Ask Me: What About Nightmares? Part 8: Scary Dreams and Trauma

In our last articles, we explored scary dreams and the fear that can arise when facing the unknown or what is new. These kinds of dreams and experience are often about what is happening in our lives now and with a view forward – and the fear is usually an appropriate response in many ways. We fear the unknown and the new because it is unknown and new.

This week, we explore scary dreams that look backward, into experiences from our lives based on trauma or traumatic events.

Scary Dreams about the Past

When considering nightmares, most of us have at least one dream – often more – that immediately rise from our memories that on memory. Based on our experiences. 

Not that the dreams will be exact re-enactments of the events in our lives. These dreams come to provoke felt experiences either through re-enactment or through telling the story in another way.

Trauma dreams come in many ways. I could even argue that almost every dream has some reference to our trauma woven into it – even the most lovely and supportive dreams. [More on that in a later article.]

This is because our experiences with trauma are, in fact, woven into our every day lives. Even when we are not aware of it, they are. When we have not worked with our traumas to find integration, some healing and peace, then our days and our daily choices are, in many ways, deeply directed by our traumas.

If I have experienced a traumatic event around a car accident and have not faced into it, then I may make decisions about where to live, around transportation, around my daily routines based on avoiding having my trauma repeated or activated. Maybe I choose not to ever drive again, maybe I choose to not live in a city where the public transportation options are limited and a car is needed, maybe I choose to only be out during daylight hours because the car accident happened at night. Maybe I become afraid to leave my house or apartment.

If I have worked with my experience, then these daily decisions may be different or, if not different, then conscious choices based on my healing work. I may still choose not to drive, for example, but not from a place of terror. 

Just as how we work with our trauma in our waking lives effects our waking lives and just as our past trauma experiences are woven into our lives [even after doing loads of healing work], so our dreams have these threads woven into their narratives as well. 


I have experienced traumas in my life – in my childhood and some events in my adult life as well. My dreams have worked with these events in wildly different ways and have worked with my fear in wildly different ways.

One way is to show where I have not let myself feel my fear but have been numb or felt confused instead. 

In my early dreams around my sexual trauma as a girl, I often felt nothing in the dream. Even strangely felt nothing when what was happening in the dream was very scary. In one early dream, for example, I am being held captive by scary men who threaten me and others every day, even striking out at times. What I felt in the dream was nothing. I just went about my day to day, resigned. There is even someone who comes and goes in the dream that I could tell about being held captive, but I do not.

This dream shows how I responded to one part of my trauma, the part where I felt held captive, which was to be numb and act as if everything was okay. That this was a normal way to be. 

In my waking experiences, I was never kidnapped or held hostage in a literal sense – and yet, I was in many other ways. There was a great deal of dysfunction in my family, not just my sexual abuse experience. The way we learned and were taught to survive was to act like everything was fine. To act las if what happened in the house was normal and day to day. In a way, I was held captive by the story of the family that all was well, by the strength of wanting to appear normal, by the power of silence. 

So much so that when a figure comes in the dream who I could speak to and get help from, it does not even occur to me to do so. 

Under the numbness I carried in this dream was true fear – fear to speak up, fear to do anything that would make things worse, fear for my physical safety. But I was not yet feeling it. Back then, I still had to learn about my emotional and spiritual captivity and the terrible weight of silence I was carrying.

The Gothic Arch, from Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, [ca. 1749-50]

Then there are dreams in which fear is palpable, where we are afraid because things are scary and we feel all of it. Sometimes these dreams speak directly to an actual experience, like a kind of re-enactment. If we return to the car accident example, we may have a dream with a great deal of fear that is about a car accident where we are in the same accident or watching it or witnessing a different accident altogether but that gestures to the waking world event. 

Sometimes these dreams are about a traumatic event or time but as experienced by our souls, or internally, rather than the waking world facts. 

For example, I had a dream about a young girl being hit by a hard object between her eyes [in the third eye area], with lots of blood. Everyone in the dream believed she was dead. In the next scene, I see they are having a funeral for her, her small body in a casket of ice. But I also see she is alive, not dead.

Again, just as I have never been kidnapped, I have never been hit in the head by a hard object. I have never been buried alive in an ice casket. 

And yet, my inner experience of the sexual trauma I experienced felt exactly like this. As if I had been hit in my third eye by something hard from out of nowhere. As if, then, I was buried in a casket of thick, thick ice. It is no wonder I felt numb in the other dream – a large part of me was frozen.

The fear I experienced in that dream – both from seeing the girl hurt and seeing her alive in the ice casket – brought such fear and grief in the dream and when I woke.  I knew the dream was precisely, exactly and utterly true. Out of my numbness [frozen girl] arose another kind of awareness around my fear and grief. The new way of seeing the deep truth of my trauma and its consequences helped me to deeply acknowledge my experiences [inner and outer] and begin to heal. In the dream, I began shouting that the girl was not dead. The girl, roused, also began shouting in her ice casket. Out of silence came voice. From voice could come release.

But only when I could allow myself to feel the fear.


When we have terrible experiences, we usually are not in a safe place where we can feel our feelings and get support. In fact, this becomes part of the trauma of the experiences for many of us. We learn to numb, to be silent, to question ourselves, even. 

The dreams bring us back to these terrible moments because there are ways we are still living them in our internal lives. Ways we are responding to events that happened in the past not to what is happening now.

As in my dream of the girl in the ice casket, our feelings and, therefore, parts of ourselves get buried, locked away. Frozen. We do need to go back to unfreeze ourselves, to rouse what has been buried.

Not to re-experience the trauma. Instead, to have space we did not have in the moment to process our feelings in a safe way. I had several safe spaces for the processing of these experiences – and I had done work to get ready from them. I also knew I was ready for the unthawing because my dream brought the ice casket and the girl to me. It was time.


This kind of fear, even terror, we experience in dreams comes because the fear and terror are already inside of us. Not to cause it, but to have a place to feel and release it. To have a place that is safe to be with it. 

So we do not have to be always imprisoned by our traumas, our experiences, our past.