A short guide to understanding your nightmares
“Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.”
—Dr. William Dement
Many restless sleepers have highly active dream lives. Nightmares are great psychic teachers, but also big obstacles to restful sleep. And I know—nightmares and vivid dreams were a mainstay during the 15-odd years I wrestled with sound sleep. I’ve been labeled “Queen of the Nightmares” by more than one doctor, and if I’ve overcome them, anyone can.
The first things to remember: nightmares and persistent kooky dreams are not your enemies, but your friends. They teach you things you’d never otherwise know if you learn to listen with an open mind. If you tune in to this “sad, healing news” (said Edgar Allen Poe, whose many story plots were known to arrive via nightmares), your subconscious mind’s innate wisdom knows just what and how to tell you, how much to say, and, if you’re paying attention, when to say it. It’s your choice whether you want to do some work and listen or not. Understanding your disturbing dreams is work, but it pays a high dividend.
It’s also helpful to realize, say sleep researchers, that what you call a nightmare may or may not actually be one. You probably think any bad dream you have during sleep is a nightmare. However, according to sleep doctors, there are four distinguishable types of nightmares occurring during different stages of sleep. (You do dream during all stages of sleep, though mostly during REM.)
1. To sleep researchers, your bad dream is an actual nightmare if it arouses you from REM sleep. You usually remember the dream, quite vividly, and although you’re scared, your body usually does not react with sweating, increased pulse and hyper-breathing. It just feels like you’ve been run over by a truck.
These nightmares are generally psychological in nature, and if dream-work and journaling do not help alleviate them, psychotherapy or hypnosis sometimes can. Once the underlying issues are resolved, the nightmares usually disappear. Sometimes, though, nightmares are like ancient agitations, strange relics that get stuck in your subconscious mind’s wheel. They continue even though the causal issues clearly have been fixed. These are “bad-habit” nightmares, and you can work with these the same ways, though they are more difficult to banish.
2. Sleep terrors, on the other hand, occur during delta, or slow-wave, sleep. This is the deepest sleep stage and is extremely hard to wake from fully. Here, the brain is half-asleep/half-awake, and terrors normally happen early at night, when delta sleep is most prevalent. In these, your body reacts: screaming, heart pounding, shivering, and/or sweating. Yet if you turn over and go back to sleep, you’ll likely not even remember this dream.
3. Often called a nightmare, isolated sleep paralysis is not considered a sleep disorder (as when it occurs with narcolepsy), but rather an extremely disconcerting intrusion of the atonia, or paralysis, of REM sleep carried over into your waking state. Here, your mind literally wakes up before your body, and you hear and see what’s going on around you but are paralyzed.
Many cultures call it demons-on-the-chest, and that’s just what it feels like. I suffered from this type of parsimonia all through my teenage and college years. It’s now suggested as a remedy that you move and circle your eyes and take deep breaths, if you can, and/or have a partner touch your body or rub and move your hands or arms or simply call your name out loud.
4. Sleep-related panic attacks that occur during stage-two or stage-three sleep are sometimes thought of as nightmares. They generally occur in people with daytime panic attacks. These sleep-time panics cause breathing difficulties, sweating, fear of dying or going insane and a racing heart, just like their daytime counterparts, and are normally treated with the same medication and therapies prescribed for daytime panic attacks.
Flashbacks and anxiety attacks that appear early in the sleep cycle—at that transition between waking and sleeping (in stage one or in early stage two)—are one hallmark of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Severe traumas, such as rape, physical and/or childhood sexual abuse, earthquake, war, natural disasters, extreme grief reactions and so on, can cause this disorder. In it, you chronically “relive” the trauma(s). Treatment from a mental-health professional who specializes in PTSD is best.
Many medications can and will affect both the content and quality of your dreams. Many SSRIs (selected serotonin re-uptake inhibitors used to treat depression, such as Prozac) list nightmares and/or bizarre, vivid dreams as a common (sometimes No. 1 or 2) side effect. Go back to the pharmaceutical pamphlet that comes with your medication or to the Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR). Check to see if your medication is causing the vivid emotional eruptions in your dreams; it doesn’t stop the pattern, but at least you know it’s not your fraying soul.
Since nightmares can be as frustrating as insomnia, learning to relax is important. Some distress-reducing techniques for working with nightmares include writing them down (be sure to do this as soon as possible after awakening, and be as detailed as you can); drawing or painting it (effective for creative and sensitive people); or talking in fantasy to the dream’s various characters.
Imagining a more pleasant ending helps many chronic nightmare sufferers (especially if practiced regularly and done numerous times throughout the day and evening). The more relaxed the dreamer can be while using these techniques the better. A number of good books are available for learning how to understand dreams, and if you don’t make head-way you may wish to ask a therapist for assistance.
A doctor once told me to address my subconscious kindly a moment before I fell asleep: “My dear sweet subconscious mind (that took a while to say with sincerity), be assured I will hear what you have to tell me tonight. I can listen best if you don’t shout or scare me.”
And yes, this accepting attitude has worked well for me, and still does. Once again: Dreams are only messengers. You can choose to listen or not. It’s up to you.