If you ever are brave enough to tell people you work with dreams, you will soon be asked how to handle nightmares. This is a tricky spot to be in as nightmares can sometimes be a signal that other things are wrong with the body or mind and require a physician or therapists. On the other hand, nightmares are really fairly common and seeing a professional is not always the best course. I wrote this article for the Alternative Medicine forum on America Online for those wishing to know more about this area, how to determine the best course and the latest procedures and techniques used by dreamworkers.
Dream: “At first I was going to run like I have done before in other dreams with this thing. The dark creature scared me and threatened to harm me, it even seemed to know where I would hide. But this time I stood up to the thing and demanded that it back off. To my surprise, the creature stopped and sat up like a puppy, as if it were begging for a bone. I was flooded with tears as I thought how lonely this creature must be.” BK
Although this is a modern dream, it could well have been the dream of a Senoi child, a semi-mythical tribe said to have shared dreams each morning. The Senoi taught their children to confront nightmare monsters and even to extract a gift from them in reparation. These techniques of nightmare confrontation are now being employed and expanded by researchers to help nightmare suffers around the world. Many of the processes can be used safely by adults or parents with their children.
There are many scary events in life and in sleep that we refer to as “nightmares” and it is important to distinguish between them. The most common frightening events during sleep are nightmares, night terrors and sleep paralysis. (ASD Nightmare faq quote)
Nightmares, Night Terrors or Sleep Paralysis?
Unpleasant dreams are not uncommon and may at times wake us up and be called Nightmares. Nightmares are extreme reactions of negative feelings, often with great amounts of fear, that occur during dreams and are recalled upon awakening. Though more common in children, they can happen to anyone. Children are often chased by animals and fantasy figures. Adults are often chased by male adults. Generally they occur in the last part of the night or sleep cycle. Contributing factors in the cause of nightmares include illness, stress, troubled relationships and traumatic event. Ernest Hartmann, a leading researcher in America on Nightmares has noted that some personality types can be prone to nightmares. There seem to be natural or early learned personality styles that produce dream people and thought people. The thought people maintain thick boundaries between contexts, are very focused and can shut dreaming memory out altogether. Dream people have thin boundaries, are more sensitive, have a wider, softer focus and tend to recall dreams very easily, sometime frightening dreams.
Traumatic events can trigger a long lasting series of recurrent nightmares often diagnosed as part of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These nightmares are different in that they repeat the same scene over and over for years. They are usually found in veterans, but other traumas may also bring this about. These nightmare sufferers usually require professional assistance. However, most of our nightmares (and other unpleasant dreams) can be easily turned into positive experiences by new techniques in dreamwork.
Night terrors are different from nightmares. First, they usually occur during the first hour or two of sleep. It is not uncommon to hear the person screaming or thrashing around. It is often hard to wake the sleeper and they rarely remember anything. Children who have night terrors may also sleepwalk or urinate in bed. Night terrors are not well understood, and seem to come from a part of sleep that is rarely associated with dreams and dreaming. By puberty, children usually stop having night terrors. Adults having night terrors often are also leading very stressful lives. A consultation with a physician may be useful if the night terrors are frequent or especially disturbing, though often just talking about it or making small changes in sleep routine is enough. One long term researcher notes that “I have found that night terrors are often more disturbing and stressful for the parents than the child.”
Sleep paralysis is the experience of not being able to move. Often there is a feeling of great weight on the chest making it hard to breath. Fantasy and reality can mix, hallucinations may appear and loud buzzing noises, vibrations and feelings of being touched or electrified. Sometimes the person realizes they are dreaming and still can’t wake up. Researchers feel that sleep paralysis is really a partial awakening during REM or Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, when the body is naturally parked off line. Messages from the brain are stopped from entering the body and it is a natural condition that occurs about ever 90 minutes of sleep. Since anxiety about the situation occurs, adrenaline speeds up the body and people can even feel that they are leaving their body. The recommendation by researcher Stephen Laberge is simply to realize it is a dream that can’t harm you and to relax. Dreams that proceed from paralysis experiences are often quite intense and wonderful.
Facing the Fear
The famous dream researcher Calvin Hall notes that Americans say more than half of all reported dreams are unpleasant. Many researchers feel this is due to the attitudes we carry with us to bed. What if, before going to bed at night we brushed our attitude as well as our teeth?
This is just what both ancient and modern dreamworkers encourage. With the application of a few simple techniques, we can nurture a dream garden of delights and turn the worst monsters into friends and allies.
Some of the techniques are so simple that children can learn them. Ann Sayre Wiseman teaches children in grade school how to confront Nightmares. She has them first draw the monster or fear and then draw a solution. At first children often shoot or destroy the monster, but later develop more creative solutions like magic circles and cages, as well as complex problem solving strategies. Representing the dream by drawing allows the children time to dialogue with the fears, as well as empowering them to feel safe and experiment with options to running away. These powers are carried over into the night time dreams. One child who was plagued by a bear-like monster reported that he was able to yell at the monster “Stop, why are you chasing me?” The monster stopped chasing him and began crying that we was just looking for someone to play with.
Jill Gregory has used similar techniques with grade school children by getting them to stage the dream. She first has the children create a costume for the dream monster, and then they get to “show and tell”. Gregory would further ask the children to come up with a more satisfying solution to the dream. These stagings or dream dramas become a skill with carries over into the dream world. One doesn’t have to even explore the symbolic meaning of the dream for these techniques to work.
Adults may practice the same techniques. The daytime practice sessions are important, even when it seems silly. This is because our minds get into habits, just like our bodies. If we have a pattern of running away, this pattern has to be strongly connected with new options. Setting a mental or verbal intention to try these options is an important step, but may not be remembered in the panic of a nightmare as well as actual practice. Draw or sculpt or dramatize the creature and clear options and reactions to being assaulted.
If you don’t have the time to draw or dramatize your dream, you may wish to try dream-reentry. In dream reentry the dreamer becomes relaxed and begins to recall the dream, to imagine re-entering the dream. However, if there is some part of the dream that is unpleasant, the dreamer then imagines an alternative solution. Laberge and other experts suggest the solution involve something more creative than just wishing the problem away. Wishing the problem away is a sneaky form of the same fear reaction of running away.
The model of bringing more consciousness to dreams that started with the Senoi tribe and has been practiced by many modern researchers.
1. Do not flee from threatening dream characters. Confront them courageously. Set limits. Ask for their name as a parent would ask a child who was misbehaving what his or her name was.
2. Try to find a creative solution with the dream monster that satisfies you both. If impossible, try to get the monster to look at the problem as a mutual dispute. Refuse threats and insults, but recognize justified objections.
3. Never surrender to an attack by a dream figure. Take up a posture that shows you will defend yourself. Stare them in the eye. If a fight is unavoidable, try to overcome them but not kill them. Offer a reconciliation.
4. After reconciliation or stopping the dream figure, ask how they might be able to help you. Or ask for a gift if they recognize they have been wrong to torment you.
5. With children, it is very effective to teach them to call on a super-hero friend or parent to help them in the dream.
Often people will share a nightmare or bad dream with a friend or relative. If you are on the listening side, there are some simple skills you can use to listen to the dreamer. Jeremy Taylor and Gayle Delaney have been teaching these skills for years. They both see the nightmare as a gift which can be unwrapped alone or with the help of someone else.
Jeremy Taylor uses a variation of the “If this were my dream...” technique originally developed by the famous dreamworker Montague Ullman. With the “If this were my dream...” approach, the listener at first does just that, listens without interruption.
Then a few clarifying questions are asked, such as the color of a coat, or the contents a box or the feeling in the dream at the time. Any question that might call for an interpretation is avoided, such as “What do you think the blue coat meant?”
Finally, the listener takes the dream as his or her own. John Herbert has used this technique online and suggests that before every sentence the thought “In my dream...” is kept in mind. Thus as a listener I might say “In my dream, the blue coat reminds me of something to cover myself with, as if I were cold.” The dreamer may or may not see this meaning in their own dream. By taking the dream as one’s own, the dreamer needn’t worry so much about someone imposing meaning on the dream. Taylor feels that we should keep in mind that all dreams, even nightmares, come in the service of healing and health. Any interpretation that does not serve this view is simply wrong and inappropriate.
Gayle Delaney, one of the founding parents of the Association for the Study of Dreams, suggests abandoning interpretations altogether. Delaney has developed a dream interview system that allows a listener to ask questions about a person’s dreams without getting involved in suggesting meanings at all.
Like Taylor, she recommends that the first step is careful listening, showing empathy without interruption and allowing the dreamer to feel comfortable.
She then suggests diagraming the dream. This involves outlining the major actions, people, objects/animals/monsters and feelings. The dreamer is then invited to describe without interpreting each of these elements to the listener as if the listener were from Mars or another planet. This way, usual assumptions are bypassed and the dreamer can explain and explore the dream imagery more deeply.
The listener can summaries and repeat or condense these and feed them back to the dreamer so the dreamer feels sure the listener has accurately heard the dream.
The listener can then encourage the dreamer to make bridges to waking life. How are each of these elements like something in the dreamer’s life?
Usually this can be done by generalizing the function of the image. If its a refrigerator, its a place to keep things cool, and where in my life do I keep things cool? If its a car without breaks, where in my life are there things in motion that I can’t stop? Finally, the interviewer might ask if there are alternatives. If my life is like a car without breaks, how would I like it differently?
Lucid Dreaming and Nightmares
“I believe the best place to deal with unpleasant dreams is in their own context, in the dream world. We create our nightmares out of the raw material of our own fears. Fears are expectations--why would we fear something we thought would never happen?” Stephen Laberge
In part II we discussed techniques you can practice before going to sleep or after waking up. But note one item here, while dream monsters may frighten you emotionally, they are after all just dreams. If you realized it was a dream, while you were dreaming, then what could harm you?
In some ways, when we wake up, a similar reaction occurs. We realize it is a dream. But researchers have found that this is not the best or most satisfying approach:
"’Escaping’ from a nightmare by awakening only suppresses your conscious awareness of the anxiety-provoking imagery. You may feel a certain relief, but like the prisoner who digs through his prison wall and finds himself in the cell next door, you haven't really escaped.” Laberge & Rheingold
Finding a creative resolution is even easier when we realize that it is a dream and we continue dreaming. This is what is called “lucid dreaming”.
Lucid dreaming occurs spontaneously in many dreamers, but it is also a technique that can be learned. Though not as easy as the previous techniques, it is often more fulfilling and worth the effort to many dreamers. Though lucid dreaming became an object of investigation in the 19th Century, its popular scientific status was not obtained until the late 1970's, when Stephen Laberge was able to demonstrate lucid dreaming in laboratory conditions. This rise into mainstream science allowed others to bring their research on lucidity and nightmares to the public.
Lucid dreaming researchers now have a variety of programs and techniques for learning to have lucid dreams and it has become one of the most popular topics on the Internet in the venues that discuss dreams. Lucid dreaming is now even taught to children.
Techniques for increasing the frequency of lucid dreams vary with the individual. There are many combinations of methods that work for many people. Here are some ideas based on *Lucid Dreamer's Quick Reference* by Lars Spivock:
* Throughout the day, ask yourself "Am I Dreaming?" and imagine something wonderful you could be doing in your dream - this is your dream goal. Use your watch or something you notice often as a reminder to ask. Limit excitement, food, drink, and exercise for several hours before bedtime. Drinking plain water, sex, and small amounts of caffeine may be beneficial.
* Arrange your dream space with inspirational items. Keep your journaling materials, writing or taping, bedding, and blinds in good working order. In the hour before sleep, have only relaxing thoughts and activities. Write the date and your goal dream in your journal. Just before sleep, with your eyes closed, review your goal dream and affirm to wake up after each dream.
* As you awaken from a dream, memorize it in detail before you open your eyes or change your body position. Record it in your journal. If you are not ready to fall back asleep, get up and do something for a while.
* As you fall back asleep, repeatedly imagine your last dream, recognizing that you are dreaming and guiding the outcome. Your continuation of the dream may involve boldly confronting an adversary. You can transform yourself into any object, animal or human role. You can transform someone or something else in the dream. You can apply elements from your goal dream.
* When you recognize you are dreaming, calmly enjoy the unfolding of the dream. Optionally perform a reality test by levitating and calmly begin guiding the outcome. When your lucidity begins to fade away, spin your dream body and affirm to start your goal dream when lucidity returns.
* Favor waking up to birdsongs instead of an alarm radio set to the news. Upon waking, keep your eyes closed and remain motionless for a few minutes while reviewing your dreams from the night before. Then make your journal entries, even if only fragments.
Have a relaxed attitude of acceptance towards the outcome. Sooner or later you will be rewarded with better dream recall and wonderful dreams.
Here are some ideas for goal dreams. You supply the important specific details to suit yourself:
entertainment - fly to the moon or travel through time
romance - have a romantic encounter
healing - heal yourself or someone else
problem solving - solve a work-related or social problem
creativity - create a work of art
spirituality - talk to god
enlightenment - learn about yourself of the unconscious
out of body - visit another place or someone elses's dream
self-indugence - gluttony or shopping binges
sleep - end nightmares or dreamining dreams
The techniques of becoming lucid require some attention and practice for most people. A whole array of technology has now sprung up to assist with this process. Most of them work on the same principle. A mask of some kind is worn during sleep. The mask will detect when the sleeper enters REM or Rapid Eye Movement Sleep and send a signal. This signal is usually light or light and sound that is adjusted to be strong enough to enter into the dream but not so strong as to wake the dreamer. As you can imagine, the adjustment period may take some time. Next the dreamer must practice learning to recognize the light and sounds as a signal and not just incorporate the noise as a dream traffic light or alarm clock. All these technologies are for assistance only, and need to be combined with other instructional programs.
PRESCRIPTIONS FOR NIGHTMARES
Once you are lucid in a threatening dream situation, there are a wide variety of paths to choice from. Laberge and Rheingold suggest the following:
1. Theme: Being pursued
Response: Stop running. Turn to face the pursuer. This is in itself may cause the pursuer to disappear or become harmless. If not, try starting a conciliatory dialog with the character or animal.
2. Theme: Being attacked
Response: Don't give in meekly to the attack or flee. Show your readiness to defend yourself and then try to engage the attacker in a conciliatory dialog. Alternatively, find acceptance and love in yourself and extend this towards the threatening figure (see Chapter 11).
3. Theme: Falling
Response: Relax and allow yourself to land. The "old wives' tale" is false--you will not really die if you hit the ground. Alternatively, you can transform falling into flying.
4. Theme: Paralysis
Response: When you feel trapped, stuck or paralyzed, relax. Don't allow anxiety to overcome your rationality. Tell yourself you are dreaming and the dream will soon end. Let yourself go along with any images that appear or things that happen to your body. None of it will hurt you. Adopt an attitude of interest and curiosity about what happens.
5. Theme: Being unprepared for an examination or speech
Response: First of all, you don't need to continue with this theme at all. You can leave the exam or lecture room. However, you might enhance your self-confidence in such situations by creatively answering the test questions or giving a spontaneous talk on whatever topic suits you. Be sure to enjoy yourself. When you wake up, you may want to ask yourself whether you should actually prepare for a similar situation.
6. Theme: Being naked in public
Response: Who cares in a dream? Have fun with the idea. Some find being naked in a lucid dream erotically exciting. If you wish, have everyone else in the dream remove their clothes. Remember, modesty is a public convention.
Summary on Nightmare Help
While lucid dreaming allows us to control our dreams, it is difficult for some to learn and may not deal with the underlying causes. Dream exploration, keeping a dream journal or sharing dreams with others are often enough and a good practice whether one is having nightmares or not. Learning confrontation techniques and lucid dream techniques will further help nightmare sufferers and empower ourselves and our children in waking life as well. If the nightmare persists or reoccurs, it may be time to discuss this with a physician, especially since some drugs, medication and illnesses can be a contributing cause of nightmares.
It is useful to encourage young children to discuss their nightmares with their parents or other adults, but they generally do not need treatment. Having the child draw the nightmare, talk with the frightening characters, fantasize changes in the nightmare or learn to call on dream protectors and dream parents will help the child feel safer and less frightened.
Ernest Hartmann has noted how the dream state is like therapy in two special ways, they both are a safe place to make connections. Dreams will play with everything we do and feel and it makes connections with a wide variety thoughts, feeling and memories. Some of these connections are bound be uncomfortable for us. But to the degree we can see and make our dreams the safe place that they are, is the degree to which these dream worlds will unfold their treasures and the dream monsters will reveal their gifts.
Bibliography and Citations
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