“It’s coming. Again and again it crashes, like a foam wall of evil. It looks just like all the other waves in the ocean. But this one has evil intent. It’s out to get me and my boys. It follows us along the shore and even up the street. It wants to drown us. The wave has my dead husband’s voice and it’s laughing his laugh. I wake up and go check my sons are safe, then I go back to bed. But I stay awake for the rest of the night.”
So spoke Susie who, not four years before, had said goodbye to her husband forever. Or, more accurately, she hadn’t said goodbye. For the first time in her marriage, after a blazing row, they had parted without a kiss.
He’d had secret problems.
On this fateful day, Susie returned home from work to find a letter lying in wait for her in the kitchen. A confessional as much as a goodbye letter.
She read how he’d been “living a lie” and how sorry he was. On no account, he said, should she look in the garage. Of course, she immediately went to the garage – and there she found him hanging, lifeless. Right at that moment, her two young sons returned from school to the same painful sight.
Ever since, Susie had suffered terrible flashbacks and debilitating nightmares. Her sleep was so disturbed that she said she had come to dread going to bed because she knew “what’s waiting for me.”
More of this later on. But first, let’s take a quick look at what dreams are and what they’re trying to do for us. So often ‘bad dreams’ are seen as the enemy, but there’s another way of looking at them.
Fears, expectations, and why we dream
- Dreams metaphorically ‘flush out’ unfulfilled emotional expectations and arousals from the day before, clearing the slate for the next day’s emotional arousals.
- By ‘expectations’ we don’t just mean fears about the future, but any unfulfilled arousals relating to emotional introspections about the past that may be seen as expectations.
- Metaphors are often ‘borrowed’ from recent experience, so ‘dream dictionaries’, which are published on the narrow premise that ‘one symbol fits all’ and that individual minds do not tailor symbols to meet individual needs, may be useless.
- Because depressed people tend to produce inner emotional expectations that remain unresolved, their brain spends more time in dream sleep as it tries to metaphorically ‘dream out’ these arousals.2 This excessive dream sleep leads to daytime exhaustion, especially in the mornings. Some de-arousal is essential, but too much of a good thing can lead to a bad thing: the ‘flatness’ of depression, which so often alternates with restless, unresolved agitation.
- We don’t need to dream about issues that have been resolved or ‘switched off’, only about those issues that haven’t been resolved at the time we go to sleep.
So nightmares are trying to help us come to terms with emotional expectations that remain unresolved at the time of going to sleep. But, like an inflammatory response trying to combat infection, too much can cause terrible problems.
What’s more, bad dreams (or any kind of dream) will tend to repeat as your brain economically uses the same metaphorical imagery to try to dream out the same old ruminations. If you continually worry about the same things, you will continually dream about the same things. You will start to experience recurrent dreams or nightmares.
It’s vital to understand that nightmares are a byproduct or side effect of daytime psychology. Once daytime worries or fears have subsided, the nightmares stop. So although we can help ease nightmares directly, it is important to focus on resolving the underlying problems.
So what do we need to consider when treating client nightmares? (Not to be confused with nightmare clients! Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)
Tip one: Check for trauma
When Susie came to see me, she said she “couldn’t grieve because of the horror of that day.” And that was all that kept coming back to her – in flashbacks, nightmares and excessive fear – whenever her now teenage sons were out of eyesight. She showed all the hallmarks of PTSD.
For Susie, I knew we had to start by treating the memory of the terrible day her husband died. In the first session, we used the Rewind Technique. Immediately the flashbacks stopped, and with them the worst of the nightmares. Her life was suddenly free of the flashbacks and nightmares, which meant she was freed up to finally grieve for her husband.
Susie still had what she termed ‘anxiety dreams’, so over subsequent sessions we worked on helping her feel less anxious, especially about her sons.
So when a client comes to you complaining of terrible nightmares, you always need to check for trauma (without assuming the client has PTSD), because sometimes nightmares are really sleeping flashbacks clothed in metaphor.
But many of our clients with nightmares haven’t been traumatized by past events. So why do they have nightmares, and how can you help them?
Tip two: Mind out for mind material
Susie had been terrorized by a horrific past event, but many people create scary or hopeless scenarios about the future, thereby creating unresolved emotional expectations – otherwise known as fears and worries. So what exactly is your client worrying about?
If I am scared of visiting a dentist or confronting an aggressive coworker, then I fear some future event. This fear has been instigated within my imagination, but not ‘played out’ to a resolution. So what happens when we ‘switch on’ an emotional loop but don’t complete it? Our brain generates a nightmare to try to complete the loop metaphorically.
The feelings I experience in the dream match those I have during daytime imaginings, but in an exaggerated form. And when feelings of fear are exaggerated in this way during the ‘flushing out’ process, they can become genuinely terrifying.
If I continue to worry, to misuse my imagination to scare myself, I will continue to have nightmares. And so the dream becomes recurrent. (Though it is worth noting here that not all people who worry have nightmares.)
Once the situation is resolved in reality, the dream is no longer needed.
So if we can help our clients to stop ruminating, their dream life will naturally begin to calm down as a reflection of their waking life. When the daytime mind is clearer and calmer, so too is the nighttime mind. And everybody needs good sleep.
So at the heart of overcoming nightmares is problem solving, because too much unresolved expectation can lead to a nightmare life of what I call ‘cliffhanging’.
Tip three: Overcome the dangers of too much cliffhanging
You’ve heard the term ‘cliffhanger’, right? Writers of fiction and screenplays know only too well that we all feel the need to complete the loop of emotional expectation through some kind of resolution. Often the end of a TV episode will leave you (or at least the main protagonist) on the edge of a cliff, so to speak.
How will they resolve this crisis? We need to know.
To ensure that you tune in next week (or, on Netflix, next minute!), there needs to be some kind of unresolved expectation at the end of the episode.
The writers are playing on this central human trait: the need to switch off aroused emotional loops. The fundamental need to complete and so switch off emotional expectations can be seen in many common experiences.
Imagine you’re chatting with a friend about a (cliffhanging) TV show, and for the life of you, you can’t recall the name of the well-known actor in the show. And, because amnesia is infectious, now neither can they! But hours later your unconscious mind, which has been hard at work all the while trying to complete the loop of expectation, finally lets you recall it.
We need resolutions.
That load on the mind, that need for resolution even about something trivial, is relieved once the ‘problem’ has been resolved. But what if your client has many unresolved problems, many unpleasant ‘cliffhangers’?
- How am I going to pay the mortgage?
- Did I upset my best friend, and will they now hate me?
- I’m worried about my health, but I’m too afraid to seek medical attention.
Real-life cliffhangers cause our need for resolution to build up, which can manifest in genuine physical discomfort and paralyze the will to actually practically solve problems. The result can be excessive and therefore exhausting dreaming, whether those dreams are recalled or not. And for many, these dreams are vivid and terrifying nightmares.
So how can we support the client to resolve the cliffhangers in their lives? Well, where possible, we can help the client develop practical strategies to resolve the problems themselves. Start by asking: What real problems are there in your client’s life? What cliffhangers could be resolved through practical problem solving?
As well as deeply calming your client, encourage them to resolve problems strategically so that they take back that all-important sense of control.
Of course, not all worries have a practical solution. For those that don’t, we can use reframing to help the client feel differently about them.
Cliffhanging nightmares will dissolve once resolution is reached.
Tip four: Borrow dream metaphors to use during therapy
Dreams are wonderful creative stories that we simultaneously ‘invent’ and live through. They are rich in meaning and have much to tell us about our inner emotional lives.
Hypnosis is similar to the dream state in many ways. Trance can be like a ‘controlled dream’ in which good things can happen. When a client describes a dream to you, they are giving you psychic material, symbolic imagery, that you could use productively during hypnotic therapy.
For example, if someone talks about a wonderful dream they had where they were in a beautiful garden, you could use similar imagery to facilitate a pleasant hypnotic experience.
But we can even use hypnosis to affect the dream scenario directly, and this can be especially useful for nightmares. If your client describes a recurrent nightmare to you, you can use that nightmare narrative to positive effect during trance.
For example, I worked with a nine-year-old boy who had recurrent nightmares of being lost in an endless forest. At a certain point in the nightmare, the dark trees surrounding him would begin to breathe as they came alive. He would hear them wickedly laughing at him before some of the bigger ones began to chase him. He would feel a rising panic and flee wildly, but slowly he would feel himself losing the ability to move. Eventually he’d end up paralyzed on the cold ground as the trees closed in on him – at which point he’d wake up crying.
I asked him if there was anything he was worried about, and after a while he told me he was about to start at a new school – and, perhaps not so coincidentally, the school was called something like ‘Forest Spires’. My young client had been told by his older brother, jokingly as it turned out, that new kids who went there got beaten up by the other kids.
My young client had been bullied a bit in the past and was clearly worried, although he hadn’t told his mum about this worry.
We did some problem-solving therapy and I worked on generally reassuring him, but I also helped him relax. As he slipped into a state of trance, I told him a story about being in a forest and starting to be able to find his path easily, even meeting new friends along the way. As he relaxed even deeper, I encouraged him to notice that some of the trees actually looked friendly, and that the whole place could be one of excitement and adventure.
The boy’s nightmares quickly faded and then stopped altogether, even before he began to attend ‘Forest Spires’.
As another example, I gave a client a ray gun during trance and suggested that he could use it to melt the vicious monster that kept popping up in a recurrent nightmare. He reported soon afterwards that the recurrent nightmare had turned into a ‘feel-good dream.’ Alongside this work we were also busy helping resolve daytime worries.
So sometimes we can work with the dream material directly – as long as we keep it calm and positive as we do so.
Now, some people are more prone to nightmares than others, but I want to stress something important.
Your label is not your destiny
Recent research has found that people with heightened emotional reactivity or a neurotic personality are more prone to nightmares.3 And in my experience, this is borne out in reality. Fears, worries, and unresolved content processed through the imagination (including during dreams) do seem to happen more in people prone to neuroticism.
But this is a tendency, not a rule. Anyone can suffer nightmares if they develop terrifying expectations. And no one should be defined by any sort of narrow definition as to who they are ‘supposed’ to be. Our genes do influence who we are, but equally we can influence our genes. Experience can actually alter the way our genes are expressed, which means we are all capable of learning to be calmer and happier.4Our genes do influence who we are, but equally we can influence our genes. Experience can actually alter the way our genes are expressed, which means we are all capable of learning to be calmer and happier.Click To Tweet
Cliffhangers are all very well in fiction, and unfulfilled positive expectations motivate us. But the paralysis so often felt in nightmares often reflects a sense of powerlessness during the day. When you help your client reclaim their sense of power, their autonomy, you help improve their sleep too.
Susie had read of a secret life in her husband’s suicide note. How he’d lost his job six months before but had not told anyone (he had a history of losing jobs). How he went off ‘to work’ each day only to sit in coffee shops or a local library. How their debts had swelled up like a wave threatening to drown them all – a metaphor for their financial predicament she easily recognized for herself.
She spoke to her husband during hypnosis and told him that it was okay – that she understood. She stopped having flashbacks. And, as Suzie said when her nightmares stopped:
“I felt like my waking life was as much a nightmare as my dreams. But now I can grieve without the distraction of constant horror.
“Soon, I’ll dare to dream, and my boys and I can start living our lives once more.”
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- See: Griffin, J., & Tyrrell, I. (2014). Why we dream: The definitive answer. Human Givens Publishing Ltd.
- See: https://www.clinical-depression.co.uk/depression-faq/depression-and-dreaming/
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