The Study of Dreams
Austrian neurologist and forefather of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud believed dreams could reveal a person’s deepest unconscious wishes and desires.
While I was studying Art Therapy, I learned about how dreams can be useful for therapy. I began remembering nightmares I used to have as a child. They’d replay in my head with such clarity. I brushed them off, only to revisit them later with my psychologist.
From then on, I kept a dream journal beside my bed in the months that followed. I became engrossed in what I dreamt and how it could inform my own actions, thoughts and behaviour. One day, I was telling my best friend about a strange dream I had (unrelated to trauma). She mentioned dreammoods.com — a website with a collection of dream meanings for those who are curious. Keep in mind that although the site does come from a psychological and Freudian perspective, take it with a grain of salt. Dream interpretation can be different for each person, based on their own life experiences, education and opinion.
So why do we dream about our traumatic experiences? Dreaming can be a re-enactment of our trauma. If the traumatic event/s are severe and ongoing, the mental strain can be significant.
PTSD and Nightmares
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a set of reactions we may experience after a traumatic event. These events including threat to bodily harm, war, abuse, natural disasters, grief and loss, homelessness may have recurring nightmares or dreams of the event. This can be quite distressing for sufferers and their loved ones.
5–10% of Australians will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. — Pheonix Australia
Note: Just because you are having recurring nightmares does not mean you have PTSD. Please don’t “Google Doctor” yourself. Nightmares can occur for many reasons including work or family stress, and even watching scary movies before bed.
When we have nightmares during sleep, the fear response in our brains are activated. This can cause sleep disturbances if it happens frequently.
According to Ali A El-Solh, sleep disturbances are found to have an impact on concentration, hyper-arousal, fatigue and feelings of helplessness. You can imagine how this impedes with a person’s quality of life.
My recurring nightmares
When I started my journey to healing past trauma, I remembered the recurring dreams I had as a child.
One particular dream was running (too slowly) outside the house with a deep fear that I was going to be caught. I screamed to my neighbours, “HELP ME PLEASE!” but no one would come. Doors were locked and the streets were empty. Every single time.
Another dream I still remember vividly is standing in the back yard, behind my friend in single file. An adult we were familiar with was seated on an old milk crate. Not too suspicious right? Until my friend sat next to him and he began to peel the skin on his arm. He used a peeler. It coiled away like when you peel an apple in a circular motion. I could only imagine the pain. I started swaying back-and-forth, terrified. I would be next. My friend walked away, wincing. It was my turn. I wake up.
These two dreams recurred through primary school and high school. Once I left high school and moved out of home, the dreams stopped. I believe that my recurring dreams was a way for my mind to process what was going on. A way to scream for help even though I was unaware at the time. Working through past trauma changed my life for the better.
How can we manage trauma-based dreams?
If you or someone you know are experiencing traumatic nightmares, there is treatment available.
This study emphasises the importance of choosing the appropriate form of treatment. It is important that the clinician has a full scope of the client’s experiences, sleep disturbances at the initial consultation.
4 Things to Consider When Looking for a Counsellor.
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Do your research and talk to a trusted person in your social circle if you are a little hesitant. It is important to find someone who is qualified and experienced in the area you need help with.
Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT)
Imagery Rehearsal Therapy is a form of treatment that aids in reducing the frequency and intensity of nightmares as a result of suffering from PTSD. This can be conducted with a therapist alone or in a group therapy setting.
The qualified professional will first provide background information sleep and nightmares in preparation for treatment. You will eventually go through recurring nightmares, reimagine them and then monitor them as time goes on.
The main goal with IRT is to reimagine your nightmares with more favourable outcomes. Re-programming the brain in such a way that when these nightmares occur again, it is less frightening than before.
Exposure, Re-scripting, and Relaxation Therapy (ERRT)
This type of therapy involves psycho-education about sleep and nightmares, relaxation, sleep hygiene, exposure, and nightmare re-scripting.
During the session, the mental health professional gives a background about sleep hygiene and nightmares.The client will write down a particular dream and read it aloud. This exposes the client to the dream in a safe environment.
Treatment then focuses on re-scripting the nightmare while introducing a new relaxation skill. Clients are to practice these relaxation skills at least twice daily.
Therapy may be scary but it is not “bad”
Although a lot of countries are moving towards a more aware and accepting worldview of mental health issues, there are still people out there who may feel intimidated by therapy. It’s normal to feel nervous. Seeing a professional for help is not bad. It is a responsible thing to do.
You can opt to see a therapist, counsellor or psychologist depending on your mental health needs and budget. These professionals can give you coping tools and techniques. Sessions can also help heal the underlying trauma that caused the dreams in the first place.
For me, talking about trauma from the past helped me process my fear, anger and pain that I kept hidden for so many years. I was able to put words to my emotions and it was both freeing and terrifying. But on the other side, I felt victorious. Instead of worrying about the dreams coming back to haunt me, I felt peaceful. I knew why my dreams occurred and I knew how to cope if it happened again.
Looking back, my traumatic nightmares were a reflection of what I was experiencing at the time. It gave me insight to how powerful the mind can be. With treatment of the source of trauma, I have not had these particular nightmares since.
Although I am still learning new skills and more information about wellness in my own life, it is important that others are encouraged to find their version of wellness also! I hope you found this article helpful and informative.
Happy sleeping dreamers!