The Scream, by Edvard Munch
“Those heart-hammering nightmares that start to lose coherence even as you’re waking up from them, but that still manage to leave their moldering fingerprints all across your day.”
(Mike Carey, “The Naming of the Beast”)
Here is Part 3 in our series on working with nightmares, and now we look at how to heal really scary nightmares. In case you’re just now joining me, here are links to the two previous posts about
Nightmares Part 1: Causes and treatments
Nightmares Part 2: The hero’s journey to healing
Neuro-psychologist Daniel Amen wrote a book on the neuro-plasticity of the brain entitled “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life”. We might call deep dreamwork “Change Your Dream, Change Your Life”, since deep and careful work on long-term nightmares can transform them and free us from their bondage.
Nightmare shadows and fears can affect our waking lives as well as our night lives: with fatigue (of course), irritability, difficulty concentrating; or a lingering “emotional hangover” from the dream that lasts through the day. Some nightmares can be caused by medications, or withdrawal symptoms from medications or substance use. They can also occur because of sleep deprivation or exposure to scary media.
Chronic re-occurring nightmares however, are often caused by unresolved traumatic events. These might be “Big T” traumas such as a history of neglect or abuse, growing up in a dysfunctional household due to substance abuse, mental or physical illness, traumatic deaths, medical trauma, natural disasters, or witness to chronic violence. The nightmares may also be activated by “small t” traumas such as a minor fender-bender that while upsetting in their own right, also serve to also re-activate some earlier larger scale trauma.
The good news is, that once the underlying source issues have been resolved sufficiently, then these nightmares begin to transform and eventually disappear entirely. That is the key phrase-“sufficiently”: you can begin to experience positive changes once you have made some progress on healing these stuck places. Often these nightmares need someone experienced in both dreamwork and trauma to serve as a guide through their rocky terrain.
One of my clients had her nightmares “contaminate” her bedroom as well, so much so that she could no longer sleep in her bed. Luckily for her, one Christmastime she discovered that the lights on the tree were soothing and comforting for her, and she took to sleeping in the living room under the Christmas tree in order to feel safer. She negotiated with her roommates to leave the tree up until April, when they finally protested the amount of dry pine needles they kept stepping on throughout the house. We figured out together in her sessions that she could instead buy a small artificial tree and put it in her bedroom with the colored lights on as a stopgap measure until the nightmares were sufficiently resolved. This was actually a significant step in her healing work: seeing that she could have greater control over her dream life, and that she could effect change there, and began to generalize to other parts of her life as well.
An important note here: when working with the types of nightmares that contain real life events, figures, or actions we don’t want to rush to assume that they are only symbolic. While dreams often come encoded in symbolism, sometimes “memory bursts” of actual events may make their way into the dream world and emerge full blown, much as Athena did from Zeus’ head. So in general, be careful of assumptions about nightmares- the key to resolving all kinds is to find out what they have come to teach us and what we need to learn and do to live fully in our lives.
The first step in working with these types of nightmares is to make sure that the dreamer has enough safety to work on the dream material without becoming re-traumatized in the process. I have developed a system of dreamwork called the GAIA* method (Guided Active Imagination Approach), that is based on a combination of Jung’s active imagination and basic safety protocols around trauma treatment. The first piece of business is to make sure that the dreamer has all the resources they need in the imaginal realm, before they even begin work on the dream.
I start this type of dreamwork by asking the dreamer what resources they need to feel safe enough to approach the dream, to re-enter it and work on it. So, from outside the dream, after they have shared it, but before going inside to work on it, we first gather up through active imagination people, objects, guides, and resources that they bring with them into the dreamscape to keep them safe inside the dream. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important this step is. Some of the beings and objects that my dreamers have gathered before even working on the dream include a flashlight (it was dark in there!), a baseball bat, an invisibility cloak, their guardian angel, a beloved pet, a friend or relative; alive or deceased, a mythological figure (i.e. one brought Gandalf, the Wizard from Lord of the Rings), and some kind of Divine light. The possibilities are limitless. Only after making sure that they are ready, do we then enter the dreamscape to use a variety of methods to work with the dream material from the inside towards transformation and empowerment.
You are welcome to connect to my article that appeared in the publication of the Association for the Study of Dreams, “Getting Unstuck: Using the GAIA* Method of Dreamwork to Heal From Trauma.” [Link is to PDF scan of original]
Part of this re-entry work can also include what has been called “Image Rehearsal”. In this method, the dreamer imagines a different more positive outcome for the dream, adding in whatever resources they need to bring it about, and then have the dream end in a different way than it did originally. They then rehearse this new ending several times until it feels strong and viable.
Nancy’s story: Nancy had grown up with ongoing abuse by her father and a mom who was silent. She had nightmares for many years that were so strong that she was effected by them all day as well- she would spontaneously recall the feelings of dread and the sensations of claustrophobia and feeling trapped from the dreams off and on throughout the day. The fear from the dreams was so strong that she felt the need to binge eat or drink to sooth herself. She despaired of ever being free of them.
Before working directly on the dreams, she added the resources of her pet cats, the special comforter on her bed, a friend from her spiritual community, and me standing by her. After a few weeks of doing dreamwork, she came in and said “Linda, I am almost afraid to mention this in case I jinx it, but for the last 2 weeks, even though I am remembering my dreams, they disappear within minutes of my waking up, and don’t bother me during the day.” For the next month, she would report in every week: “Still no dream hangover- can that be true?” Then she came in and said “When I have dreams of my father now, instead of him being larger than life and menacing to me, he seems little and weak and I am more powerful than him now.” This transformation is one of the hallmarks of resolving trauma: that the previous suffering is transformed into “just a memory” with no emotional wallop.
May your dreams bring you healing,