Would you like to be able to stop a nightmare in mid-stream by taking control of your own dream? Well, there are probably many ways to accomplish this. Here is one of them that has worked for many people.
We all have a natural need to organize and categorize things. This is not a bad thing because if we didn’t do these things, we would have to learn everything we ran into in life from square one. We need to be able to make some generalizations in order to make sense out of our complex experiences.
There is, however, a downside. Sometimes the organization is simply too completely categorical and insensitive to individual situations and people. At worse, on a people level, it can manifest as prejudice. When it comes to the experience of having bad dreams and nightmares, a kind of categorization we have often done has become part of the problem.
This is the belief that the conscious/waking/aware mind and the unconscious/sleeping/unaware mind are completely and absolutely mutually exclusive. This belief, a denial of the ultimate totality and wholeness of life (as represented by the Yin-Yang image accompanying this article) actually interferes with our ability to use a bit of one while being primarily in the other state.
It is both interesting and inconsistent that most people seem to understand that the unconsciousness impacts and, to some degree, operates during our waking time and functioning, but do not think much about things the other way around. There is the possibility of bringing some consciousness into the more unconscious parts of our lives as well. I was to learn this from a young boy.
Dreams, good and bad alike, come to us as unconscious activities of our minds, generally while we are asleep. Learning to interject just a dot of consciousness into that time and space can be the key to managing and terminating nightmares.
In Charles Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge, having been visited by a couple of ghosts, tries to explain these ‘˜bad dreams’ to himself by reasoning that they were simply manifestations of something he ate — ” — an undigested piece of meat.” In the story, this does not, of course, pertain to the reality or outcome as it would not support the developing story. It doesn’t work. In real life, however, the practiced ability to introduce a conscious eye into an unconscious state can work quite well.
Nightmares can be so frightening that they, literally, scare us out of sleep. People find their sleep fitful and not restorative and sometimes even awaken sweating, breathing heavily and shaking. Many people then fear returning to sleep because the bad dream might still be there waiting for them to return to it. Nightmares are populated with dangerous monsters (human and otherwise) and with experiences we would never want to really have in our waking lives.
Dreams are unconscious phenomena and the function they serve is as poorly understood as are their meanings. There are simply as many theories as there are theoreticians!
There is a basic technique for ‘˜breaking’ a nightmare which is completely unrelated to either its etiology (cause) or meaning (interpretation.) It requires the deliberate interjection of a tad of conscious awareness into that fundamentally unconscious state. This is not usually an inborn ability in everyone but is a learnable skill for most. I learned it from a young client many years ago.
When I was a novitiate therapist, some thirty-five years ago, I saw a ten year old boy in treatment who told me that he had suffered a repeating nightmare since seeing a scary movie about ‘˜monster robots.’ He was frightened into wakefulness and unable to get back to sleep 3-4 times a week. No amount of parental reassurance seemed to help.
After several sessions, he came in smiling to report that the bad dream had stopped. I was pleased, of course, and asked why he thought they had stopped. I wish that, as a therapist, I could take some credit for ‘˜curing’ him, but this boy did it himself. All I had really done was to assure him that his dreams could not really hurt him and although they were scary, they were not really dangerous.
He explained it to me this way (from my own note written within an hour of the visit):
“The monster robot was coming after me like always and I ran into the basement to hide from it. I hid behind a pile of stuff and heard it coming. I knew it would find me. Then, something different happened. I remembered that this had happened before — A lot of times. I thought ‘˜This isn’t real — It must be a dream.’ I took a deep breath and stepped out from behind the pile of stuff I was hiding behind and faced the robot. I looked him right in the face and said ‘˜This is MY dream and I don’t want you here. You can’t hurt me. Go away!’ He disappeared and I woke up feeling really good, got up and went to the bathroom then went back to sleep. I don’t think I will have that nightmare any more ‘” but if I do, I’ll know what to do!”
What this boy had done was to bring a piece of conscious knowing ‘” that he was dreaming ‘” into the dream itself. With that as a base, he was able to control the outcome.
Over many subsequent years of clinical practice and speaking with many people who have had repetitive nightmares, I have learned to suggest this as a strategy. Before trying to fall asleep, think “If I see something that seems unreal, it probably is a bad dream. I can wake up if I want to or just throw whatever the scary thing is out of my dream.” This takes some practice for most people, but DOES work.
Perhaps because the line between fantasy and reality is a bit less firm for children than it is for adults, the technique tends to work more quickly and often more completely for kids, but adults can do it too.
The skill is made possible by a shift in belief from one that says that anything that happens during an unconscious state, like sleep, is not under our control to one that says that we can introduce enough conscious awareness into many unconscious states so as to shift their direction and outcome.
Although I first learned of this technique from a child in treatment, I subsequently discovered that the idea has been well researched and described in the literature. The accompanying links will lead you to more information on the subject.
With some practice and motivation, most people can learn to put a little Yin in their Yang or the other way around. It may not work every time, but when it comes to taking control of a nightmare, some is usually better than none.