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
I’ve written before about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and dreaming, that is, on the way that severe trauma can alter the dreaming function of the unconscious. Keep in mind the “severe trauma” can not always be easily assessed by the person who experiences it. For the most part, individuals who experience trauma are likely to minimize what they experienced. Even if the trauma itself can be catalogued as a part of war or an assault, the individual who underwent the difficulties (the shock and likely psychic or physical experience of near death) is not always able to see clearly how traumatic an experience they endured. Our psychic self-protections are strong. We can become tough as nails to defend us from terrible difficulties and it is not until those defenses begin to soften (often over time, with a lot of patience and love and gentleness, assurances of safety, and good body work and therapy), that an individual can acknowledge how terrible the trauma they experienced truly was.
The official diagnosis for an individual who becomes affected by a traumatic event is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, known simply as PTSD. This label can address a variety of symptoms, both physical and mental, but the exploration of how an individual becomes afflicted with dreams that repeat the traumatic event, having to relive what they experienced in recurring dreams, remains under-explored. A few years ago, I wrote a post about the work of Dr. Barry Krakow, refuting the notion that his work with the dreams of patients suffering from traumatic recurring dreams was new work, or non-Jungian. Indeed, as far back as the beginning of the 20th century, Jung understood what was happening within the unconscious of traumatized individuals, as well as how to cure the further trauma of recurring dreams.
Recurring Dreams and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
I came upon this passage today from a seminar that Carl Jung delivered in 1938 that explores the dreams of individuals suffering from “Shell Shock” the diagnosis of psychologically affected returning soldiers that preceded the modern diagnosis of PTSD. Jung explains how recurring dreams from trauma (“shell shock”) indicate an absolute shift in the psychic system, and are a singular exception to the way dreams typically process and digest material from life.
The dream is never a mere repetition of previous experiences, with only one specific exception: shock or shell shock dreams, which sometimes are completely identical repetitions of reality. That, in fact, is proof of the traumatic effect. The shock can no longer be psychified. This can be seen especially clearly in healing processes in which the psyche tries to translate the shock into a psychical anxiety situation. (Carl Jung, Children’s Dreams, pp. 21-22)
Jung continues in his explanation, elucidating the way in which some traumatic experiences must be altered, slowly, into more symbolically rendered shocks in order to be metabolized and integrated into the individual’s psyche. (Ultimately, this is very similar to what Dr. Barry Krakow and others are currently working on; it must be pointed out for historical record that Jung was already treating patients in this manner over 75 years ago.)
The reaction of shell-shocked patients is that a knock, or anything reminiscent of a shot or an explosion, suffices to trigger nervous attacks. The attempt to transform a shock into a psychical situation that may gradually be mastered can also succeed toward the end of a treatment, however, as I have observed myself in a series of dreams of an English officer. In this man’s dreams, the explosion of the grenade changed into lions and other dangers that he was then able to tackle. The shock was, so to speak, absorbed. In this way, the dreamer was able to master the effect of the shock as a psychical experience. Any time we are confronted with a shock in its “raw,” not yet psychical, form, our psychical means are not sufficient to overcome it. We are not able, for example, to cope with physical injury or a physical infection [directly] by psychical means. … It also seems that a shell shock is so hard to cure because in most cases it is accompanied by heavy, bodily shocks that probably cause very fine disturbances of a nonpsychical nature in the nervous system. (Carl Jung, Children’s Dreams, pp. 21-22)
That’s a lot of material to digest! But the summary of Jung’s work here is pretty simple to summarize and is (thankfully) being integrated into work today with PTSD patients and the recurring dreams and nightmares that they suffer. The summary is that typical dreams are never just repetitions of daily events (they always include telling, important differences), but total repetition can occur if the dreams are the result of a traumatic event. These dreams seem to overpower or overwhelm the symbol making function of psyche and likely also come with a physical residue of trauma that must also gradually be worked through (the field of Somatic Experiencing is doing very interesting work in this area).
If you are suffering from recurring dreams or traumatic nightmares, there are methods of treatment that are very effective and that can provide relief and renewed health. It is critical, however, that you seek treatment. The loss of sleep and anxiety that can result from traumatic recurring dreams, along with all of the other pain being experienced, can be detrimental — not only to you, but your loved ones. Seek out a mental health professional who has experience with tending to recurring dreams and traumatic dreams.