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How to Stop Nightmares
There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming. - Soren Kierkegaard
Murder, monsters, beasts, rapists, predators, clawing fear, mutilation, decapitation—nightmares sink their teeth into our night world, plunging us into a black sea of fear and terror. What could be the purpose or intent of such heart-pounding dream dramas?
The majority of nightmares intend to shock us in order to get our attention—shock therapy from what I like to think of as the “Authentic Self,” our essential nature, the real you. For instance, I once had a dream of a tiger stalking me, intent on killing and eating me, which totally terrified me in the dream. For me, that dream represented to a wild cat, something instinctive, natural, powerful, and completely authentic that wanted to get me. A nightmare in this category intentionally drags us into its dark den in order to wake us up. Such dreams create valuable terror, shock and panic the Authentic Self often uses as a last resort, trying to save our genuine life, to liberate us from self-destructive patterns or behaviors.
When we are hypercritical and judgmental of ourselves, we are likely to have recurring nightmares of running for our life, being chased by someone or something, typically wielding a weapon or knife. That tongue-like, razor-sharp knife blade or the bullet in the brain often symbolizes the many ways we kill ourselves and our creative potential with negative self-criticisms.
Here’s another example: A stockbroker in his mid forties told me about a very disturbing recurring nightmare. In each dream he would see his own face, but he was always shocked at how old he was, “ninety-something, barely able to move,” he described. He would wake up in a panic, afraid he had some terrible aging disease. I asked him to imagine being that old man in his dream and to tell me what his life (as the old man) was like. “My life is over. There’s nothing left for me to do,” he explained. I then asked him to think about his waking life right now and tell me what comes up when he thinks of that statement by that old man. “My God—I’m always getting all these creative ideas but I constantly tell myself that I’m too old to start something new,” he replied. His “nightmare” intended to wake him up, to stop him from living his life as though he were almost dead, as if he were too old and too feeble to do anything anymore. This dream dramatically changed his life and began the process of freeing the transformative power of his creative spirit. Of course, that nightmare stopped recurring, as is often the case when we finally “get” a recurring dream’s message.
Although not as common, another category of nightmares are the direct result from serious trauma in our waking life. These dreams are usually quite literal and detailed, replicating an actual event we have experienced in our waking life. For example, I recently met a young woman who was in an apartment building two blocks away from the World Trade Center buildings when terrorists attacked on September 11th. She watched in horror from her apartment window as the buildings collapsed. She saw people jumping from windows, others hurled out from the explosions and fire. She began having recurring nightmares of being trapped in the wreckage of one of the planes that had smashed into the towers.
Her dream was showing her that she was caught in the “trauma,” the emotional “wreckage” of the event. Her “normal” life had crashed; the event had indeed wrecked her emotionally. She was an “emotional wreck.” It is therapeutic to interpret all nightmares regardless of their origin. In many cases, just understanding the nightmare takes the sting out of it; it loses some of its intensity. In many cases, our dreams are showing us that we are not fully appreciating the depth of how much something has hurt us.
In any circumstances of severe trauma: accidents, witnessing death and war, earthquakes, natural disasters, it is still appropriate and helpful to interpret these dreams and, if recurring, to intervene. One method that has proven to be effective is what one researcher calls “Imagery Rehearsal Therapy.” Dr. Barry Krakow, medical director of the Sleep and Human Health Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has developed a technique to change the images in nightmares. “Our dreams,” he explains, “start out as replays of traumas after a traumatic event.” But, according to Krakow, when nightmares continue over a long period of time, they become destructive. “The nightmares somehow take on a life of their own. They become a broken record, a habit, a learned behavior,” says Krakow. Over time the nightmares actually retraumatize individuals.
Krakow’s method involves rewriting the nightmare and replacing disturbing images with comforting images. The re-scripted dream is then rehearsed over and over throughout the day and before sleep. Research indicates that about 90 percent of the time Imagery Rehearsal will either end the nightmare or modify it dramatically.
Burr Eichelman has developed a similar method of treating trauma-induced nightmares that he calls “dream substitution.” He gives this example:
Mr. B dreamt of being shot by a Viet Cong sniper. He would hear the shot and see the bullet coming to kill him, awakening just before the bullet was going to strike his head. He had dreamt this nearly nightly for 12 years. In the alteration of the dream, it was allowed to proceed in hypnotic trance until the bullet became visible about 50 yards away. At this point the bullet was transformed into a whipped cream pie, much in the manner of the old-time silent movies. The pie was then slowed and returned to the Viet Cong sniper. It struck the sniper in the face, so startling him that he fell from the tree. The event was so improbable that the Viet Cong and Mr. B broke into outrageous laughter and walked off together in disbelief. . . . Mr. B rehearsed the substituted dream at home with self-hypnosis. The revised dream was dreamt at night several times, replacing the traumatic dream. After this replacement, the traumatic dream disappeared.*
Dreamwork over many years has convinced me of the validity of one of Gestalt’s underlying assumptions: “You never overcome anything by resisting it. You only can overcome anything by going deeper into it. If you are pursued by an ogre in a dream, and you become the ogre [when you work with the dream], the nightmare disappears. You re-own the energy that is invested in the demon.” ** You also go “into it” by exploring the dream and trying to understand its meaning. Again, a correct interpretation will often stop or mitigate a recurring nightmare.
The next nightmare you have might well contain “valuable terror,” the psyche’s way of inspiring our quest for an authentic life by creating tension in-between who we think we are and who we ought to become, between a soul-deadening status quo and our unlived potential. We can always choose to turn around and face the rising sun of our essential spirit—a spirit that wants to sing its song, write its story on the landscape of our life. For we are indeed, as Shakespeare observed, “. . . such stuff as dreams are made on…”
* Burr Eichelman, “Hypnotic Change in Combat Dreams of Two Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” American Journal of Psychiatry 142:113).
** Frederick S. Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Highland, New York: Gestalt Journal, 1992),
pp. 241 and 190.
John Goldhammer, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, dream researcher, and author of three books. This article is adapted from his most recent book, Radical Dreaming: Use Your Dreams to Change Your Life (Kensington Publishing/Citadel Press). He lives in Seattle, Washington. Website: http://radicaldreaming.com/
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