What is emerging in your dreams during this pandemic? For many of us, our dreams have become more vivid, more complex, and often fraught with images, stories and emotions that are not part of our usual dream repertoire. The fact that many of us are off our usual routines, changing our sleeping and waking habits to correspond with now working from home, also means that we may be remembering our dreams more often. Some folks may be sleep deprived as they struggle to balance work and child-care, but many are catching up on much needed sleep in our chronically sleep deprived culture. This means more hours of REM, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep; the part of the sleep cycle in which we have our dreams.
More Nightmares Now?
The corona virus has changed not only our outside world, but our inner landscapes and dreamscapes as well. Our dreams are darker, scarier, and sometimes more memorable than we would wish them to be. For example, for the first time in my life I screamed out loud in my sleep. When my husband asked me what happened, I responded simply, “I had a nightmare”. I didn’t remember the content, but the emotion sure came through loud and clear.
By paying attention to and working to understand our dreams, we have a window in what our minds, bodies, and souls are telling us, and what they need right now. If we process our emotions and our dream stories, we can bring renewal and healing and more peace to our own waking lives, and potentially the lives of others around us. Our dreams provide us with a processing option. Working through a fear in our dreams, or after we wake and realize it was a dream, helps to desensitize us to some extent; and to rehearse or practice if you will, what we need to do in our waking lives.
Common Covid-19 Nightmare Themes
There are some common pandemic themes that seem to be emerging. One of the main emotions is anxiety. Some are having terrifying nightmares about the end of the world in some form, others are dreaming of metaphoric images of bugs, of swarms of locusts, of termites eating away at the wood and the house coming down.
There are other dreams where the main theme is vulnerability or exposure. One woman dreams, “I am getting dressed to go out, but all of my clothes, even the soles of my shoes have holes in them”. Another dreams, “I have a dangerous secret, and I am afraid that any minute I will be found out and exposed”. The virus brings us face to face with loss and death, literally and figuratively. Grief is a little death, and we are all grieving the lost parts of our lives right now, whether or not we personally have loved ones who have died.
One dreamer reported crying “buckets of tears” in his dreams and filling his living room with a small lake. It reminded him of the scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice had cried when she was her normal size, but then drinks the potion that makes her small and ends up swimming in a pool of her own tears. Some dreams have biblical proportions of the Passover plagues, Jesus crucified, or the Tower of Babel.
Balancing Nightmares with Dreams of Hope and Reclaiming Life
And to balance these out there are also dreams of faith and hope for the future. Last night, 3 days before Passover and 1 week before Easter, I had this dream: “A young man lost his necklace of the Hebrew letter Chai, which means Life, and has the numerical value of 18. I found his necklace and returned it to him and he was very appreciative”. What does it mean to dream of “Life”, or losing Life and having it found and returned to you? Or to dream of returning to someone a part of a life he had lost? I hope that in some small part my work contributes to helping people connect to their life force, which is never really lost. I view this dream positively, that there is hope and faith that we will prevail, that we will heal, that our world will recover. What can we all do to preserve our life force, and help others to do so as well? A necklace rests on our chest. In this dream, the Chai, or Life, was on the chest of the young man. A great symbol for intentional deep breathing, clearing our lungs, or healing from pneumonia-related illnesses.
The Power of the Numbers: 19-1=18 I was also struck by the numerical sequencing of “Covid 19”, and Chai, or Life, (L’Chaim, means “to life”) which has a numerical value of 18. So, what one thing do we need to release, or let go of, or transform so that we move from virus and illness back into Chai or life? Ask yourself that question for yourself, your family, and our world. Is it greed? Or self-centeredness? Or fear? Or; more prosaically social gatherings right now? Take my dream, and your dreams into your own life, listen to their messages, and use them for healing our lives and our planet.
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 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.
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.
Therefore, 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.
Case Study in Healing Nightmares
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 was in and out of hospitals most of her childhood. 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 (and always focused on “now.”) 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.
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. This 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. Ofttimes 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. See:
“There are many who don’t wish to sleep for fear of nightmares. Sadly, there are many who don’t wish to wake for the same fear.”
Dandelions, The Disappearance of Annabelle Fletcher, Rochelle F. Goodrich
Have you noticed lately that your dreams are more permeated than usual with a vague or not-so-vague sense of anxiety, dread, or foreboding? What we might call “free floating anxiety”, to use a professional term. Many of us can easily name our waking angst as related to the current political scene in our country, but more and more it is apparent that PTSD (Post Trump-atic Stress Disorder) has infiltrated our dream lives as well. (Another name given this peculiar state of affairs: Trump Anxiety Disorder!)
Reports from countless dreamers since the election have been replete with themes of invaders, intruders, floods, danger, running for safety, or the need to protect, including for people who do not usually report dreams of this nature. I’ve been seeing this with my clients, my dream groups, all my colleagues are reporting this, and my own dreams bear it out. Our collective psyches that come together at night seem to breach the boundaries of our very bedrooms. Dreams can contain not only the personal layer of “my dream”; but as we pick up in our unconscious the energies of others, another layer becomes reflective of “our dreams” too. Jung named this phenomenon the collective unconscious, and our collective unconscious is having a field day lately.
Both anecdotal stories and actual polls taken among therapists and mental health professionals indicate a noticeable rise in anxiety, depression, and people seeking treatment either for the first time ever, or coming back after a significant time out of treatment. They all say some variation of “I don’t feel safe any more,” or, “I am getting triggered by old stuff I thought I had resolved”. They want to talk about current events in a way that is unusual for personal therapy to lead with. It is clear that we are troubled in this post-election season by not only our own personal histories, but also the state of the world we are living in and how it affects our psyches and our being.
In one of my dream circles a member had a dream that she titled “The Secular Behemoth”
In the dream some one spotted a large behemoth monster (which is what a behemoth is) on the ground, perhaps just the head, with the rest of it buried, and instructed everyone to run for safety. Then young people chased them who were apparently working for the monster. The feeling of the dream was one of fear and trepidation.
The dreamer was very clear that this was not a personal dream, but a collective dream, and that the behemoth represented the “monstrous new world order” under the current administration, and the young people had been brainwashed to work for him in the dream. She attributes its arrival to having returned to watching the news after a period of a news fast. The secular part of her title referred perhaps to this new order feeling unholy -who is caring for the needy among us? Her waking world dream tasks after sharing it included to gather up protection, and then to look at and face the monster with collective support.
Another dreamer had a dream of an enormous tinker toy structure in her children’s room where 2 teens had “invaded” her space and had set up camp there. She yelled to them “Get Out!”, feeling invaded, terrified and full of rage. Her associations when we worked on the dream were of feeling invaded as some one large and powerful was “tinkering” with her private world, and worry for the future of the children. One of the ways we worked on this dream from the inside was by dismantling the tinker toy structure and boxing it up.
Healing Trump anxiety dreams
We can work right inside the dream images to change them up, change the ending, or gather up supports if we are getting overwhelmed or anxious or outright terrified. It is, after all, our own dream — even though we might not be able to change the world quite so quickly, we do have the ultimate power to change our own stories, whether in our waking or our dreaming life. So, if you have an anxiety dream, ask yourself, “What can I do to feel more empowered, to get to safety, to help myself and others inside this dream?” when you wake. Then, re-write that dream, adding in any resources you want: in dreams you are not limited by the laws of physics or gravity or logic. The more we can feel safe and empowered, even in our dreams, the more we can bring that forward into our waking lives as well.
In addition, here are a few more dream ideas to try before going to sleep at night to help contain the flood of feelings and the deluge of upsetting images.
Use your dream journal to set an intention the night before to write something like “I will allow in and recall only the dreams that are in my highest purpose and best interest”. Or “I will be safe and protected in my sleep and dreams.”
Hang a dream catcher near your bed with the same intentions. It is what Native tradition tells us they are designed to do – allow the good dreams to filter through the hole in the center, and snare the upsetting dreams in their webbing.
Surround yourself and your bed/bedroom with a bubble of light for safety, protection, and good boundaries. Pick your favorite most healing and protective color.
Imagine closing a door in your mind before going to sleep, like a portal between worlds. You can also add a phrase such as “I close the door to unwanted intrusions in the night”.
Say the words “No”, or “No more” or “Enough”, (Dayenu, in the spirit of Passover) strongly, perhaps even out loud to your dream muse to give you a break!
Stay connected with your supports and your tribe as well, so we can face the Behemoth together. Join groups, gather with friends and fellow dreamers, feel the power of the collective spirit.
Brene Brown said that collective courage is an antidote to collective trauma. She quoted Howard Thurman saying:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go out and do that. The world needs more people who are fully alive.
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.
Dreaming is a healing process…a vital means by which we bind up our wounded spirits and rekindle our hopes for the future.” (Kelly Buckeley)
Last year the Boston area held the world in horrified thrall during the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. Stories have appeared in the news media off and on all year about the healing and recovery of the survivors, and stories of courage and selflessness of responders. Many are planning to run or cheer on this year in honor of those who were killed or affected by the bombing and it’s aftermath. As a Watertown resident, I have walked the streets less than a mile from my home where the suspect was finally recovered. Scenes of the bombing on Boylston St., of the responders and victims that day, the lock down in many towns, the images of SWAT teams patrolling the quiet neighborhood and banging on doors, to the final recovery of the second bomber under the boat- these images have been engraved in many of our memories. For some, they have shown up as persisting nightmares in various literal or symbolic forms over the past year. While the distress has abated for most as the year unfolded and life returned to the new normal, as the first anniversary approaches the city and our psyches are revisiting that time, and we can hope to use the anniversary to mark healing and courage and our unwillingness to be bowed down to the false gods of violence and terror.
Kelley Buckeley (Dreams of Healing, 2003) tells us that we make meaning out of tragedies publicly when people build monuments (think 9/11 or the Vietnam Memorial) or set up spontaneous memorials (think piles of running shoes and flowers on Boylston Ave.). Inter-personally, we have conversations and prayer circles, and internally people dream dreams. Our dreams can guide us in the direction of hope and healing; our job becomes to pay attention to them, and to direct them toward resolution and wholeness of being.
Our dreams can be both landmarks of our internal process when “bad things happen to good people”, (to quote Kushner), and a source of healing and solace as we attend to them and use their generative powers to move forward: to creating meaning out of chaos, hope out of despair, and a forward-moving life force out of the depths of darkness and sorrow. A hallmark of a therapeutic modality called AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) has as some of its tenants that we are all wired for growth, that we all have the capacity to experience joy and delight, and that nothing that feels bad is ever the last step. I love these philosophies! It reminds me of what the proprietor of the hotel in the movie “The Exotic Marigold Hotel” also tells us (in his lovely Indian accent): “Everything will work out in the end. And if it hasn’t worked out, then it isn’t the end yet.”
Post-traumatic nightmares can actually be a sign of a vigorous life force that is pushing forward to bring in potential allies of deep powerful inner strength and resilience that need to be brought forward into consciousness. Dreaming in and of itself is a healing process- it is one of our system’s ways of digesting and processing information. (With the legacy of trauma, the body/mind adage “what isn’t sufficiently metabolized can become metastasized” can have great meaning).
Dreams that follow a crises do not aim to simply return the dreamer to the status quo, rather they aim to develop a whole new understanding of the self and the world that encompasses the trauma, and help the dreamer to rise out of the ashes of their broken self to find new hope, structure, and meaning for their world. (Buckeley) Dreams are one of our most powerful sources of meaning making.
Buckeley continues, “Nightmares are more like a vaccine than a poison.” This understanding follows the homeopathic principle of that a minute dose of a negative substance inoculates us to the disease or distress. Our dreaming selves are struggling to deal with the psychological distress and spirit anguish caused by traumatic events. “…Although dreamsharing by itself does not cure a disease, it does have the power of enhancing conscious awareness of both our deepest fears and our greatest strengths… At times of great suffering and vulnerability, this kind of enhanced self awareness can have a deeply re-vitalizing effect.”
We can assist our dreaming selves in this healing process, whether the nightmarish distress is from trauma, loss, illness or parts unknown. We can incubate dreams at night before going to sleep; spending a few moments quietly tuning in, then writing in our dream journal our desire for our dream guide to send us healing dreams in the service of our highest good and best interests. We can be general or specific, depending on what we already know about our nightmares or our day distress. We can orient ourselves, as recommended by the Talmud, to find the gift in every dream. We can hold the expectation that if it hasn’t worked out, that it is not the end yet. And you are all invited to participate in a day retreat workshop on Sunday May 4th on “Dreams of Healing: Dreamwork and Transformation” where we will learn dreamwork principles, journey together, and find our way in the nearby woods for a short waking dream journey. Click here to find the link to the flier for registration.
May we all dream together of inner and outer worlds of peace
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.
“I’ve had dreams, and I’ve had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because of my dreams.” Jonas Salk
Nightmares. There seem to be two main categories of adult nightmares. There is the uncomfortable or upsetting dream, and then there is the heart-pounding panic-stricken terrifying one. Some nightmares are so vivid that they seem real- we wake sweating, or screaming, or our partner wakes us up asking, “What were you yelling about in your sleep?” Perhaps especially with upsetting dreams, we need work with them, figure them out, and resolve what triggered them in order to have them transform and/or disappear. (Really. I’ll give you some examples over the next few blogs.)
Believe it or not, nightmares come to us bearing gifts- even the really scary ones. We may not have been particularly desirous of this kind of a gift- and would just as soon “re-gift” it as soon as possible. However, if we’ve dreamed the dream, it means that some part of us is ready to receive these gifts: the gifts of information, of insight, of potential, and of direction that we may need in order to move forward in our lives.
This is part of what mythologist Joseph Campbell calls our “Hero’s Journey”. Part of the journey of every hero and heroine is to encounter obstacles, face seemingly impossible tasks, and then to figure out how to resolve and overcome them. Sometimes the task is to face up to and then overcome something: (i.e. Perseas and Medusa, where our hero Perseus has to cut off the Gorgon Medusa’s head, but since looking directly at her would turn him to stone; he figures out how to see her indirectly reflected in his shield and thus be able to slay her). Sometimes the work is to complete a seemingly impossible task (i.e. Hercules 7 labors; one of which included cleaning out the Elysian stables of the gods-and that’s a lot of horse-sh*t to have to clean up!). Sometimes the task is to journey to dark forbidding places for the purpose of redemption ( i.e. Orpheus and Eurydice where our hero Orpheus actually journeys to hell and back to reclaim his bride). All contain allegories for our lives, and our nightmares often include being threatened by something monstrous, an impossible task or dilemma, or dark forbidding landscapes.
Since we know that the language of dreams is usually through symbols, we have to figure out what these messages mean for us, and then what we need to do with the information we uncover. The final stage of dream work is the action stage- taking the dream information and connections into some form of action in our life. This is the part that is often neglected, which is why the nightmares may continue. Jeremy Taylor says that dreams come to us in the service of health and healing, but as Robert Moss points out on his website, we have to actually DO something differently in our lives to get us there. “…Dreams require action! If we do not do something with our dreams in waking life, we miss out on the magic…we (have to) take the necessary action to bring the magic through.” (Moss)
Moss calls his quick method of working with dreams “Lightning Dream Work”; it is one way to work with the milder form of the nightmares.
1. Title your dream: As mentioned in a previous blog, giving the dream a title can often allow the core message of the dream to “pop” in high relief. Don’t think – just go with your first gut response.
2. Describe the feeling narrative: Have the dreamer describe the various emotions that accompanied each part of the dream story.
3. Bridge to life:This is the reality check part. We ask the dreamer where in waking life this might be true? Do we recognize any of the people or places or events? Are any of them real now, or in the past, or potentially in the future? We may need to ask several questions here to tease out possible connections. Once you have the “aha” connection- what then is the message of the dream for you?
4. Bumper sticker:If you were to make a slogan, a pithy statement, a “bumper sticker” one liner out of the message your nightmare was bringing to you- what would it be? Again- go with your gut on this. What does your bumper sticker then mean to you?
5. Action plan to honor the dream:To change the dream, or your life, or keep it from becoming repetitive, you need to do something concrete in the world. Your action plan may also be to incubate another dream on what to do next, or to perform some small symbolic act.
Example: One client’s nightmare was “I stopped on the way home from work to buy a loaf of bread and when I got home I discovered that it was stale and crawling with bugs that I tried to pick out, but they were too numerous”. She titled it “Buggy Bread”. She had been having some version of this dream (sometimes sour milk, sometimes spoiled meat, sometimes in her office, sometimes on the way home) for several months. They were profoundly distressing and wouldn’t seem to dissipate.
The feeling narrative accompanying the dream story was “first calm, then tired from work, then I started to feel anxious, nervous, and when I unwrapped the bread I felt disgusted, sickened and upset.”
We played with possible bridges to life: Have you bought bread recently? Anything significant about the buying of it or having it be spoiled in some way when you got it home? How about the way home from work- how do you usually feel then? Are you feeling sick or disgusted or “bugged” anywhere in your life recently? Then, you might ask about the significance of bread- Sustenance? Staff of life? Money? Are you feeling “stale” or “bugged” or “disgusted” at work, at the place from where you are to “bring home the bread”? This last one resonated fully.
Possible bumper stickers she explored were: “Man does not live by bread alone”, “Call the exterminator” , “Change bakeries!” , “Time to go gluten free”. The bumper sticker she chose read “Change Bakeries”, and in doing so she realized that it might time to leave her current job, that the “bugs” in this one were too numerous to continue or risk getting “sickened”. The bumper sticker feeds the action plan. Her small symbolic act was to wash her hands before leaving work to (wash the office off) and then to start to send out resumes. Once she updated her resume and began sending them out she had this dream: “ I am making a cake, and I realize in the middle of it that I don’t have all the ingredients I need. I worry that it is too late to go to the store, but when I get there it is still open and I can get the rest of what I need for this project.” No more bugs, and it’s not too late! Although she’s not completely out of the woods yet (neither was Dorothy when she met the Lion), it’s clearly not a nightmare anymore.
Additionally, don’t forget that adult versions of some of the kid techniques in the last blog work as well. Next time I’ll address in detail the “Capital N” nightmares that may require other methods to stay grounded as you work on them, and introduce the GAIA* Method: “Guided Active Imagination Approach” for Nightmares and Trauma Dreams.
“I don’t use drugs: my dreams are frightening enough”. M. C. Esher
Nightmares. We’ve all had some version of them, from a single mild disturbance to all out panic and repetitive horror shows. This next series of blogs will begin to address the “full catastrophe” of this ubiqitous phenomenon. (to quote one of my favorite characters Zorba, who is in turn quoted by John Cabot Zinn).
What causes nightmares? The whole range of things that influence our dreams (remember those layers from the last blog?) contribute to nightmares as well. Yes, that spicy pizza we ate last night can be an influence. More to the point though, they are usually generated by upsetting encounters or life circumstances that we’ve had over the last few days, stuck emotions or unsatisfied places in our life that we haven’t figured out what to do about yet, or long term unfinished business from our childhood or beyond. That “beyond” includes sensory and image memories that have not been encoded into language, or scenes from other lifetimes that seep through the thinned veil of our consciousness when we are asleep. Repetitive nightmares are an SOS from our unconscious- something is not right in Mudville, and our dreaming self is trying it’s darndest to get us to sit up and figure out what it is, and what we need to do about it.
First, a few words about kids and nightmares. Kids dreams are also affected by what is going on in their lives, but it is also important to know that having nightmares is a normal developmental stage for many children. From about 4 or 5 until about 8 or 9, many kids are just beginning to recognize that their previously “infallible and all protecting parents” are not perfect protectors, and that the world can be a scary place. This comes as a shock! “What do you mean that you can’t make Joey my hamster alive again?!”
It seems that this dawning consciousness that parents can’t do it all, and that they (the kids) will have to leave the nest for increasing periods of time, make this age span a common time of nightmares. They have to come to terms with how to negotiate and stay safe in the world, and anxieties can seep into sleep. For many kids, the nightmares resolve by themselves, with just a little TLC and good parenting techniques. For others, some of these tried and true methods may help restore them to feeling competence and power in their worlds.
Here are a few techniques that are helpful for kids to gain some power over their night monsters: (ps- they can work for adults too!)
Vanquishing the Nightmare
1. Never underestimate the power of a good nightlight to chase away the scary dark.
2. In addition to an actual nightlight, some kids love to have a “monster vaporizer” in the form of a flashlight, that when pointed into all the dark corners and under the bed, will automatically vaporize any lurking dangers.
3. Have them tell the story of the dream out loud, and join them in deciding what objects, other people, or magical/spiritual beings they want to bring with them into the dream or into the room to keep them safe.
4. Draw a picture of the nightmare, and then change the picture around by making it humorous (i.e., put a funny hat on the monster), or adding the magical safety items from #3 to the picture.
5. Talk back to the monster, once it is safely contained (i.e. put it in jail, or a cage, or behind a fence or a force field). Even “Na na na na na – you can’t get me!” can be very powerful for a certain age set.
6. My daughter’s personal favorite when she was that age: Draw the dream monster or bad guy, then scribble over it with a heavy black magic marker until it is completely obliterated. Then, if that is not yet enough, rip the paper into tiny shreds. Then, if that is not yet enough, burn the shreds of paper safely in a big pot or container. Then, if that is not yet enough, flush the ashes down the toilet! (part of this method is adapted from “Gentle Reprocessing”, developed by Diane Spindler as a variation on EMDR using imagery.) Keep going until you get to until you get to “Dayenu!” (from the Passover Haggadah, meaning “It would be enough!”
7. Have a conversation with the dream monster or bad guy: Find out why it is there, what it wants, and how to appease or befriend it. Feed it a cookie. See what gift it has brought for the young dreamer. (A great book you can read to young readers, and older ones can read to themselves is “The Wizard of EarthSea”, the first book of “The EarthSea Trilogy” by Ursula Leguin. This great allegory/story closes with the young wizard Ged learning how to face his monsters.)
8. Don’t forget about Native American dreamcatchers: hung over the bed, they “catch” the bad dreams, and the hole in the middle lets the good ones come through.
9. And, of course, hugs, and lullabies, and cuddling, and the power of true and loving presence.
Next time- adults and nightmares: the long and the short of it: methods, techniques, ways to empower yourself, when to seek professional help.