The New York Times published an article last week entitled “Following a Script to Escape a Nightmare” by Sarah Kershaw, which explores a method to break the cycle of terrifying nightmares that afflict individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSDD). The goal of the approach is to re-imagine a scary dream in a new way, in particular the conclusion.
While claiming to be an almost anti-Jungian approach, the doctors involved in the study (including one analyst whose perspective must surely have been a narrowly quoted stance), neglect to explore some enormous questions around the healing function of the psyche inherent in the approach.
The article begins like this:
Her car is racing at a terrifying speed through the streets of a large city, and something gruesome, something with giant eyeballs, is chasing her, closing in fast.
It was a dream, of course, and after Emily Gurule, a 50-year-old high school teacher, related it to Dr. Barry Krakow, he did not ask her to unpack its symbolism. He simply told her to think of a new one.
And so Emily does. She changes the eyeballs into bubbles, turns the black car into a white Cadillac, and transforms the landscape so that nothing is chasing her. She feels much better and the treatment is working.
This approach is not only not Jungian, it is extremely Jungian. By engaging the symptomatic aspect of the psyche versus solely the conscious mind and the behavior (i.e. treating the insomnia), the doctor supported the dreamer to alter her relationship to the material via the unconscious and imagination.
The article suggests, however, that by not unpacking the symbolism of the dream, work with the unconscious is being circumvented; if this is the case, from where is Emily choosing her calming symbols? She is able to find images that she inherently knows — without logical conclusions — will achieve a calming effect, she is not using her conscious mind solely for this endeavor.
Moreover, why bubbles? Why does another patient choose to add birds to her image? How do any of Dr. Barry Krakow’s patients know what is going to be calming for them, healing for them? Why do they choose the specific images they do?
The healing function of psyche, as it is understood in Jungian psychology, can most easily be described as imagination — the very tool which Dr. Krakow is encouraging his patients to utilize. By facing the dreams head-on, whether they are analyzed or not, his patients are acknowledging the material; this very act can have a calming effect on a hurt area of psyche just as simple expressions of love and acknowledgment can calm an agitated or screaming baby. It is Zen, perhaps, but so often true: that which aches must be acknowledged, not fought or avoided.
The traumatized psyche experiences dreaming and loops of traumatic dreams in ways that a healthy psyche does not. The idea that these dreams must simply be analyzed in the same way as standard dreams is a narrow and elementary application of Jungian psychology. There is certainly material to be witnessed within them that offer clues towards healing, as well as growth and transformation visible over time (through the way in which the images transform), but another layer of work is needed with these nighttime feedback-loops of trauma.
However, this is an area that Jungian psychology must still wrestle with and which few prominent practitioners are tackling. How does the healing function break down when traumatized, for instance in an individual with a diagnosis of PTSD? Furthermore, is trauma a launching pad for deep inner work, perhaps the dramatic kick-start of individuation? Are the nightmares opportunities for the transformation of consciousness or an impediment to that work? And what’s happening in that deeply wounded area of psyche? These are areas of research that are just now beginning to be explored.
For continued reading on this subject, read this updated post on dreams and PTSD.