Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


From Traumatic Nightmares to Playful Dreaming

Changes in trauma-related nightmares reflect the dynamics of healing.

Key points

  • Repetitive and highly realistic nightmares are a common symptom of trauma.
  • Changes in nightmare frequency and content may correspond with a process of psychological healing.
  • These changes can be characterized as the renewal of an innate capacity for playful dreaming.
Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

The bizarre contents of dreaming can easily seem like the products of mental deficiency. “Children of an idle brain” is what Mercutio calls them in Romeo & Juliet (I.iv.102). Many scientists today essentially agree with Mercutio that the weird absurdities of dreams are evidence of diminished cognitive functioning during sleep.

But what if the “bizarreness” of dreaming is a sign of health and not disorder? What if, in some conditions at least, the increasing weirdness and unpredictability of dream content heralds genuine healing from serious psychological distress?

At the recent annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, Robert Hoss and Alwin Wagener analyzed a 45-year long series of PTSD nightmares from an American veteran of the Vietnam War. They found that over time, as the veteran healed from his psychological wounds, his nightmares included fewer direct or literal references to wartime violence and more references to other kinds of content, with a rising frequency of metaphorical and symbolic content. In other words, his nightmares gradually became dreamier. Instead of unrelenting graphic repetitions of the traumatizing event, he now experienced dreams involving new characters, settings, scenarios, and emotions.

This fits well with the findings of Harry Wilmer and others that long-term recovery from PTSD corresponds with changes in the frequency and contents of trauma-related nightmares. Wilmer observed that, “the emergence of an ordinary nightmare after prolonged recurrent reliving of the exact trauma in dreams is a healing process... It is the psyche’s attempt at healing.” (1996, 89)

It remains unclear which comes first, the shifts in dreaming or the psychological healing. But their close connection suggests an underlying process by which increasing dreaminess signals a loosening of the trauma’s grip and a return to the natural variability and freedom of dreaming experience.

This process also accords well with the theory that dreaming is a kind of play, the play of the imagination in sleep. Typical PTSD nightmares can be seen as the antithesis of play. Fixed in content and inescapable in their repetition, they are symptoms of an imagination paralyzed by the harsh reality of the trauma. But with time and the support of caring others, a more playful spirit returns, bringing a renewed experiential awareness of creative freedom and the capacity to grow in the future.

A key implication for therapists is the value of monitoring changes in nightmare frequency and content as a potentially helpful window into the healing process. Those who already have active practices in play therapy or art therapy may find this insight especially congenial to their efforts, but any therapist who works with trauma can benefit from more attention to the vicissitudes and playful dynamics of dreaming.


Wilmer, H.A. (1996). "The Healing Nightmare: War Dreams of Vietnam Veterans," in Barrett, D. (ed.), Trauma and Dreams. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 85-99.

More from Kelly Bulkeley Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today