Resolving Nightmares, Part 2

 “I’ve had dreams and I have had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because my dreams”. Jonas Salk

Nightmares are frequently one of the aftershocks that follow traumatic events. They reflect the trauma in one of three ways: Either an “instant replay” of the events that occurred, a close replaying with some features changed a bit, or as symbols and metaphors that capture the felt sense or emotional resonance of the trauma. These nightmares can occur immediately following the event, or many many years later as our system is still trying to process and heal from it. We will meet Jackie at the end of this post, and follow her dream saga over the next several posts as she heals from childhood trauma as an adult in her 50’s.

Tara Brach says, “Trauma is when we have encountered an out of control frightening experience that has disconnected us from all sense of resourcefulness or safety or coping or love.” Therefor, these resources of self-agency, ability to cope, safety and love are what we need to reconnect with in order to resolve the trauma. There are two aspects to any trauma: What happened, and how the person reacted and responded to what happened.

Buddhist philosophy teaches that life can give us two darts: The first dart is what happens to us; that causes the pain. The second dart is the story we tell ourselves about the pain and our reactions to it, that causes the suffering. The first dart is an inevitable part of life, the second one, the suffering, is optional. With compassionate dreamwork we can address both of these darts in different ways. There is a book by Daniel Amen about ADHD titled, “Change your Brain, Change Your Life.” We can’t actually change what has already happened in our waking world of life events; that first dart, but we can change it inside of our dreams and thus reduce the second dart – our suffering.

Our sleep and dream world is just as real as our waking one. Because of the nature of dream time and space, we have much more control over this dreamscape than we do in the waking world of linear time and space. Dreamtime is non-linear, it loops and turns inside out like a Mobius strip. It is always “now” in our dreams: We never dream of the past or the future. This is one of the beauties of dreamwork: When we practice active dreamwork and change things up inside of our dreams, we can also reap the benefits in our daily lives. We will learn several methods to do this over the next few posts. And, of course, we can change our reactions and responses to the things that happen in our dreams as well as the dream narratives. These chosen changes and adjustments can also seep through the porous barrier between our sleeping and waking selves to give us gifts of insight, healing, and transformation while awake.

Jackie reported to our dream circle that she had a long history of repetitive dreams where she couldn’t speak: She either had a mouth full of sticky taffy and couldn’t talk or even open her mouth all the way, or else her tongue was literally tied up in knots, or when she tried to talk to advocate for herself in some dream confrontation she could only peep like a little bird. She had shared with us that she had grown up with a mom who was chronically depressed and suicidal and was in and out of hospitals most of her childhood, finally dying of an overdose when Jackie was a teenager. Jackie spent much of her childhood trying to be good and quiet and not to upset her mother, while inside she often seethed with anger, fear and grief. As an adult, Jackie was kind, polite, and fairly soft spoken and admitted to being “conflict avoidant”. She still kept her thoughts and feelings inside, not wanting to stir up potential trouble. In dream group, we explored with her possible connections between her tongue-tied dreams to both to her current communication style and to this history with her mother. Both resonated with her as connected. Here is one form of dream intervention: The creation of insight and connections between the dreams and life, both past and present. So her “aha” was to understand the symbolic content of her repeating dream themes as connected to both past and current life.

We also worked with Jackie within the dreams themselves. At one point she was encouraged to pull the taffy out of her mouth (literally, we had her mime this in group), and to use her hands to untie her knotted up tongue. At another point we asked her what she wanted to say in the dream conflict. Her first thought was that she wanted to say “F…-You” to her overbearing boss in the dream. Jackie shocked herself but enjoyed her out of character response. We then asked if there was something less inflammatory she might like to say in waking life the next time he made unreasonable demands on her beside a “little peep”. After several weeks of working on this dream theme, Jackie reported two things: One, that she felt more empowered and safer to speak up at work, and two, that recently her husband told her that she has been waking him up at night screaming and swearing in her dreams! From no voice to a big angry one, announcing in no uncertain terms another part of her processing. Here was the next layer to address. Stay tuned as these dreams unfold.

Dream strong,

Linda

Nightmares, Trauma, and Healing from PTSDreams

 

Nightmares are dreams on steroids.

Welcome Dreamers,

After a long break from posting here (in order to get my book out!) I’d like to invite you to focus on the interface between nightmares and trauma. Nightmares that relive or that symbolically recreate traumatic events in our lives are one of the most upsetting and intractable types of dreams. The next series of blog posts will help you learn how to recognize these dreams, offer you tools to resolve the nightmares themselves, and advance your healing from the traumatic events that generate them.

Not every traumatic event that we experience causes PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), or results in nightmares that revive it. Oftimes our system is able to shake it off, and resolve the upset without it becoming embedded in our body or mind. We are all wired for growth, so when this does not occur on our own, we may need extra help.

Animals in the wild live a life of constant predator and prey, as Peter Levine writes about in his book on somatic experiencing, Waking the Tiger. Why don’t animals then seem to develop PTSD? Among other things, from video footage taken in the bush, we see animals that have had a near miss with death literally shake themselves off and then go hopping or running away. After the fight, flight, freeze or play dead response, they seem to return to their baseline animal habits and lives with no lingering after-affects. Active dreamwork can help us to learn these skills as well.

There are, however, some circumstances for humans that seem to increase the likelihood that we will not so easily shake it off, but will go on to develop lasting trauma responses such as persistent nightmares. These circumstances include, but are not limited to, ongoing chronic trauma, multiple traumas, trauma that occurs at vulnerable developmental life stages, entrapment, and very powerfully, the response of the family or community post-trauma. The ability or lack thereof to talk about what happened and receive appropriate support makes a big difference not only in the short, but also the long run.

Sometimes the dreams that appear following traumatic or upsetting events seem like instant replay: looping over and over with the same scene, the same outcome, and the same intense emotional upset. When our systems are able to tap into our innate wiring for healing and growth, the dreams begin to resolve on their own: They get less frequent, less intense, more vague and distant, and eventually disappear. This is best-case scenario – when our innate wisdom and our body’s capacity for healing can be accessed. This is one of our versions of “shaking it off”, and what we are aiming for when we work with the nightmares. If they have been persistent for a while, they may not disappear all at once, but if the pattern is that of less: Less intense, less frequent, less upsetting, then we know we are moving in the right direction.

The series of posts that will follow give you more direction on methods and strategies to do this. A first step is to do some pre-dream incubation and energetic protection if you know that you tend to have nightmares. Before going to sleep, surround yourself or your bed or your bedroom with a protective barrier of some kind: White light is often a good choice, but use any colors that feel protective to you, or an energy shield to keep you safe in the night. This can help, by the way, whether or not you “believe in it”: Like penicillin, sometimes medicine works even if we don’t exactly understand how. “Incubating” a dream means to spend a few minutes before going to sleep asking for what you want; writing it down makes it stronger and more likely to succeed. So write down that you want relief from nightmares, or a barrier between you and nightmares, or spiritual beings to protect you in the night – whatever works for you and your belief system. Then practice saying these statements out loud or at least reading them over several times just before you go to sleep. Our first goal in working with nightmares is to reduce the distress, so let’s start there.

Over the next several posts I will share a number of approaches to healing and resolving your nightmares before, during, and after the night.
Dream strong,
Linda

Dreaming for Both Sides of Our Brains

 

Welcome dreamers,

We are multi-faceted beings: logical and imaginative, made of clay and made of stardust. Warning: I am a little bit of a neuroscience geek, so the first part is a bit scientific; but I think very cool. Apparently, science has figured out why our eyes move (REM) while we are dreaming: Our brains do not discriminate between waking and sleeping realities: they think that the dream imagery is real!

A very short tour of the relevant brain structures: The left side of our brain helps us out with logic, linear thinking, and sequencing; while the right side of our brain supports our creativity, imagination, and poetry. Our dreams are most likely generated from deep within our limbic system (our emotional and non-rational brain) which straddles both halves deep inside the brain. We then remember and work on our dreams from our prefrontal cortex (our thinking and declarative memory brains): the surface area under our foreheads and right behind our eyes. In between the night dream and the day remembering, the medial temporal lobe, the part that serves as a bridge between memories and visual recognition, helps us process things that we saw and that happened to us in life. And, of course, as we dream we also create or remember worlds apart, embarking on mythic and soul-stirring journeys, make meaning out of metaphor, and weave gossamer strands of silk and stars in our nightly sojourns. This post gives equal time to both sides of our brain: a fascinating study on why our eyes move when we dream, and then a poem on the nature of a dreaming.

For your left brain’s pleasure, an article published in Nature Communications (8/15) by Peter Dockrill describes a new study by Tel Aviv University researchers Yuval Nir and Itzhak Fried. It seems that each flicker of our eyes is accompanying a new image in our dream, with the eye movement “essentially acting like a reset function between individual dream image “snapshots”. Using electrodes planted deep in patients’ brains as they were prepared for brain surgery to alleviate epileptic seizures, they found that the neural brain activity while seeing new images in a dream (or in our imaginations when awake) was essentially the same as when actually seeing new images in waking life. In other words, the brain does not distinguish between the “real” images we see and dreaming ones. No wonder they seem so real – to our dreaming brains, they are.

And now, for your right brain’s pleasure (and as a reward for getting through the neuro-science lesson): A poem by Antonio Machado (with thanks to Belle for reciting it and then sending it to me). 

Last Night As I Was Sleeping,

By Antonio Machado (translated by Robert Bly)

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a spring was breaking

out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

water of a new life

that I have never drunk?

 

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.

 

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a fiery sun was giving

light inside my heart.

It was fiery because I felt

warmth as from a hearth,

and sun because it gave light

and brought tears to my eyes.

 

Last night as I slept,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that it was God I had

here inside my heart.

Or possibly- not an error? That word struck me as not exactly fitting in with the poem, or my sense of a dream, so I looked up the poem in the original Spanish. The word actually used for “error” is “ilusion”! Robert Bly seems to color his translation through his own psyche (as, I suppose all translators do to some extent). But “illusion” is illusion- not a mistake or error. This fits in more with the sweetness of the dream. For me, illusion gives options, choices, and does not negate, as the word “error” can do. In addition, as we learned early, the brain does not distinguish between dream images and seen waking images; so it may also be that this “illusion” Machado dreamt and wrote about is as real as the words you are reading now. I would love to hear your thoughts on this dream!

In any case, as Machado suggests: may you find in your dreams a source of refreshment and sweetness and warmth for your heart. May we live into our best dreams and have the luminous reality that our dreaming brains can hold as truth be true on both sides of the threshhold.

Sweet dreams

Linda Yael