Category: Neuroscience

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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“A Menagerie of Wild Animals in the Backyard.” A Dream Interpretation.

Dear Satya:

MonitorLizard-portland-psychotherapy-dreamsQ: I am in a house that is overrun by wild animals. I walk into a room, the nook just off the kitchen, and I see a Monitor Lizard buried head first in a big vase full of flowers and scummy water. He scurries up and out of the vase as I enter. Outside in the back, courtyard area, a couple of large cats are sitting, maybe a Lion and Cheetah. They were in and out of the house as well. My mom was there, along with other female family members. The animals did pose some danger to us, but there were wary of us as well. It occurred to me that they wanted water, that they were here looking for water. Is that why they had come in from the wild? I assumed that wild animals have ways of getting what they need in the wild, but not anymore, I guess. Not these days. As we stood looking over the yard from above, I wondered to my mom about filling up a kiddie pool with water for the animals. She suggested we do it tomorrow as trying to navigate around them at that moment would be dangerous. I felt for them, though. Tomorrow is a long ways off if they’re really thirsty.

A: Thank you, dreamer, for sending in this dream. You shared with me in writing that you woke up from this dream with the word “Menagerie” in your head, and that you hadn’t been entirely conscious of the meaning of that word: “a collection of wild animals kept in captivity for exhibition.” This word, and the tone of its definition, may provide an interesting insight for us as we explore the rest of your dream. You also shared with me that you weren’t feeling physically well at the time of the dream and you wondered if there might be clues to that in the dream.

Indeed, the animal nature of your dream suggests reference to your own animal nature: your physical, instinctual self. The animals have come in from the wild and are invading your home. They’re thirsty. I immediately began wondering in exploring this dream why they’re thirsty, and what they (you) are thirsty for exactly. I wonder too what it means that they’re displaced. The realities of environmental degradation and global warming are bound to show up in the dreams of anyone living in the modern era (we’re consciously and unconsciously experiencing it), but the image should still also be looked at symbolically. The ever expanding cities and shrinking natural world has a psychological correlate for us all. In the modern era, psyche becomes heavily weighted towards the conscious, literal, rational mind and further distanced from the interconnected, mysterious realm of the universe in which we live. The modern psyche is raised to be narcissistic and sociopathic, with ever expanding egos and ever decreasing reverence for whatever it is that we can’t understand. But, whether we like it or not, the wild comes back to us. The grass grows up between the cracks of the concrete, the ants return just when you thought they were gone, and the winds and rain may bring a city to its knees with little warning. Is that what’s happening in your life? Your wild nature is demanding attention. It’s reclaiming territory and making its presence known.

I’ve written a few times about water in dreams, the absence of which makes a showing in your dream. Before exploring the deeper symbolic layers of Water, the first “interpretation” of this image might simply be that you’re thirsty. Really. This fact may be buried in your consciousness, something which you’re not terribly aware of and therefore shows up with your animal nature stating what it’s feeling: “I’m dehydrated.” Whether or not this could be a symptom of your sickness or of a tendency for you in general, I don’t know, but it’s a simple reading of the dream that might be valuable for you to explore. The unconscious inhabits all of us, our cells and our muscles, not just the dark reaches of our mind.

On a more symbolic level, I’m going to start by offering you what might seem like another simple statement (or a stoner’s attempt at profundity): Water is central to life. Without water, there would be no existence as we know it. Adult humans are nearly 60% water. Social centers have typically been built around major water resources, rivers or lakes or oceans. Fountains have been placed in the center of city landscapes and kingdoms. Water is central, literally and symbolically. So we know, instinctively, to bow to the water within us and outside of us. What might this mean for your dream? It may be that you’re feeling somewhat disconnected from life itself, that you’re needing to reconnect to the life force in some way, to your emotions (another aspect of water in dreams), and to the spiritual, soulful realm that gives life meaning. This could also be seen as the Yin aspect of life, the feminine, anima, source of life that animates material existence. This nod to the feminine seems to arise in particular with the mention of your mother and the female members of your family, a theme also echoed with the particular species of cats you mentioned.

The Monitor Lizard in the vase of water is curious to me, especially in that he is situated in “the nook just off the kitchen.” I’m curious here again about the way this dream may be orienting you towards very specific parts of your body. The kitchen tends to be correlated with the stomach in dream symbolism. The kitchen is the place where food is chopped and cooked and broken down, where the alchemy of food digestion begins. So the language around this lizard’s hiding place just make me wonder if there might be an illness or imbalance (not necessarily serious) associated with your liver perhaps, or spleen. I also wonder this because this particular animal is named from the Latin root word Monit, to warn. What, perhaps emotionally, might be stuck in one of the smaller organs near the stomach? You might explore Chinese medicine for some answers here, or visit a good practitioner. The image of the lizard in dreams can also be related to lineage; that from which we evolved. This might tie in again with the appearance of your mother and family in the dream and what you might be working through in your physical and psychic inheritance. Perhaps there is a lineage of disconnection from some emotional depths that you are working to heal. And, of course, perhaps you have personal associations to Monitor Lizards that are valuable for further insights into why this animal is there, off the nook of your kitchen.

Finally, to return to the word with which you awoke: Menagerie… Menagerie. The notion of captivity that defines that word is resonant to me in working this dream. It makes me wonder: are you feeling trapped? Are things feeling too controlled and confining in your life? Are you needing to be more wild? Ask yourself these questions. Spend some time really sitting with the notions. Is your life feeling as though you are in captivity and that your deepest self is not getting a chance to roam and be free? If there is an inkling that this might be true, see what you can do to rectify the situation. In your psychic landscape, you can transform the wilderness, bring the flow of water back to where it belongs, and encourage the animals to return to their natural environments where they want to be. In the future, hopefully in the near future, if you can bring more flow back into your life, your dreams will reflect these changes and it will be you who is visiting the animals, out in the wilds where they are most alive and free.

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. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com