Category: Brain Science

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.

“Yuck! My Poop was Gray like Clay!” A Dream Interpretation.

Dear Satya:

Q: I am on the toilet at my house, and I’m pooping. It is hard to get out and a firm consistency. When I am done, I look at it and see that it is like rubber. It’s gray and firm. Out of curiosity, or perhaps incredulity, I reach out and feel it. It is, after all, pretty strange to poop rubber, and I need to test it by feel to make sure. I reach in and pulled out a large piece and squished it between my hands. It wasn’t disgusting or repulsive. The feeling I had was more of fascination and wonder. I continued to “play” with it, squeezing it apart, and looking to see if I was poop at all, or something else. It was definitely poop-ish, because there was a little brown in it. It was important to me to figure out what it was, and how it had come from my body. After playing with it, I looked around and saw gray splatter marks around me on a white wall. I had made a mess somehow. It didn’t smell at all, and I was in no way grossed out, just a bizarre and curious feeling. 

A: Thank you for writing, and for sharing this dream! You would not believe how frequently people have poop dreams and wonder what they mean, embarrassed to have dreamt something so strange and socially awkward. But if my blog statistics are any indication, people are dreaming with this theme pretty frequently and are quite curious to know what it’s all about. Thank you for sharing your dream here so we can explore these symbols a bit more in depth.

As you know, I have written one dream interpretation about poop already. In that interpretation, I reviewed the ways in which our physical digestive systems can reflect our psychic digestive systems, both in the waking world and in our dream lives. If you’re constipated in life, eastern medicine has long known that it may reflect that you’re also emotionally jammed-up. (Our bodies and minds are undivided, the western world has just somehow lost touch with that.) The way we relate to our poop in dreams can also reflect the ways we relate to our psychic processing. For instance, if we’re disgusted with the dark matter of the body, we may also be disgusted with the dark qualities of our emotional lives.

In this dream, you’re actually quite curious about what is coming out of you. You’re a woman on the brink of turning 30, and you’ve been deeply immersed in some painful relationship issues, financial issues, old familial health, and family patterns.  You are also an artist, something which shows up prominently in your dream in that you relate the texture and color of your dream-poop with the erasers you use when you draw. You explained that in waking life you smoosh these erasers like clay to make them clean, integrating the dirty parts with the clean eraser again. This association points us straight towards your creative being, which is an important aspect of dreams about defecation that I did not explore in the last interpretation.

Many traditional cultures believe(d) that everything that comes out of the human body is endowed with power. Modern culture has an opposite perspective: anything that comes out of the human body is disgusting and should be quickly discarded. But anyone who has been around a child knows that poop holds tremendous fascination in early life. Toddlers will proclaim proudly: “Mommy, I pooped!” Which is to say, “Mommy! I made something!” Poop is the first thing that we create as people. There is power in producing something within our own bodies and then bringing it out into the world. It may just be waste to our cognitive minds, but it is also a remarkable process taking place within our physical systems. And it is waste from our bodies that provides soil for new growth to take place in the future.

I would explore for yourself what is trying to come out of you, in your life and emotional processing, in order to complete one cycle of life and begin a new cycle of creative growth. How are you working on transitioning into a new phase? And what is needed to make this gray substance of your dreams a more natural material for fertile growth?

The colors in this dream are quite interesting. The white of walls can connote purity, or a kind of emptiness; a state of quasi-perfection that is also rather sterile. In your dream, these white walls are being splattered with gray matter. Things are getting messed-up, probably in a good way, in the same way that the blood in an old dream interpretation was invigorating the space with new life. You know this is your “shit” so to speak, but it’s also something else.

What’s interesting in this description of “gray matter” is that it leads me to an association with literal gray matter in your body, a form of neural tissue in the central nervous system and brain that is responsible for the processing and integration of sensory information. This tissue is known for its gray-brown color, just like you describe the material in your dream. It is also rubbery in nature being part of the brain and spinal column.

Gray matter in the brain develops primarily in childhood and teenage years. If there’s abuse and trauma in those years, gray matter can be diminished and the individual’s overall emotional functioning and executive decision making capacity can be hampered. Because of some of these developmental stages of growth, when chaos interrupts healthy growth, it can leave people feeling somewhat cursed or stuck in what feels like patterns that won’t end. You wrote me with descriptions of the highly emotional situations you’ve been dealing with lately. At first, I struggled to see how this was reflected in your dream because the images have more sterile, dull aspects. There’s not an abundance of chaos showing up, but almost its opposite. But I think I understand this all more now through this image of the gray matter. You describe a chaotic childhood and also lineage of addiction, and you have a feeling that your relationships tend to be more emotional than most. You’re also clearly trying hard to sort through your life. In waking life, you pay attention to your physical health as best as you can, and you’re working on sorting through how to deeply manifest who you are, but you’re stuck. As your dream reflects, you’re trying to release things but “it’s hard to get out.”

Okay, so where does this leave us?

Remember that the brain is plastic. That means that the brain is not a static organ, it is constantly transforming, as you are. Damage incurred in our lives can be healed. And as the yogic path has known for millennia, you have the capacity to heal yourself. Do not despair. Certain practices of mindfulness and study can increase the amount of gray matter in your brain, changes which reflect and support your capacity to slow decision making as well as reactivity.

The past can be erased, so to speak, by the integration and digestion of what happened. It it not a matter of simply forgetting or ignoring things. Just as a piece of a food cannot be left undigested in our stomachs without making us sick, life experiences that are not processed will only fester or irritate us. Once our experiences are deeply digested, however, their nutrients are distributed throughout our systems and the waste can be healthily discarded. What is left is fertile soil for new growth. This may take consistent attention and inward focus to manifest, requiring that you learn about yourself as a unique being.

With love of yourself and deep forgiveness, take an interest in your emotional life and your lineage, as you have taken an interest in your physical health in the past. Mine it for its lessons. Do not focus exclusively on the present experiences, but allow yourself the space and time to explore your history. Write your story. Examine your personal myth. Get to know yourself. I think you will find overtime that your digestion and emotional processing will take on a more easy quality to them. As you’re able to provide yourself the space for deep personal awareness, supporting your life force (as well as your literal blood to cleanse and flow easily), your dreams will begin to reflect more abundance and richness, as will your life. Images evolve just as we do, and with the right kind of love and focus, you will see that your dreams will transform and you will be able to manifest the life you seek.

Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!

Satya is a Jungian psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their late teens, 20s, and 30s.