How to Stop Recurring Nightmares

portland-psychotherapy-nightmaresPeople who suffer from recurring nightmares are often desperate for anything to help make them go away. If you are one of those people, there are a few easy steps to take to help the recurring nightmares stop. The first step is identifying what time of nightmare they are.

What Type of Nightmare is Recurring?

Nightmares come in many varieties. You can think of their difference in origin and meaning in much the same way you might notice that a stomach pain could be the result of indigestion, or a bullet wound, or cancer: completely different diagnoses and different treatment required. They all require attention and self-care, however.

The following is a simple breakdown of some different types. This is not comprehensive and is only meant as an initial introduction.

If you have any questions at all, do not hesitate to contact a clinician in your area who works with dreams. Not all therapists do (in fact, the majority do not) so take some time to find the right person for you.

Nightmares Related to Post-Traumatic Stress

Nightmares related to a traumatic event or events are of a very specific variety. You can read more about my exploration of Post-Traumatic Stress dreams in an earlier entry.  In summary, these nightmares are often highly literal representations of what occurred in waking life. There is room to debate if they are even dreams in the standard definition in that they are drawing so heavily from memory, therefore suggesting a disruption in the way events are generally metabolized. Nightmares that replay events or do not feel symbolic fall into this category. They are nightmares that do not make you think “what is that about??” when you wake up; you already know what they’re about far too well.

Non-Literal Nightmares Related to Trauma or Major Life Changes

Many nightmares result from trauma but are not actual replaying of events. These can be dreams like dismemberment, tsunamis, apocalypse but may be more a reflection of what is being altered in your life, or what is being ignored. Dreams of tsunamis, for instance, are quite common. These are likely to do with some kind of emotional overwhelm which, because it is showing up in dreams, you may not be acknowledging fully.

Stress Related Nightmares 

Nightmares not related to trauma are often a result of being overwhelmed or “disconnected” and not paying attention to your inner life. These dreams can show up in any variety. Maybe you are running from something. Maybe someone is trying to break into your house. Maybe you’re seeing sickness or suffering a lot in your nightmares. They’re stressful to experience and you can wake up feeling groggy and frustrated and scared.

Sleep Paralysis, “Incubus” Nightmares, Night Terrors

Nightmares that feel like sleep paralysis or in which you experience a force in your room or sitting on your chest are not uncommon. These dreams are often referred to as “Night Terrors” and cultures all over the world have explanations for what is occurring in this highly visceral and terrifying experience. These dreams seem to result from a sense of “disembodiment” or what I think of as the disorientation of consciousness. They may come when you’ve slept way too long, or when you’re sleeping in a new location. They may also be more common for people who have experienced leaving their bodies through dissociation; a history of sexual abuse, for instance, may contribute to a greater incidence of these dreams. If you’re feeling powerless or trapped in your life, they may arise in those instances.

How do I Stop Recurring Nightmares?

Almost all nightmares, with the exception perhaps of the PTSD variety, have the effect of grounding you. If you notice the visceral experience they evoke, they may be a psychic immune system response to make you pay attention to your body and the physical world. They seem to support in improved awareness and force an individual to slow down and regain focus in their day to day life.

Stopping PTSD Related Nightmares

Help for these nightmares can come through working to jump-start your psychic metabolism by encouraging symbol making that is not happening organically. This may sound highly abstract, but stick with me here. Writing can help. Writing about what occurred and what the dreams are, but trying to recover what was lost. Reading poetry. Engaging in art or dance. Literally, these forms of relating in the world can help to calm nightmares over time. The “irrational”, artistic, symbolizing aspect of the mind has been disrupted. Everything is too literal.

There is also some excellent work being done around “re-dreaming” with PTSD nightmares in which certain images within the dream are consciously altered. Some lucid dreaming techniques are also helpful to bring conscious engagement into healing the disruptive dreams.

Help for All other Recurring Nightmares

1) Write your dreams down. Seriously. I bet you that if you write your dreams down in the morning, you will see a decrease in their intensity and frequency within a week.

2) Spend time exploring them. Why did that guy show up? What is that building from childhood doing there? Really explore it. Notice themes: What topics are showing up regularly? Which periods of life? Something is being triggered right now and some aspect of YOU is trying to make contact with you. Listen to it. The less you listen to it, the more intense the nightmares need to get to make you pay attention.

3) Get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Do not get less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Sleep. Being under rested is a chronic issue in modern life and the effects are much more severe than people realize. If you sleep regularly and well and without sleeping pills, your nightmares will almost certainly be less frequent.

4) Consider playing more if you’re not playing enough, or consider getting more responsible and focused if you’re playing too much.

If you follow these simple tasks, your recurring nightmares are almost guaranteed to stop or at least decrease dramatically. There’s much, much more to be gained from working with your dreams, however. If working with your nightmares raises your interest in your inner life, let them take you there. Nightmares are not a nuisance. They tend to be helping you. Pay attention.

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18 comments

  1. Pingback: “I’m Driving My Car and I Can’t Slow Down.” A Dream Interpretation. | Jungian Psychotherapy and Dream Interpretation from the practice of Portland Psychotherapist, Satya Byock
  2. Pingback: “Someone is Trying to Break Into My House!” A Dream Interpretation. | Jungian Psychotherapy and Dream Interpretation from the practice of Portland Psychotherapist, Satya Byock
  3. Michelle

    Sometimes I dont remember my nightmare..even tho when im nightmaring they are so real…I act out. I kick scream make faces, and gestures to make them go away. My boyfriend will wake me up..I have warned him..if I swing and hit you please forgive me. I need help…please

    • satyabyock

      Michelle — I would encourage you to find a therapist in your community who works with trauma and dreams. See if there is a Jungian therapist who works with trauma, or EMDR — a trauma processing technique. This can resolve, but you will need to attend to the unconscious and whatever it is that your dreams are pointing to.

  4. Angela Reid

    I had a traumatic time at my last job I was bullied by work colleagues and not support by my manager this went on for the last 3 years out of 5. This effected my health and I had to leave the job I loved. I have suffered reacurring nightmares about my last job since and yes I have had alot of counseling and I have tried to tell them all what happens but they seemed to not take into account how this affects my dreams they deal with the wakeing life but not my dreams they seemed not to take this serious. 8 years on this is still effecting me I dont know what to do or who to turn to.

    • satyabyock

      Please find a therapist who deals specifically with dreams. Different psychology deals with different things, but this is a major symptom. If they are not taking it seriously, try to find someone who will.

      Look for a Jungian and/or trauma oriented therapist. Find someone who is EMDR trained and has experience working with nightmares if you can. KEEP LOOKING for hep. It’s out there… don’t give up. It’s important that you have relief from these dreams.

  5. Paysayten

    I have terribly disturbing dreams about my wife’s infidelity. She has carried on behind my back for 10 months. When the relationship between her and the other man began I started having dreams of her having sex with others. I couldn’t see the men’s faces or see where the event took place only that it happened.Or that she would call me to mock me while having sex with another man.
    She denied anything was going on. But for months several times each week for months I would experience these terrifying physically dibilitating visions.
    I confirmed my worst nightmares last week. She admitted to being with multiple people sexually. I am crushed by this. And haunted by the vivid dreams of the past 9 months. Why did these things reveal themselves to me? That is the bigger question that I am tortured with. Why did I know?

    • satyabyock

      I’m very sorry to hear about your situation and hope you’re taking care of yourself.

      There are all sorts of ways that animals know what is going on in the world in a non-intellectual manner. Humans have simply forgotten that we are animals and that we have instincts. It’s very possible that you were aware of signs of the infidelity but were repressing them, or that you saw things you couldn’t interpret at the time based on your conscious beliefs of your wife/relationship. Your dreams were making sense of what were going on. Dreams have enormous value and insight for us, if we pay attention.

      I wish you the best.

  6. nick m

    I’ve had this awful, terrifying nightmare for the last few years about my childhood. It takes place in my elementary school, and it seems to happen every time I have a dream about my elementary school. Anyway, what the general formula is is that it’s recess and all the kids will be outside, and in the woods by the dirt field(where we were often allowed to play) there would be savage beasts lurking and eventually they would see us and run out of the woods at all of the kids, including myself. I think I’m still my current age in these dreams, with some kind of story or reason why I’m at the elementary school hinted at in some of the nightmares before the woods scene. Anyway, after the beasts(anything from apes to bears to lions to raptors) escape the woods and begin chasing us it becomes a total free for all with everybody trying to get away as fast as they can from the death following close behind. I almost always seem to get really close to dying or just straight up die before I’m forced to wake up and I’m scared and angry at the dream. Just 20 minutes ago I was woken at 2:50 AM by a raptor isolating and catching up to me as I ran away from the flock of kids and their teacher after I had been having a very comfortable elementary school dream reminiscent of Billy Madison, except that I’m not a middle aged man, I’m much younger. I got to the recess part, saw the deadly animals in the distance, and it all kicked in for my mind, I realized what was going to happen and it did happen. I have had this dream more times than I can remember, it is my most common dream, but this one I just had had perhaps the most depth yet before the deathrace. I think that the nightmare stems from my belief as an elementary kid that there really were beasts in the woods at my school, just not in the part where we played, and behind the fence in the woods instead. I think its this because one time I remember part of the fence was busted and every kid in my class thought an animal did it, but we never found out what really busted the fence. It’s crazy that I’m even having this dream because I actually went back in those deeper woods as part of a trailblazing thing in one of my classes many times and saw there was nothing but squirrels and birds back there. I really wish I never had to have this nightmare ever again, but I probably will keep having it for many more years to come.

    • satyabyock

      You don’t need to keep having this dream, Nick. Please find a therapist to work with, ideally one who works with dreams — search for “Jungian.” When you face recurring dreams, they tend to go away and they help you grow and heal.

  7. Peter Gordon Lepere

    Very interesting. I was searching for a good image to accompany a poem I wrote entitled Recurring Nightmare and came across your post. The image is fitting and your post is very helpful. I have an amateur’s interest in Jung and just recently read Joseph Campbell’s Myths We Live By and found is super fascinating. (That’s the extent of my knowledge on the subject, lol.) Have you ever come across (this will sound weird I think) seeing the future in dreams? Yes, that is a serious question. Just curios. Again, thanks for the fitting image.

    • satyabyock

      Hi Peter — indeed, there is a great deal written on prophetic dreams. Jung’s “Red Book” is a chronicle of what he understood to be dreams foretelling WWI. You might be interested to start with a book called “Jung the Mystic”

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