Where did your interest in dreams and nightmares come from?
Basically, from my curiosity about what goes on inside my own and others’ minds. While I was doing my early Counsellor Training I joined a group of colleagues who were practising dreamwork skills on one another. It was so insightful and so much fun that I was immediately hooked!
What are nightmares?
They are the “bad dream-stories” that are so horrifying or terrifying that they wake you up with your heart pounding, just before something dreadful is going to happen that you feel unable to prevent or avoid. Children often have them when they’re afraid and don’t know how to protect themselves.
Why do we have them?
Some nightmares are the natural result of fever, misuse of certain drugs, watching horror movies, or deprivation of sleep. But many more are triggered by something fearful in the person’s experience, especially being a victim of some form of violence, or threat of harm, or witnessing harm eg: to a sibling. Serious bullying, domestic violence, all forms of abuse, vehicle accidents, animal attacks, community violence, work stress, fear of loss, fear of severe punishment – anything that threatens your sense of survival – may set up the high level of anxiety which generates nightmares. Unresolved traumas in early life may repeat later in life when the circumstances are similar, such as being bullied at work.
Tell us why we need to pay more attention to understanding our nightmares.
They are a warning symptom, like pain in the body. Most of us can cope with the occasional nightmare, but when nightmares become repetitive they interfere with our quality of sleep, which reduces our immunity against illness, and our enjoyment of life in general. Children’s nightmares should be listened to in order to identify the underlying fear, and help them to deal with the issues. Continuing nightmares may indicate incipient depression or illness.
How do we address issues that play out in our nightmares?
First, pay attention to what is happening to you in the dream-story. Are you being victimised in some way? What are you afraid will happen? Or maybe it has already happened, and the nightmares are like the after-shocks of an earthquake. If so, find a sympathetic listener to help you make sense of the situation and figure out a way through the dilemma. Apply “first aid” by consciously imagining a new ending to the story, so that you will become a survivor.
Any practical tips for remembering and dealing with issues that arise in nightmares?
Write down the dream (or sketch it) when you wake up, so that you can recall it later when you have time to think about it. Identify your feelings, and ask yourself what feels like this now in real life, even if the image in the dream is a metaphor. Eg if you dreamed of being in a car-crash, what part of your current experience feels like it’s collapsing? Or if someone shot you, ask who has fired a verbal attack at you. Dreams often use metaphors.