I was scared of my parents. They could retaliate when disturbed. It took something far more frightening than them to make me knock at their bedroom door in the middle of the night.
The first time, they allowed me to climb between them. I felt protected from what seemed to be an even greater nocturnal threat. When I knocked timidly at the door the second time, they growled, "Go back to sleep. It's just a dream." If what I was experiencing was "just a dream," then why did I still feel the horrible aftereffects?
For me, the Dream World was a place of terror and struggle. A place of overwhelming tidal waves and nuclear explosions. Where there were wolves and bears and huge spiders on the wall. Where I met aliens and monsters and unknown terrors from the deep. Where a dark force attacked and strangled me as I lay in bed. Where my parents made strange demands and friends and family metamorphosed into bizarre caricatures of themselves. Where the Men In Black pursued me down endless empty corridors, nightmare after repeating nightmare. Where I was a frightened passenger in a car which would slide sideways across the road and fall off a cliff into a bottomless abyss, again and again and again. I'd be shocked awake, trembling, with an upset stomach or fear coursing through my body. I'd jerk upward with my heart sounding a heavy bass note in my chest and immediately curl into a defensive position, arms around my face, side to the world. And later, with clenched fists.
I can recall sleeping with the overhead light on, in the exact middle of my bed, wearing my robe and slippers, a heavy flashlight hidden under the covers. And trying not to dream.
Titanic nightmares is what they're called, but I think that's a misnomer. As terrible as the Titanic tragedy was, it holds no candle to my experience. The Titanic sunk only once. My nightmares happened continually for almost 4 decades, although I got pretty good at repressing them. It's an ingrained habit that's with me still. Nowadays, to recall even a pleasant or mundane dream usually takes effort. But Titanic nightmares can be repressed for only so long. They're like a volcano. They build up pressure and, one night when my defenses are down, they explode. And I'm the helpless, hopeless victim of the fallout once more.
After I entered the dream field, and was no longer embarrassed by my inner life, I compared dreams with my brothers and sisters. I discovered that they'd had the same sorts of nightmares, albeit not as consistently as I had. That's not surprising. I was the oldest child and bore the brunt of parental wrath and emotional manipulation. The next two oldest, my brothers, and I recall being in tears virtually every day of our childhood. This is no repressed memory. Waking life never got repressed. It would have been dangerous to ignore what was happening there. The only reason the dream world seemed a greater threat was that it was an unknown. Who knew what monsters might show up? And when? Increasingly, I became better at anticipating parental outbursts, in the waking state. However, each nightmare was an unexpected shock, coming out of the black and blue, like it did.
I've been looking for answers to the whys and wherefores of all my nightmares for the past 20 years. And I've been sometimes desperately seeking relief from what provoked them. More importantly, for a cure. Not a coping measure, but something that actually heals permanently whatever has been stimulating them.
A Titanic nightmare is not something that could be cured by telling myself to "go back to sleep" and forget it. This is not something I can treat with the lite dreamwork found in most dream texts. Free association doesn't work very well because I didn't repress the memory of what happened. My complexes aren't hidden under mounds of emotional fertilizer. They're right out here in the open, painfully close to the surface.
I know, first hand, the terrible sad affects of tricking yourself into believing that life is rosy and you're wonderful and have no problems. My parents are prime masters of that sort of self-deception. That's part of the reason for the extraordinary tension: they wouldn't admit what was occurring, even to themselves. You ask them today and they'll say our childhood was happy with a few healthy squabbles, normal for a family. They've been able to repress the reality of the past. They were able to repress it while it was happening! So yes, I know what Freudian complexes are like. Not because I have them. But because my parents do.
Having people in dream groups play "if this were my dream" is useless. They've never been in my position in their entire lives. I've heard some of those folks talk about their shadow dreams and read about their voyages to the underworld. What they call a "nightmare" is a walk in the park by comparison. They have no friggin' idea what hell is really like. The "underworld" idea barely makes a dent in the earth. The volcanic depths of a Titanic nightmare reach down to the core of the planet.
I don't mean this metaphorically. I'm not talking just about how anxiety affects your moods or makes you nervous, although, if chronic, these reactions can be tragic, too. I'm talking about how continued emotional battering can result in physical and physiological damage, deep in the human body.
It's been known for quite a while that stress can debilitate you with physical illnesses like cardiovascular disease. De-stressing exercises have come to be an integral part of a healthy personal regime. But the first time I read about the physiological affects of stress in a public magazine was in the February 24, 2003 issue of Newsweek. There it was, laid out in black and white, for everyone to see:
Continued stress can affect your BRAIN.
I'm going to quote from the Newsweek articles, followed by my own comments:
- "(When a human being) perceives a threat, it can trigger a body-wide emergency response within milliseconds. (Hormones produced by stress) direct the body's resources to fighting or fleeing. The heart pounds, the lungs pump and the muscles get an energizing blast of glucose."
This same sort of reaction occurred when I had Titanic nightmares. I'd awake to a pounding heart, heavy breathing...and a body drenched in sweat. The flight-or-fight response also galvanized my muscles to cry out or jerk awake, upon which I'd automatically assume a defensive posture in bed.
- "The stress hormones also act on the brain creating a state of heightened alertness..."
Physiological arousal accompanies the growing emotional terror. Which is why those nightmares woke me up.
- "...and supercharging the circuitry involved in memory formation."
The dream memory was so strong, it was etched onto my consciousness. It became a rut for nightmares to travel, repeatedly, for 38 years.
- "...a strong correlation is made between the significance of an event and the remembrance of it."
I think Titanic nightmares are significant, in fact any continuous negative affects like angst are significant, because they are red warning lights signaling that something is very, very wrong, you're stuck in a rut and that you have to do something about it, pronto. However, my struggle to resolve the situation in-dream met with failure. In many cases, there was no opportunity for struggle. I didn't even get to experience flight-or-flight while I slept. I was trapped in the freeze mode.
- "Prolonged stress has physiological consequences."
My brothers and I always had to have our guards up at home. We never knew when my father's temper would erupt. That, plus emotional manipulation by both parents, resulted in tears every day, whether or not there was actual physical violence. Someone in tears is under so much stress, it overflows.
- "...when a susceptible child experiences too much fear, the consequences can extend beyond general anxiety to include phobias and post traumatic stress disorder - conditions in which the amygdala hijacks the rest of the brain every time it encounters some cue. Like a rat in a conditioning experiment, the sufferer reacts as violently to a harmless stimulus as she would to a life-threatening emergency."
I can't begin to tell you how vulnerable I was to the world, long after I left home. The littlest thing would set me crying or make me blush beet red. Some of my nightmares have most definitely been traced to these daytime incidents.
- "...prolonged stress also shrinks the hippocampus, a brain structure that plays critical roles in processing and storing information."
Hmm, is that why I had so many intrusive thoughts? I'm referring to negative thoughts that have nothing whatsoever to do with the current situation, but "drop in out of nowhere." I had lots of them, but they were especially troublesome when I was a teenager. I now consider them to be a waking state equivalent of repeating nightmares. Either it was some repressed memory that would rise like a cork to the top of consciousness when my guard was down...as it is in sleep and when I'm relaxed. (Another reason not to put my guard down...another reason for continued stress.) Or it was a mental hiccup caused by a glitch in the neural pathways due to the lack of appropriate chemicals.
- "...the pituitary and adrenal glands flood the bloodstream with epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol ...Norepinephrine is toxic to tissues ...in particular the heart ...Continuous exposure to cortisol can dampen the immune system, leaving stressed people more vulnerable to infections and possibly even cancer."
I'm not particularly at risk for heart disease, and few people in my family have had cancer. But the sort of environment my siblings and I endured does make us likely candidates for post-traumatic stress disorder. Although, for the life of me, I don't know how you can call it "post" traumatic if the trauma is still going on! There just doesn't seem to be an decent terminology to apply to the nightmares of children who are concurrently suffering in the waking world. Or to those of adults, either.
- "Stress hormones can harm the brain, too, severing connections among neurons...Genes and temperament make some kids (more) vulnerable than others."
Genes are definitely a factor. They have built me a weaker constitution than the average Joe. A sizable number of my blood relatives have been diagnosed with mental disorders, and more should be. I can be aware of and make allowances for this, but there's nothing I can do to change it. Unless we figure out a way to manipulate our genes while we're alive, the genetic contribution is going to continue to be a unyielding fact.
For an individual with genetic vulnerability, a mental disorder can be activated by certain life stress events. This is the stress-diathesis model: triggering occurs because of the interaction between experience (stress) and inborn predisposition (diathesis). The system that manages the body's response to stress is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Activate the HPA axis too much, and you lay the groundwork for a particular mental disorder - depression.
Biochemical depression stems from a deficiency of neurotransmitter molecules, called norepinephrine, in certain brain circuits. The molecules travel from one neuron, across a small gap, and are attached to receptor molecules on the surface of the second neuron. Anxiety causes neurons to discharge regularly and continually. The excessive transmission of norepinephrine demands excessive reception of norepinephrine when the molecules jump neurons. Over time, a cell's ability to continually accept molecules becomes exhausted. When repeatedly stressed, the HPA axis is pushed too far.
The chronic sufferer, whose neurons are functioning inadequately, is really stuck. He has no way to cure transmitter depletion, no way to recover from the strain. Ever. The best coping measure, so far, is prescription medication. But it must be taken every day.
There are some benefits to antidepressants. After patients are treated with them, hostility and anxiety decrease in dreams. Unfortunately, so does dream recall. Depressed dreamers tend to remember fewer dreams than the average. Depressed dreamers on antidepressants recall even less.
But suppose you have the opportunity to waylay nightmares induced by chronic stress before it damages your brain. How would you do that? Well, it's taken me twenty years to come to my conclusions, and I did it through trial and error. The school of hard knocks is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. In addition to trying to handle the depression, I had to concurrently battle its lesser brother: anxiety.
I've concluded that to de-stabilize knee-jerk reactions to fear, to update my unconscious with more mature automatic responses to the fight-or-flight instinct, requires action. The techniques that work are exactly what the Newsweek article mentioned: behavior therapy, cognitive therapy and preventative medicine.
- "...advances in science are showing (these techniques) can reduce the hormones associated with anxiety and even affect brain activity."
Some researchers contend that dreaming is, by nature, a psychological means of coping with significant events. However, Titanic nightmares fail in that capacity. In extreme depression, there is little "emotional work" in-dream and the ability to adapt to unsettling life events is thereby compromised. Even normative dreams of the depressed individual may only restate an issue or have the dream ego wandering aimlessly thither and yon.
Increased intentionality will tend to produce active involvement of the dream ego in controlling dream content. It converts the dream ego from a helpless, hopeless victim to an active, questing locus of control. Only a directed dream ego can adapt effectively and resolve troublesome issues in-dream.
When he is lucid and flying in his dreams, researcher J. Allan Hobson tells himself to flap his arms. By engaging in volition, he starts a motor program. His theory is that he is engaging his brain to call for chemical help and his brain stem responds by sending up some norepinephrine. It's just enough to place him on the edge between sleeping and waking. Lucidity is great - if you have the strength to go lucid. But if there's one thing that characterizes depression, it's fatigue. Most nights I don't have the energy to recall dreams, let alone lucid ones.
Instead, the answer is - teach the nonlucid dream ego to move! When my energy is up, I visualize new endings to old dreams, practice facing fear in my imagination and incubate flying dreams. The more familiar we are with a task while awake, the better its execution during sleep. By practicing them in physical reality, healthy attitudes and activities are made habitual. It's like learning the maneuvers to drive a car. First, you must be vigilant, and move all controls while you have the focused attention of your conscious mind. Eventually, you can relax and let your automatic nervous system take over.
The added bonus to behavior therapy is that dreams of succesful achievements stimulate feelings of success in waking life, which stimulate feelings of success in dreams, as part of a self-affirming cycle.
Counterproductive beliefs that have been programmed by culture - parental, educational and religious - require re-believing what you have been taught to be true about yourself and the universe. Silence the inner critics and thundering voices of false conscience. Disable those notions that say you must surrender and sacrifice, that claim you're a horrible sinner or humongous egotist and that command you to save the world. You have the right to stand up and say no to the authorities that have been embedded in your mind. Have they ever walked in your shoes? I think not. Tell them to take a hike.
If the consequences weren't so tragic, I'd have to laugh regarding the psychoanalytic theory that all you have to do is acknowledge a problem, talk about it and it'll go away. The dreamwork techniques that "make space" for distress, emotions, thoughts or internal experiences to express themselves are not for you. Leave talk therapy to those who are experiencing minimal stress infrequently. You've already got enough chronic distress to deal with, thank you very much.
I wish every psychologist had to take course in human anatomy and biochemistry. And keep up to date with medical breakthroughs, too. It would save their clients so much time, money, pain and suffering to be able to say, this is not psychological. Or, I can't help you (I've actually had one psychologist say that to me. But only one.) However, it takes vivid awareness and the guts to admit one's profession might be using concepts and techniques that are incomplete, out of date or just plain ineffective. Why are we still listening to Jung and Freud? These old men created dream theories and practices based on what we knew about human nature last century! It's past time to update our knowledge. Not just for ourselves. The next generation depends on it.
Intense dream problems require intense solutions. Titanic dream wrestling is not for wimps or those people who refuse to move out of their comfort zones. Chronic sufferers need something with real muscles. Mental affirmations alone won't do.
In my own case, I confronted fear in lucid dreams (standing up to dream characters) and in the waking state (taking flying lessons in a Piper Tomahawk). I divorced my parents (if it were possible, I'd have done it legally; instead, I had to do it symbolically). I left the religion of my youth. Because my ideas about the universe changed, my behavior changed. Because I practiced the changed behavior to make it habitual, instances of paranoia and false guilt went down dramatically. I woke up one morning and the "yuckiness" that had been with me all my life was suddenly gone. I didn't even know I had it, until it went away.
When I started to take medication, yet another layer of fog lifted. For me, it's not a case of paying attention to either physiology or psychology. It's both.
- "The best remedy may be to turn off the TV set, venture into the world and come home alive to remember it."
Emotions are body and brain based! You need to energize your body to shift away from the disaster channel that's running in your head. After the Loma Prieta earthquake, I went on the bridge walk with hundreds of other people. While traffic was at a standstill, I walked to the location where the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge had separated in two and looked directly down into the water between the collapsed chunks of highway. Fears have to be faced. There's no other way.
But this is just a first step in a long journey towards health. There's also - accurate diagnosis, effective treatment, preventative measures against recurrence, discovery of what went missing while you had to spend time battling the problem and enhancement beyond the survival level of dreaming. Start today. Get out of bed and go live life.
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