When we recognize the patterns in our dreams and in our lives, then we have the power to shift and transform them.
Amanda, age 8, developed a fear of intruders breaking into her house. She dreams that some one will break in and kidnap or hurt her or her family members or her pets.
Jen, age 27, consistently has dreams of violence: of being chased, some one being murdered, small animals being hurt. Her current life is pretty stable and happy, so she can’t figure out what these dreams are about.
What both of these dreamers have in common is the repetitive and intrusive nature of their dreams. Sometimes bad dreams and nightmares resolve on their own, and sometimes they seems to get “stuck”. Paying attention to and keeping track of dreams, especially when they are repetitive dreams, is crucial in order to be able to see and to heal the patterns. We can’t recognize patterns if we aren’t keeping track over time.
Healing is about becoming aware of the healthy and unhealthy patterns in our lives – once we recognize a pattern, then we can get on with healing from the events that created and perpetuated it. Framing the dreams and the patterns of the dreams in the life of the dreamer can give us guidance towards understanding and then resolving these scary themes and images.
Alan Seigal, president of IASD (the International Assoc. for the Study of Dreams) outlines 3 stages in the resolution of recurrent nightmares:
- Stage One: The Threat: The dreamer or the main character in the dream is being threatened in some way and can’t get away or defend themself.
- Stage Two: The Struggle: The dreamer or main character is still being attacked or chased or imprisoned, but they are attempting to break free, to run or to get away. (For example, the dreamer is being chased by a bear and successfully climbs a tree to safety, but the bear is still lurking underneath the tree and they are trapped in the tree).
- Stage Three: Resolution: A workable solution has been found, and the threat no longer exists- it has been transformed, overcome, vanquished, extinguished.
I really like this organization of stages in working through nightmares because it honors the steps along the road to progress. Looking at it in this way, we can see more clearly that even though the struggle phase is still difficult, it does represent progress. It is important to recognize the small steps along the healing path as well as the big leaps.
Alan also does a lovely job with a pneumonic for the work of healing from nightmares. The “3 R’s” of our childhood were reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. The “4 R’s” of dream healing can be thought of as Reassurance, Re-scripting, Rehearsal, and Resolution.
- Reassurance: Whether we are with children, loved ones, or clients, the first step to providing some comfort and relief to nightmare sufferers is Reassurance. Not reassurance that it’s “just a dream”, since that would negate their experience, but reassurance that you respect the feelings of the dream, that you recognize (another “R”) that it feels really real. Having their dream taken seriously is a source of comfort for both children and adults. Then leaning into the dream with better resources, rather than leaning away from it in avoidance or fear, is a good next step.
- Re-scripting allows you re-write the dream and to build in resources for the dreamer to use in working with the dream and in ending the dream on a more positive note. We should encourage the dreamer to approach scary dreams slowly and carefully, and to add in resources for safety and protection even before working with the dream material itself. For example, use your imagination to provide magical tools, cultural symbols or icons, non- lethal protection such as shields, light or force fields, or a posse of people/animals/guides to protect the dreamer. Anne Wiseman, author of the book “Nightmare Help”, encourages us not to use violent means as protection, as this can encourage using violent means to solve life problems, especially with children. Even with adults, we don’t want to annihilate a dream figure that we may later discover can be a hidden resource for us.
- Rehearsal: Remember the old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? – Practice, practice, practice.” That’s what Rehearsal is all about- practice using the methods you came up with in re-scripting to work out a safer and more satisfying dream scene and dream ending over and over again. Keep going over those resources, changing the dream ending, getting the characters to talk to each other, etc. until the dreamer can “do it in their sleep”. When working with Amanda (age 8), we practiced standing up tall and building a magic fence around her house, and as we acted that out she also talked back to the intruders out loud, saying “Go away, You can’t get me!” and “Get out of here” and “I’m safe”.
- Resolution: Once we’ve reassured, re-scripted, and rehearsed we are much more likely to come to a good resolution that will either make the nightmares go away, or will transform them into something much less stressful, or benign, or even helpful, or provide some insight or direction for the dreamer to take in their waking life.
For those who are interested in learning more about using these methods, I will be leading a workshop titled “ Using Dream, Imagery and Metaphor in Clinical Practice: Taming Demons and Transforming Nightmares” which will be held at the Therapy Training Boston Center in Watertown, MA. on Friday May 1st. While geared for health and mental health professionals (6 CEU’s are available!), the interested dream enthusiast is also welcome, and the material and experiential exercises will be useful for all. Click here for the link, http://www.therapytrainingboston.com, and scroll to workshops. Early bird registration gets you a discount till April 1st! Hope to see you there.