 2 is concerned with nightmares following adult trauma in wars and national disasters; and Part 3 concerns trauma of so-called normal living.

The authors reach some interesting conclusions about the nature of traumatic dreams. For example, at first, children dream of the actual trauma and later as they gradually recover from its effects, their dreams become less realistic and more symbolic and metaphoric. Issues of damaged body image occur in the dreams of children who have suffered burns during infancy and childhood.

Regarding adult trauma, some of the authors point to characteristics in the structure of the dream that tend to validate the authenticity of the traumatic experience. The dreams of sexually abused women often contain violent sexuality in the dream picture, whereas physically abused women report the most dreams about their own deaths.

There seems to be a uniformity about traumatic nightmares, even when the traumatic events are quite different. Hartmann raises the question of why some combat veterans react to traumatic battle conditions by having nightmares and others do not. He concludes that the youngest soldiers, about 17, who had lost a best friend were most likely to have developed a war neurosis accompanied by nightmares. He reached this conclusion after having studied a large sample of Vietnam veterans, but in such research it is not possible to concentrate on the structure of the pretraumatic personality and its vulnerabilities.

Many studies indicate that there is a pattern to posttraumatic nightmares in which early dreams following the trauma are almost a literal reenactment of the dangers that were faced. Later, these dreams gain additional horrors, an expansion of what actually happened. Some investigators assert that they represent memories of the event and differ from ordinary dreams that are best understood in terms of intrapsychic forces and characterological constellations.

Ordinary and traumatic dreams are further distinguished from each other by their functions and structure. Freud believed that the mind usually functions according to the pleasure principle and dreams, as a rule, follow this principle. Traumatic dreams, however, are an exception as they operate "beyond the pleasure principle"; they are not examples of wish-fulfilment nor are they particularly constructed to preserve sleep. …

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