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.
Q: What about dreams related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? How do you interpret those?
A: This is a really critical question and, while it’s not a standard dream exploration, I think it’s an important inquiry. For our readers who are less familiar with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), this is the diagnosis that returning soldiers are often given, along with many other individuals who have experienced a traumatic event and/or endured stress over a long period of time. When the body cannot just “shake off” a bad situation, the experience can sort of get stuck, and its residue can be very hard to get out of our systems. Reflections of that residue can show-up in dreams. PTSD often includes symptoms such as a pervasive feeling of unease and negativity in the world, restlessness, sleeplessness, anger, irritability, paranoia, confused thinking, and often lots of nightmares. Nightmares related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are in many ways very different animals from other nightmares and recurring dreams in that they are so persistent, viscerally real, and often relatively true to events actually experienced.
Dreams related to PTSD can feel like a skipping record or a repetitive movement. There is a sense that rather than the unconscious engaging in it’s normal, healthy digestion and processing of events (as can be seen in a great number of dreams, and as I tend to explore here), something is broken and blocked. Nothing is moving, there is no end game, things are just stuck and repeating. Repeating. Repeating.
So what does one do with these dreams? First and foremost, if you are being woken in the middle of the night even occasionally by disturbing dreams, it would be valuable to go talk with someone to sort through where they’re coming from. In general, no amount of ignoring or avoiding these dreams will get them to go away. Not all scary dreams, even recurring ones, are related to a diagnosis of PTSD, but their existence suggests that you could be supported in your well-being by working with someone on them.
Working with PTSD dreams can involve interesting techniques of “re-dreaming,” consciously recreating a negative dream by altering the images and events. This work should be done with the support of a trained person, but the overall structure of this technique begins with re-telling the awful dream and then finding more comforting images within your psyche to offer healing. The symbols are unique and ingrained in each person, but one might replace an image of death with one of life, an image of violence with one of a comforting scene. This happens more intuitively than you might imagine, and the very act engages the unconscious just as we do in sleep, but through intention instead. In this way, one can help to jump-start the psychic rebirth cycle that is natural to all of us. With a little conscious charge, one can support the unconscious skipping-record to get back on grove.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in Jungian psychology and the years of Quarter-Life. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com