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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

How to Conquer Your Nightmares

In my prior article, Common Nightmares During the COVID-19 Global Pandemic, I began a discussion about common nightmares that many people are having during the current pandemic and gave examples of two dreams.  In this article, I'll discuss how you can conquer your nightmares, whether they're pandemic-related or not.  To show you how to do this, I'll be taking one of the dreams from the prior article, deconstructing it and then showing how you can work with it on your own (see my article: How to Overcome Anxiety Dreams).

How to Conquer Your Nightmares

Deconstructing and Working With a Nightmare
I'm choosing Dream 2 (see below) from the prior article as an example of how you can deconstruct and work with a nightmare on your own. So, here's Dream 2:

     Dream 2  - From My Prior Blog Article
I'm a child of 7 or 8 years old. My mother tells me that we have to escape from where we're living to move back to the US.  Only a few close relatives know because it's a secret.  My mother doesn't want her husband, my stepfather, to know that we're running away because he's abusive and we're escaping from him.  I grab whatever I can quickly because we have to get to the airport fast, and I kiss my relatives goodbye.  I don't have time to say goodbye to a male friend, who has been good to me (I'm older in this part of the dream).  So, I try to text him to tell him that I had to leave due to an emergency, but my phone won't work. I know he's going to be hurt that I left suddenly without an explanation, and I feel terrible about this. Then, my mother, brother and I run to the airport to get on a rescue flight that's been arranged for us by the US government to bring us back to the states. Somehow, I get separated from my mother and brother (I'm a young child again in this part of the dream). I don't know which way to go. I'm scared and I call out to my mother, but I don't see her anywhere. Nothing looks or feels familiar, even though I know I've been to this area many times before. I see other people who are also running and I ask them the way to the airport because I'm lost.  They point the way and I run all the way to the airport. Once I get there, I realize I don't have a plane ticket. I call out to my mother again saying that I don't have a plane ticket.  Even though she's still nowhere to be found, a reassuring male voice tells me over the airport public address system that I don't need a plane ticket because this is a special government rescue flight for my family to escape. When I get to security, I realize that I'm not wearing a face mask so I'm not going to be allowed on the flight. I see everyone else around me wearing a face mask, and I look around to see if there's somewhere I can buy as mask (I'm older again in this part of the dream). Then, I realize that I do have a mask, but I've been wearing it on my chin, so I pull it over to cover my nose and mouth.  When I arrive at the gate, I still don't see my mother or brother, but I feel a little calmer because I know I'm going to make the flight and I'll escape from this place.  Somehow, I see the long document that my mother had to fill out to get approval from the government for this rescue flight. I feel badly that I didn't know before about the abuse that my mother endured at the hands of my stepfather.  While I'm waiting for the flight at the gate, I try to text my male friend again. I desperately want to reach him so he won't feel abandoned by me, but my phone still doesn't work. I feel sad that he's going to feel sad and abandoned.

It's pretty clear what makes this dream a nightmare:
  • The dreamer, as a child of 7 or 8, has been told that she and her family must escape from a place in a hurry.
  • She has to leave immediately without saying goodbye to her male friend, which she feels badly about.
  • She loses her mother and brother as they're running to the airport.
  • She fears she won't be let on the plane because she doesn't have a plane ticket.
  • She fears she won't get past security because she thinks she doesn't have a face mask.
  • She reads the long document about her stepfather's abusive behavior towards her mother that her mother had to fill out to get permission to take a special flight, and she feels sad she didn't know about the abuse before.
  • She worries that her male friend will feel abandoned by her because she can't tell him that she must leave in a hurry.
At the same time, it's important to notice that there are points along the way where she actually gets help (see the italicized sentences in Dream 2 above), including:
  • People who give her directions when she gets lost while trying to get to the airport.
  • The reassuring voice that comes over the airport public address system reassuring her that she doesn't need a plane ticket because this is a special flight that has been arranged for her and her family to get away.
  • She thinks, at first, that she doesn't have a face mask and then discovers that, in fact she does have one.
  • She finally gets to the gate where her flight will be taking off, so she knows, at that point, that she will get away, presumably, she will be reunited with her mother and brother, and so they will all be safe.
     Learning to Do Lucid Dreaming
In a prior article, Transforming Nightmares Through Creative Dreamwork, I discussed lucid dreaming.  Learning how to become lucid (or conscious) during a dream takes practice.  Some people are fascinated by lucid dreaming and they will take the time and make the effort to develop the skill.

Essentially, what you are doing when you have a lucid dream is you're realizing that you're having a dream while you're dreaming.  You remain in the dream and transform the dream to whatever you want it to be (this is explained in more detail in my article above, Transforming Nightmares Through Creative Dreamwork).

The obvious advantage of learning to do lucid dreaming is that you change the dream while you're in the dream as opposed to when you wake up.  The disadvantage (if you see it as a disadvantage) is that, while some people can learn to have lucid dreams with little effort, most people have to make more of an effort to train themselves to have lucid dreams.  So, if you're interested in learning to have lucid dreams, I recommend that you click on the link above for my article on transforming nightmares.  The article includes a recommendation for a book on lucid dreaming.

    Rewriting the Narrative of Your Nightmare and Embodying the Changes
For people who aren't interested in developing the skill to do lucid dreaming and who prefer a simpler and faster way for dealing with nightmares, I suggest rewriting the narrative of your nightmare after you have written down the original dream the way that it occurred:
  • Keep a pen and pad by your bedside so you're ready to write down your dreams as soon as you wake up.
  • Before you go to sleep, spend a few minutes giving yourself the suggestion that you will remember your dreams.
  • When you wake up and you sense that you have had a dream, remain still for a few minutes.  This means that you don't shift around from the position that you're in when you wake up (e.g., if you're lying on your right side when you wake up, don't turn--just stay still).
  • Wait a few minutes until the dream comes back to you. You might find that you remember the dream in sections in reverse order.  In other words, you might remember the last part of the dream (the part that occurred closest to waking up) first, and then you might remember the part before that and the part before that, and so on. Also, since we all have at least 4-5 dreams per night depending upon how long you sleep (whether you remember them or not), you will probably remember your dreams in reverse order too.
  • Write down whatever you remember from the dream--even if it's just a snippet or an image.  You can still work with a small part of the dream.  Also, it gives your unconscious mind the suggestion that you're interested in your dreams and make it more likely for you to gradually remember more each time you wake up from your dreams.  Over time, if you keep writing down your dreams, you will remember more details.
  • After you have written down your dream, rewrite the dream so that it's no longer a nightmare.
So, for example, if you were the dreamer who had Dream 2 (above), you could rewrite the dream however you want to, including:
  • Making it easier for the dreamer, the mother and brother to get to the airport together by having a relative drive them there, so they don't have to run to the airport and the dreamer doesn't get separated from the mother and brother.
  • A relative or friend could offer the dreamer his or her phone so that the dreamer can contact her male friend rather than the dreamer trying to rely solely on her malfunctioning phone. This will relieve the anxiety that the dreamer has about hurting her male friend's feelings and causing him to feel that he's been abandoned by her.
  • Since the dreamer would be with her mother and brother (rather than losing them, as she did in the dream), the mother can reassure both children that they can get on the plane without a plane ticket so that the dreamer doesn't have to go through worrying she doesn't have a plane ticket.
  • The mother can reassure the dreamer that they all have the required face masks to get on the flight.
  • The dreamer, mother and brother can all be at the gate together ready to get on the plan.
There are many different ways to rewrite Dream 2.  As an alternative, the dreamer can rewrite the dream so that it's not necessary to escape at all, in the following way:
  • The mother tells a relative, who is recognized to be a powerful figure in the family, about the stepfather's abusive behavior and this relative confronts the stepfather and tells him that he must stay away from the mother, dreamer and brother.  The stepfather is fearful of this relative so he never bothers the family again.
  • The mother reports the abusive stepfather to the police.  They arrest him and he is no longer a threat.
  • And so on.
The second part of reworking the dream is to rehearse and embody the rewritten dream (see my article about The Mind-Body Connection and New Symbolic Memories and The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

In other words, after you have rewritten the original dream so that it's no longer a nightmare, you spend a little time rehearsing the rewritten dream and noticing the emotions that come up for you and where you feel these emotions in your body.

Feeling the emotions and noticing where you feel these emotions in your body will help you to have a stronger sense of the rewritten dream because you're not just writing and reading what you have written, you're also taking the time, in effect, to rewire this revision of the dream using the mind-body connection.

So, for instance, if you choose to have a relative, who is a powerful person in the family, confront the abusive stepfather, after you have written this and read it, you would take a few minutes to notice what emotions come up for you.  Maybe you have a sense of relief and you notice that you feel that in your gut. Or, maybe you feel gratitude for your relative, a sense of empowerment through this relative and you notice that you feel this in your chest.

If you have someone that you tell your dreams to, whether it's a therapist, a friend or a spouse, telling this person the original dream and the rewritten dream will also be helpful.  You will feel less alone with the dream and hearing yourself tell someone else the original dream and the rewritten dream can be a powerful experience.

By rewriting the dream, you're not denying that you had a nightmare.  Instead, you're a way to conquer the nightmare so you have a sense of relief.  It's also an important recognition that you are the author of your dreams and that you can also be the author of your rewritten dreams.

Getting Help in Therapy
Some people can work on nightmares on your own. Many other people are unable to cope with nightmares because these dreams are related to trauma.

The dreamer and the dreamer's family in Dream 2 are trying to get away from an abusive stepfather, which could indicate a history of unresolved trauma if this dream is related to actual events in the dreamer's life (see my article: How Past Trauma Lives on in the Present).

It's not unusual, whether it's during a pandemic or any other time, for people with traumatic histories to have nightmares, including recurring nightmares. 

If you are struggling with nightmares, whether they are related to a history of trauma or not, you're not alone.  You can get help from a licensed psychotherapist, who has experience helping clients to overcome nightmares.

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help from an experienced mental health professional so that you can live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Therapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome trauma (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.