People 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.
The night before the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, I dreamed that someone calmly walked up behind me and began shooting me with a semiautomatic rifle. As the bullets went through my back, I contemplated what was happening. I thought about how my body was being torn apart by the dozens of bullets passing through my torso. I wondered about dying. And, a moment before waking up, I considered (and hoped) that I might be dreaming.
Perhaps it’s common that on the heels of an emotional week, one’s routine gets altered a bit. I’ve started, stopped, and tried again, but it seems I just cannot bring myself to work on a dream interpretation this week in the same old way. Is it because I am too affected by the shootings? Maybe, but I’ve gone about all of the other tasks in my life more or less as normal. I do feel a certain level of exhaustion and some sadness that I can’t name though. I’m aware that there is something else going on beneath the surface. New emotional layers have been touched and engaged.
I had to inquire: what is the unconscious asking of me right now? Why is my creative space blocked to the point that I cannot write? In all areas, I realize, things need to shift a little, and get real. I can’t be phony or robotic, continuing on with the same old routine and not expect to feel inauthentic. In my writings here, I realized, there’s something else to be said, a new space to be explored. In the dreams I choose to write on each week, there is an absence. What am I not saying here? Without context, it may falsely appear that what we explore is the totality of how dreams and the unconscious are explored. But there are things not written about, things not said.
There is so much in dreams that often feels too dark or too serious to engage in this format. Too sexual or too strange. Too chaotic or too violent. I am not writing, for instance, on the dreams I occasionally receive that seem to convey hidden trauma. I don’t want to engage those dreams that appear to have something nestled within the imagery that should only be stirred delicately and in a safer space. I dare not unravel such dreams here. I do not want to expose too starkly memories that someone’s psyche has spent years attempting to forget.
Some dreams, if the interpretation is listened to, require a complete reorientation of behavior, perhaps the canceling of plans, or the trust to jump into the complete unknown. Sometimes, dreams are seemingly prophetic, mirroring instincts around danger that our conscious minds are likely to dismiss. In the same way, they can also state things exactly as they are, picking-up on what the conscious mind has missed. Without careful attention to a very literal interpretation of some dreams, a symbolic exploration is misleading. As with danger, dreams can sometimes reflect our awareness of ruptures in relationships, betrayal and lies, when a person’s consciousness is being duped. Without a therapeutic environment or very careful exploration, it is hard for us to know when those dreams appear here.
Dreams are not always concise enough to present in a single paragraph, nor explore in four or five. A single dream is often only one installment in a series of hundreds: a single page in a volume on one relationship, one memory, or one hope. Before things come into consciousness, we may chew on them for years. Seen in that context, one dream may show only an evolution of an image or a part of a person, reflecting transformation over time. Without those other dreams, we cannot know what we are missing. We cannot benefit from what those other dreams would illuminate. We cannot watch, inspired, as a person evolves.
In this format of dream exploration, we also cannot easily see how different people may dream the same incredible, poetic, nearly identical image. The same yellow bird arriving at that same juncture in emotional growth. Or the solitary snake showing up to mark a return to an instinctual, embodied awareness. I cannot easily share with you here what I experience as a therapist, witnessing people speak on images I know well from my own dreams, or reporting an inner experience that perfectly mirrors material I’ve studied for years. It is not easy here to stand in awe before the mystery of what is hidden inside of us and shared between us.
Finally, I do not write here about dreams that leave me utterly bewildered. I do not share with you those dreams that I cannot even begin to crack. What is absent here, therefore, is an ocean of dreaming in which I am out of my depth. In relationship to the unconscious, almost everything is beyond our ability to grasp, even after years of learning its language. It is this extraordinary complexity of dreams and the vastness of the unconscious that keeps me intrigued, endlessly. It is this intrigue that I hope to share with you here.
Happy holidays to all of you, and thanks for reading! It is solstice today, a time for renewal that we don’t always remember to honor. Take care of yourselves and of each other as we move into 2013. It will be a great year.
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Satya is a 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. For more information about therapy services in Portland, visit www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com