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.
Q: I am an apprentice bear following around an old grouchy bear who doesn’t want to be followed around. I am supposed to make Old Bear a meal of grass, so we go to a bear market. Nobody is very friendly, least of all Old Bear, and I have trouble picking up the grass from the vegetable coolers with my paws. We sit at a table in the back of the market because Old Bear knows everybody there and he lets me eat some of his grass and I get him to tell me some of his life story. I feel like I am finally making progress in my bear apprenticeship. Then we go sit outside on the grass, everything is so colorful. Both of us feel sleepy and accomplished and I fall asleep. Then there is a gun in my face! Two hunters are pointing guns at us. Old Bear tells me not to move, even though I wouldn’t have anyway. They tie his paws and then mine and they hoist us over their shoulders. Then I start flipping back and forth between being Young Bear and being myself at about age twelve (I’m now 20). I’m running after the hunters. Then I am 12 years old, barefoot, stopping suddenly: both of the hunters with their bears have disappeared. I stumble forward and realize we were at the edge of a ravine. There is no way either of the hunters had made it, carrying bears, but I can’t see any of them below. I stand up and it is very quiet, except for the sound of the water two hundred feet down. I feel very calm.
A: What an incredible dream – and beautifully composed (I sadly had to edit down the richness of the original dream to make it suit our purposes here). I have a hunch this is a big “what-is-the-path-of-my-life” dream, so I’m going to do my best to give you a few toe holds here for your continued work. You’ll want to keep doing some exploration and amplification (research into the mythological and historical root of dream symbols). To get you off and running, this is some of what I notice in the dream…
I notice first that you are 20 and that you (in astute observation of the dream) are also 12 years old at various times in the dream. You are 12 when you find yourself staring down a ravine. A ravine is, concisely defined, “a deep, narrow gorge with steep sides.” It’s a scary place to be standing at the edge of, but you see that down there is water… the spring of life? A place for cleansing? A place one might hope to get to, after some effort and sweat and tears of the journey down…? What were your hopes for the future when you were 12? Where did you hope to get to after your dedication and effort? And what may have happened recently for that dream-for-the-future to be reignited?
Before you found yourself at this ravine in this dream, you were still 20 and were startled awake by serious danger. If we were working together therapeutically, I would want to explore at length with you what your major shocks have been recently, as well as traumas or shocks that occurred in childhood at this time. The sudden appearance of a gun in your face when you were blissfully asleep, resulting in the flip-flopping of age, suggests to me a major shock in childhood, something that took you by surprise and shattered your notion of what life was at the time. An existential tragedy and forced awakening? Alternately, this same image could be reflecting something that has happened recently that’s bringing your psyche back to those pastures of childhood, long tucked away and forgotten. Take some time to explore what this might be pointing to.
I’d be curious too about your mother and your relationship with her around that time and now. I mention your mother because the Bear symbol can represent Mother archetypally (the personal mother or the divine mother), but also because you commented on the mother-child relationship of bears in your response to my request for your associations. I must admit that I’ve been imagining a grizzly bear, although I realize I don’t know what kind of bear was in your dream… and this is a critical detail for understanding the meaning more. The specificity of different animals are important indicators of the specificity of instinct and behavior being mirrored in the psyche. Each animal reflects different parts of our instincts or body of our beings. In general, bears are not terribly social animals. In fact, after childhood and childrearing, they mostly live alone. Their true behavior is counter to their gathering together in your dream, so I’m curious about this incongruence. I wonder if you’re still seeking something from childhood that is incongruent to the stage of life you’re now in, and/or if you might be a more solitary person by nature than you have been allowing in your life.
In general, we are circling around issues of intimacy and relationship and how that all works for you as you come into yourself as an adult. (It’s notable too that the number 2 comes up so regularly in your dream. I wish we had more space here for all the neglected symbols!) I’m curious in the same vein about your current work environment and your history with mentors. My sense from the dream is that you are eager for a mentor and eager for someone to show you the way into life. You are seeking your way in the world and would love a wise mentor from whom to learn. Your eagerness seems not to be fulfilled, however. Have you made yourself content with scraps of mentorship, convinced they’re teaching you what you need to know? The image of Grouchy Old Bear might suggest a Mr. Miyagi character, a true master who is grouchy and avoidant until the student proves her unflappable dedication to his art. Is this the case? Or are you trying to remain optimistic when all around you is a reality of underwhelming mentorship? This will be up to you to feel out further. You may long for a Mr. Miyagi figure, as I think most youths do in order to find orientation and inspiration as they come of age. Have you found this person? Or should you seek him inside instead?
Ultimately, what we seek externally is for us to develop internally. Old Bear in this dream, and any guide figure, also reflects your own inner truth and wisdom center that leads you into the world. This dream may be reflecting your deep relationship with your own internal guide, your guide to “the source”, the creative, inspiring source of life reflected by the water in the ravine to which you finally arrive. Take some time to journal on how you know and trust that inner voice inside.
Finally, I wonder too about how your fears about money and financial stability are affecting you. Your dream tells you plainly that you are in a “bear market,” a quite literal note on an economic downturn that may be plaguing your sense of courage to launch into the world. It’s also worth noting that nobody is very friendly there! Bear Markets are not places we want to be when we’re trying to apprentice and find the right path.
You have chosen to learn about the art of being a Bear, my dear. Bears are deeply wise, maternal, and independent creatures. This is a soulful and rich animal that you seek to become. Take this as fact. You may not have found the right mentors or clarity of direction yet, you may not know how to trust the inner guide or which fears to fear and which to launch above. But my sense is that with enough effort and trust in yourself, you will find yourself on your own path, deep down that ravine near the source. After all, it is not until you are all alone in the dream that there is a sense of deep calm. No need to prove yourself to anyone but yourself. No need to face the expectations and demands of anyone, just the personal, incredible journey ahead.
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