I have been having recurring memory nightmares for years. There are several different scenarios involving years of physical abuse at the hands of an ex. They are exact replicas of certain fights. Sometimes I also have bad dreams that are not memories. They bring the same fear, they also involve the abusive behavior, but they aren’t memories. It is a though they are happening now. I have not been with the ex in 12 years but in the bad dreams he invades my home and hurts my children. Any suggestions on how to stop the bad dreams?
I’m so sorry that this is happening to you. I’m sorry you suffered that abuse many years ago, and am sorry that you’re still experiencing these memories and nightmares today. I have written before about trauma and dreams, and what Carl Jung said about it back in the ’30s. In that post, I explain a bit why nightmares resulting from trauma are so distinct from normal dream function. I also link in that post to another I wrote about some work being done on “re-dreaming”, that is, working with a clinician while awake to transform the nightmare imagery into healing imagery. This is similar to Jung’s notion of Active Imagination in which dreams, even very difficult nightmares, can be reengaged to find the healing function inside the dream. For instance, while re-engaging a specific dream you might practice discovering ways you can protect yourself: Look at the sword in the corner! Notice the devoted lion crouching by the bed, ready to pounce! See how strong you are! See how capable you are of protecting yourself and your children.
For people with recurring nightmares, the innate function of imagination has been severely damaged or destroyed. Trauma makes life overly literal, ruining our natural capacity of symbol making and the experience of awe in the world. This also leads to depression and a general dissatisfaction with the world, the contrast of Harry Potter living in the muggle house versus at Hogwarts — all gray and sad, no magic or mystery or fun.
Anything you can do to consciously support your imagination to flourish is a good thing. Novels, fairy tales, free painting, sculpture, dance, music, story-telling, writing. Have you ever written about your experiences in that relationship? Have you ever tried to transform that terrible period of your life into art? I know, it may seem an insane notion at first, but if you go for it, and trust that it will take time, you’ll notice a change down the road. This is the alchemy of life: turning the yuck into gold. These nightmares are demanding your attention. The more attention you pay to it all, consciously, instead of trying to make them go away, the more completely they’ll shift.
I know it seems counter-intuitive, but I want to repeat this: don’t seek for solutions to make the dreams go away. Don’t avoid, numb, or ignore them. Embrace them. Like you would with a very sad child, look them in the eyes and tell them you’re listening. This is your own wounded soul you’re speaking to. Listen. Ask it what it’s trying to say. Spend time with the imagery so that you can hear what it is saying.
Since this work can be so difficult on one’s own, I encourage you to find a therapist who works with dreams and has experience in trauma treatment. You’ll want to both process through that time of your life when the abuse actually occurred (perhaps you have already done this a lot), but also to engage in kick-starting your imagination.
I encourage you to also explore treatments like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR. These are two body-oriented trauma treatments that have strong proven results for healing trauma of this sort. There are some books you can read, including In an Unspoken Voice, by Peter Levine; and The Body Keeps Score, by Bessel van der Kolk. Both of these books speak to the fight/flight/freeze responses or trauma, and how our bodies often default to “freeze” states in situations where we are powerless. Women in situation of abuse and rape very often experience a kind of paralysis, after which they wonder desperately why they didn’t do more to protect themselves. If you’ve ever seen a small creature stuck in the paws of a cat, you can see this physiological response in action: when the balance of power is not in one’s favor, the body knows that to stay alive it’s often best to play dead. This is not a conscious choice any more than inhaling and exhaling is a conscious choice. It’s a mechanism for survival. As long as these nightmares continue to haunt you, it suggests that your physiology is still (at least in part) stuck in a freeze state. In conjunction with re-activating the imagination, you’ll want to reengage your body with the support of trauma treatments. Therapeutic Yoga, QiGong, and other martial arts can be other good methods of treatment.
Keep in mind that there is no silver bullet for trauma treatment. You’ll need to be a very active participant in your own healing. The participation is part of what your soul and body need for you to completely come out of the the freeze state and sense of powerlessness you experienced back then. This does not mean stressful activity, however. It means mindfulness, love, effort, devotion to yourself, and the search again for play and comfort. You’ll find it. And those nightmares will go away.
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
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.