Nigtmares are the most unpleasant and often very persistent symptom of post-traumatic stress. Many people suffer from them to such degree where they fear going to sleep and cannot get a good night rest. While nightmares are a real pain, they are not only a nuisance. In my practice of working with trauma survivors long-term, I noticed that, with a mindful and curious approach, nightmares can be used as a tool, helping to guide and inform the recovery process.
The first instinct of someone suffering from nightmares is to wish them to stop, make them go away. Clients want to get rid of them before any attempt of exploration or analysis. No wonder, so many psychological therapies aim at improved sleep as the first treatment goal and advise clients to focus on improving sleep hygiene or assisting themselves with medication or relaxation strategies in order to achieve nightmares reduction. However, those practices are seldom effective as nightmares resulting from trauma are persistent and repetitive. Partially because they represent some form of real life memories that get replayed in our minds while we try to rest. Partially, because aiming at reduced nightmares by improving sleep hygiene alone is like applying a band aid on a deep wound.
Psychoanalytic psychotherapy always sees dreams as a door to unconscious mind and exploring any kind of dreams always provides valuable material for therapy sessions. In this regard nightmares can also be integrated into your healing process and serve you.
Think of it this way. If you cannot simply ignore or lock away something from your mind, and it keeps bothering you at night, there is something that can be addressed and looked into in a greater detail. If you are prepared to give it a go, this post is for you. Here I collected a few tips suggesting how you can turn your worst symptom of post-traumatic stress into something valuable and helpful.
Expect The Worst
Particularly if you are undergoing a lot of stress in your current life, have been recently triggered by an unpleasant event, or your traumatic past has been “stirred up” in some way, your nightmares will intensify and increase in occurrence. Often people reach out to me for trauma treatment and desperately want to get immediate help. Unsurprisingly, the most sought after symptoms relief is relief from nightmares. I always tell my clients that unfortunately an immediate relief from nightmares is not possible, and I also advise that, as we work through the trauma, and as we recall the memories, in the beginning of therapy, the nightmares will intensify. Knowing this however can sort of prepare you in a way. Reassure yourself that you have already made the first step towards recovery: you began your trauma counselling. As with the nightmares, the best you can do is to expect the worst and brace yourself for the journey.
Use Nightmares As A Source Of Information
Often people who suffer form nightmares are fearful of going to sleep. They try to delay bedtime and dread falling asleep. Rather than dreading it, remind yourself that what you are about to see in your dreams is not going to harm you but can inform you in some way. Treat it like watching a movie and trying to remember what you see, to provide you with information for later. Make your bedroom a safe and comfortable place. Employ a night lamp, a note pad or have a phone nearby, whichever makes you feel safer and ready to record the information if necessary. Be a detective and investigate closely the images that arise in your nightmares. If you change your attitude to a curious one rather than fearful, you are more likely to feel empowered and less afraid.
Recall Nightmares And Analyze Them
Nightmares induced by post-traumatic stress are often repetitive in nature. Focusing on a story as it unfolds (and sometimes not clear enough to remember) is often tiring and confusing. However rather than concentrating on details of your dream, try finding “themes” that go through them as an undercurrent. For example, if your continue to be attacked or chased in your nightmares, focus on the theme of persecution rather than trying to figure out who and when and what is attacking you. Once found a theme, explore the feelings that it arises. For example, does being attacked makes you feel fearful, or weak, or alone, or hopeless? Try to identify whether you felt the same in your past or something in the present is triggering the exact same feeling in you. Bring these thoughts to discuss in your therapy or, if you are exploring it on your own, acknowledge and validate your feelings for yourself. Often, being heard, is all your unconscious mind wants, and once you can “hear and understand yourself” the pressure from the unconscious mind is relieved, resulting in overall nightmares reduction.
Look For Changes
As you work through your trauma, look closely for any “new developments” in your dreams. They will most likely change and noting these changes can inform your recovery. If you saw yourself being chased and attacked in your nightmares, perhaps in the beginning you felt alone and fearful. Perhaps as you progress with your recovery, you may notice that you feel like someone else appears in your dream, someone who can help? Perhaps one night you notice that the narrative or the ending of the dream has changed. Perhaps, when being chased by someone in your nightmare, instead of running away, you start turning around and defending yourself? Examine the changes and the feelings it brings. Perhaps you notice that there is more hope and more power in you. A good indicator that you are doing well on your recovery journey will inevitably reflect in changes in your dreams. Make sure you note them, as those are the signs of progress in your unconscious mind and in your self in relation to the trauma.
All Your Dreams Are Worth Paying Attention To
As I work with many people affected by abuse and neglect in childhoods, I notice a recurrence of themes in many of their dreams, even if a client does not classify those as nightmares. For someone with a history of neglect in childhood, for example, a recurrent dream would be related to feelings of being forgotten, unwanted and unwelcome. I reckon those represent the exact same feelings that these people experienced as growing up. These feelings tend to replicate in the present, as same people as adults feel forgotten and unwelcome in their present lives. They may also see the world as unwelcoming and rejecting. For example, they may feel that their colleagues have lots of fun without them, people in general don’t value or miss them, etc. This causes the person to withdraw into isolation and the cycle becomes self-fulfilling. I would invite people to closely “watch out” for the themes of exclusion and isolation in their dreams. Once someone told me they had a dream about a party, where they felt as an uninvited intruder. The dream raised familiar feelings in the person, the feelings of being unwelcome and unworthy. Interestingly enough, after several months as we worked through the trauma, we noticed that same dream began to change into a much more positive narrative. The person began to dream about being invited to celebrations, resulting in growing feelings of belonging and self-worth. Thus changes in the dream were the most telling sign of recovery from trauma.
I invite you to observe all your dreams, nightmares or not, with curiosity and precision! They carry important information about the state of your wellbeing and can help you attend to your mental health.