The surprising thing about nightmares is that there is nothing to fear.
This is not to dismiss them. They feel absolutely real, and our heart-pounding response to them is also very real. But as frightening as the characters and situations nightmares depict may be, the dreams themselves are like paper tigers, playing out on the screen of our imagination. Believe it or not, they are trying to help us, not hurt us. The broad consensus among nightmare therapists and researchers alike is that dreams help us regulate our challenging emotions, and that nightmares are part of the natural recovery process from trauma. So rather than avoid them — the understandable response to something that scares us — we need to turn and face them.
Curiosity, an alternative to fight or flight
How we turn and face the fears represented in our dreams truly matters. For inspiration, consider the example of black blues musician Daryl Davis who spent 30 years befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. Person by person, through one-on-one conversations, Davis changed a relationship of hate and fear to one of mutual understanding. The more we know about the so-called ‘other’ the harder it is to hate and fear them. In the process befriending the ‘enemy’, Davis convinced more than 200 KKK members to give up their robes. This same act of turning toward the other with respect and open-mindedness is what I advocate doing with our dreams.
I suggest taking particular interest in the dreams that scare us because they hold the greatest potential for expanding our personal capacity and understanding. When I invite my dreamwork clients to explore their dreams in experiential ways, they are often surprised at what they find. They begin to understand, via direct experience that the monsters in their dreams are represented in such a way because the image is colored by their own perception of it. We tend to fear what we don’t know. As soon as we enter into relationship with something, the dynamic begins to change.
Consider Mary’s dream. In it she is standing on a beach and sees a tsunami coming. She tries to run and there is a sense that she is never going to make it up the slope in time. The wave is coming too fast, and will certainly bury her in its mountain of water. So she decides instead to turn toward it. When she does that, turns toward the powerful ocean and calmly holds her ground, it becomes a harmless wave that dissipates at her feet.
Also consider the dream of ‘Flora,’ a refugee who fled her native Congo due to political persecution. She had a recurring dream that a group of men with guns circled her and were going to kill her because they thought she possessed incriminating information. Like the classic dreams of post-traumatic stress injury, this dream was almost an exact replay of what actually happened to her. She was confronted and froze in terror, unable to speak. In therapy, she was invited to dream the dream forward; she stood and faced her attackers and found her voice. This empowering action changed her relationship to the dream, took away the charge. The nightmares that had been plaguing her for years simply stopped.
This idea of changing the ending of our nightmares is not a new one. Carl Jung was the first to suggest we engage with our dreams by ‘dreaming the dream on.’ Nightmare rescripting has now become the main method for clinical work with traumatic nightmares, and while it doesn’t always work as well as it did for Flora, it has been shown mostly to help and even when it doesn’t, it causes no harm.
Working with childrens’ dreams
The same technique can be used for helping children with nightmares, which is a good thing because kids have much more frequent nightmares than adults. You might offer a child this example from the movie Shrek: Donkey was initially terrified of the dragon, but when he turned and looked at her more carefully, and noticed her long, fluttering eyelashes, his feelings changed from fear to love: Oh! I didn’t you were a girl dragon.
Children are still immersed in the world of their imagination, so dream rescripting comes quite naturally to them. They can readily imagine their bed turns into a magic carpet that takes them up and away from danger. Or even better, like Donkey, they can turn toward their dream dragons and make friends with them. This is far more effective than telling them their dream is not real, because as we all know, the amazing thing about dreams is how very real they feel when we are in them. Telling them it’s ‘just a dream’ dismisses their experience without mending it.
A caveat. The underlying feelings need attention and this can take time.
While it is true that turning toward our dream dragons with curiosity and as much friendliness as we can muster is very often helpful, it is not a panacea. Dreams are a part of our emotional regulation process. Nightmares that we turn toward will help us understand and face our fears, and when we come to terms with the intense feelings they represent, our dreams will reflect a calmer landscape. This can happen immediately, but more often over weeks or months. It will take longer if the effects of trauma are ongoing, or the dream reflects a major loss and the grieving process is current.
The point is, no matter how long it takes, it is better to turn toward your dreams and the emotions that ride in on their waves than to ignore or dismiss them. In dreams, as in life, it is the things that we engage with actively and with open curiosity that can evolve and change. Ultimately, the message is a hopeful one. If turning toward the ‘other’ can transform the hate of hundreds of former KKK members, then surely we all can tame our dream dragons. Maybe, like Donkey, we can even fall in love.
Leslie Ellis presents the first class in the three class course Nightmares & Anxiety Dreams on Jung Platform. Together with Clare Johnson and Deirdre Barrett they offer intriguing and helpful perspectives on how to use nightmares for personal growth.
This blog post was originally published on www.drleslieellis.com
Dr. Leslie Ellis, PhD, is an author, teacher, speaker and clinical dreamworker. Her book, A Clinician’s Guide to Dream Therapy (Routledge, 2019) offers therapists a primer in modern, experiential dreamwork.More Posts by Leslie Ellis