Dreams serve to contextualize emotions in visual form, so when we experience a traumatic situation, we get nightmares that contain details of this experienced trauma, including images and feelings of terror and/or vulnerability (Rock, 2005). These images are not always accurate, sometimes the dream scenes are metaphors for an overwhelming fear. These could be scenes where we are in a fire, or tidal waves, or criminals chasing us.
Each night after a traumatic experience we process our emotions as we sleep and dream our nightmares, helping us resolve gradually our trauma.
In a study it was found that the first time the nightmare appears it replays the traumatic incident, with all its negative emotional components, but it includes at least one thing that did not actually happen. Then, as days go by, we continue having that nightmare, but it is not the same, because it gradually changes to modified versions of the incident.
This happens because our brain is making the connections to other earlier experienced traumas that can be related to similar devastating feelings. Over a period of time (weeks or months) the trauma is dissolved in our dreams as it appears less, its content being integrated with other positive memories and experiences, mitigating the negative emotions (Rock, 2005).
These dreams allow us to make the necessary connections for recovery in a safe place- in our dreams- allowing us to integrate the experienced trauma into our whole life’s experience so that it becomes less overwhelming.