Dealing With Nightmares And Disturbing Dreams

LUCID DREAMING & NIGHTMARES By Mike Leigh (Page 4)

Our modern word nightmare derives from the Middle English nihtmare (from niht, night, and mare, demon), an evil spirit believed to haunt and suffocate sleeping people.

And so, in today's world, when we speak of a nightmare we mean a frightening dream accompanied by a sensation of oppression and helplessness.

The blood-thirsty aspect of the mythic Nightmare, however, can give a good clue about nightmares in general, for in psychodynamic terms nightmares are graphic depictions of raw, primitive emotions such as aggression and rage that have not been incorporated into the conscious psyche.

Thus we tend to encounter these "ugly" aspects of our unconscious lives as terrifying dream images in whose presence we feel completely helpless.

Nightmares are quite common in childhood because this is a time of our emotional development when we all have to come to terms with, well, raw, primitive emotions such as aggression and rage.

Traumatic Nightmares

Traumatic nightmares can also occur as one of the many symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Repetitive, intrusive nightmares following a trauma often contain symbolic themes that mirror the original trauma and relate to threat to life, threat of abandonment or death, or loss of identity.

Therefore, traumatic nightmares need to be treated differently from other dreams. It's not enough just to "know" intellectually the psychological reasons why you have these nightmares.

An event is traumatic because it disrupts your previously secure (and illusory) sense of "self." And so, to heal from a trauma, you must take the initiative to make conscious changes in your life to accommodate the traumatic shattering of your illusions about life and identity.

Recurrent Nightmares

Practicing Image Rehearsal Therapy is a technique which can help people who suffer from recurrent nightmares. It is not meant to be a cure-all. It is just a suggested treatment to deal with frightening nightmares.

The idea is to use this therapy every night until the nightmare has been resolved. It is called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy. Here are the steps:

(1) Write out the text of the nightmare. Tell the story, no matter how frightening, in as much detail as you can remember.

(2) Create a new ending for the nightmare story and write it out. Be careful, however, to make the new ending peaceful - remember that the nightmare is grounded in emotions such as raw anger that have been provoked by a trauma - the point of a new ending is to "tame" the emotions, not merely vent them in violence and revenge.

(3) Rehearse the new version of the story in your imagination each night just before going to sleep, do this as close as possible to your falling asleep without any other activity between the rehearsal and sleep.

(4) Perform a relaxation exercise - do this immediately after the rehearsal, as a way to fall asleep peacefully - you may use any technique with which you are familiar, this could be meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises.

Disturbing Dreams

The "cousin" of nightmares is disturbing dreams with unpleasant images. What exactly is your sub-conscious trying to tell you?

(1) the dreams could be unconscious advice. Maybe in some way you are betraying yourself, forgetting something, or not fulfilling a potential.

For example, persons on the edge of a midlife career change may have dreams about being in school and searching for a missing classroom, or they may find themselves in a class about to take a final exam while realizing that they completely forgot to attend the class all year.

Thus the feeling of panic in the dream points to the real feeling of panic in their current life about the failure of their present career.

(2) the dreams could be an admonition, based in guilt. Imagine, for example, that you are embezzling the bank you work for. Then you begin having dreams oft burglars breaking into your home. The dreams are simply a depiction of something happening to you that is similar to the hurt or moral injury you are inflicting on someone else.

This same dynamic often occurs in children's nightmares: in waking life, children often experience angry feelings toward their parents and yet lack the cognitive capacity to express these feelings openly; so, in unconscious guilt, the anger becomes turned against themselves as threatening nightmare images.

(3) the dreams could be hints of a repressed trauma. As I say above, nightmares often accompany the emotional pain of a traumatic event experienced in adulthood. But if a trauma in childhood is repressed, dreams reflecting the emotional intensity of the trauma can persist throughout life - as a repetition compulsion - until the trauma is eventually brought to conscious awareness and healed.

(4) the dreams could be psychic premonitions. This is quite a rare phenomenon, but it does happen to some persons.

The best advice we've found about disturbing dreams is to just ignore them. You can try to analyze the images, but most likely they won't give you the answers you need.

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