In Bridges this week we talked about ways we cope with nightmares. Nightmares can be a big problem for me, something I’ve shared about before on this blog in Nightmares, Listening to your Dreams, and The Gap. Today I particularly want to share some ideas about how to handle it when nightmares are causing you anguish.Firstly, a little information: nightmares are very common in children and much less so in adults. Some people have no recollection of their dreams or nightmares, most probably because they wake up from a different sleep state. Most dreaming happens during the REM part of your sleep cycle. If you wake up out of a different part of the cycle it is much less likely you will recall your dreams. In real time, dreams can last only seconds or up to about twenty minutes. In dream time, anything is possible. The longest time period I have dreamed was about 4 years. When I woke up I had to reverse my way through those 4 years to work out at what point the dreaming had started. Dreams can be incredibly surreal, or so vividly real that you have trouble distinguishing them from real life. For those of us who find dissociation or psychosis can make our daily lives deeply surreal, dreaming and being awake can be difficult to separate. (one way of viewing psychotic experiences is that they are ‘dreaming while awake’)
There’s a lot of speculation as to why we dream and what dreams mean. Every culture and time has come up with their own answers about these things. Personally I conceive of dreams as a connection point between my conscious and subconscious mind, kind of like my conscious self going diving into my subconscious for a time. There are a lot of myths about the nature of dreams, a common one is the idea that if you die in a dream, you will die in real life. That can add a lot of terror to nightmare experiences. I’ve died in my dreams many times. It’s frightening but it doesn’t hurt me in real life. If we assume for a moment that dreams are the voice of our subconscious, the language it speaks is not literal. Dreams communicate through feelings, symbols and metaphors.
There are a number of things that can cause nightmares. The strategy you use to cope with your nightmares may change depending on what is setting them off for you. Illness can generate nightmares, particularly common is sickness that involves fever. Fevers can also generate hallucinations and other psychotic experiences where the line between sleep and awake is blurred and confused. Some medications and substances are known to increase the likelihood of vivid dreams and nightmares, or some medication interactions can set this off. People who have experienced trauma are typically more vulnerable to nightmares following the incident/s. Nightmares are a common symptom of PTSD. More generally, stress can also increase the incidence of nightmares. So, if your nightmares have suddenly flared following starting or withdrawing from a new medication, you may need to consider adjusting your meds. If you’re going through a lot of stress at work or in a troubled relationship, then stress reduction techniques may be more effective in reducing your nightmares.
Nightmare cycles can leave you really exhausted and distressed. I’ve had trouble with this where intense chronic nightmares can leave me badly sleep deprived. Nightmares that are derived from trauma can have a ‘stuck’ quality to them where they loop on the same theme over and over without resolving. I have trouble with re-occurring dreams that replay the same scenario over and over. I’ve also had trouble with cycles where everytime I fall asleep I have intense nightmares that wake me up. My sleep is very broken and not restful, and after a few nights of this I become frightened of sleeping. Sleep deprivation is a common way to set off dissociation, so my waking hours become more fragmented and confusing, and I also find that sleep deprivation makes me more likely to have nightmares. This can become a horrific spiral that shatters my mental health. Breaking this cycle is really important. One thing I use is a high strength sleeping medication to give me a chance to rest. Sleeping meds are not a good long term solution, most are addictive, lose their potency over time, and can leave you feeling pretty terrible the next day. I use a high strength sleeping pill very occasionally (no more than once a year) to help break out a nightmare cycle that has developed into chronic insomnia and severe dissociation. It leaves me exhausted for several days, unsafe to drive or cook, dizzy, and unsteady on my feet. It does however, get me a nights deep sleep and help me recharge.
Another method I’ve found helpful in breaking out of cycles is to express the distress of the nightmares in another way. If the nightmares are my mind screaming about fear or grief or shame, I have found that trying to suppress this can makes the nightmares more entrenched. I have actually broken out of bad cycles just by letting myself fall to pieces and cry about everything that’s overwhelming me. That’s so ridiculously simple it seems mad that it could work, but in a nightmare cycle I know I’m at high risk and I’m working really hard to keep it all together. Falling apart even temporarily is the last thing I want to do but it can express and defuse some of that intense distress and my dreams settle down.
Part 2 tomorrow 🙂