Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Putting the Halt on Nightmares

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You have to love anything that cleans up while you’re sleeping. That’s exactly what the brain does and dreams are the way they do it.

Like any big clean-up things can get messier before they get better – that’s where nightmares come in. Now, researchers at Harvard have demonstrated that we (as in all of us) can manipulate the content of our dreams and nightmares.

Dreams are our brain’s way of processing the information, experience and emotion from our waking hours. You could say that it’s a form of overnight therapy.

When dreams become frightening it’s because the information and emotion being processed is painful or distressing. Nightmares are the brain’s way of processing fears, bad memories, high emotion or negative experiences towards resolution or at the very least, a blunting of the sharp edges.

We know the brain processes emotion and information while we are asleep. It does this without any censorship because during sleep, the part of the brain that’s responsible for rationality, logic and limits is turned right down.

This is why the content of dreams and nightmares can be so wild or terrifying, even though they are the creation of our own mind.

Imagine giving a brilliant and unashamedly bold artist a glorious palette of paints and a bare white room – white walls, white floors, white ceiling – then walking away with a ‘off you go then,’ nod. Chances are they’ll do something incredible and completely unpredictable, but it’s likely to get messy along the way.

Nightmares generally resolve themselves spontaneously but it they’re happening often, the distress they cause can spill into awake time.

Dreams and nightmares are the product of our own thoughts, emotions and experiences so we are in prime position to manipulate the content. 

Researchers at Harvard have shown we can do this by rehearsing new imagery or a new ending while awake. It’s been well established that dreams are related to the things that happen to us when we are awake. Rehearsing the content of a dream creates a new thought or experience to consciously influence the nature and content of our dreams.

Here’s how it works

  1. Write down the bad dream.
  2. Work out a different way you would like the dream to play out and write down the new dream. Change it any way you like. Think about images or endings.
  3. Imagine this new dream scenario for 10 to 15 minutes.
  4. Rehearse the new dream before bed. If the nightmare is a stubborn one, rehearse your new dream for at least 5 -20 minutes each day to build up its strength. Don’t work on more than 2 separate dreams each week.

Research has also found that changing the content of nightmares gives a sense of control that carries over into waking life. Upon completion of a study that taught participants how to manipulate the imagery of their nightmares (by the method described above), almost half of all participants said that they used imagery for problems other than nightmares.

For Kids

Children are particularly good at using the line between reality and fantasy as a jumprope. Because of this, they are quite adept at taking things from their material world into their dreams. If a nightmare wakes them or if the fear of a nightmare makes bedtime difficult, try this:

  1. If they could take anything into their bad dream, what would it be? Something to fight off the baddies? A monster trap? Monster dissolver dust (glitter)? An invisibility cloak to hide from the baddies (a small sheet)? Perhaps they need you (your photo under their pillow) or a magical fortress (ask them to draw it).
  2. Have them talk about how they will use their special secret ‘thing’. Does it make them feel strong? Safe? Powerful? Magical? This is to strengthen the thought, experience and emotion to influence the content of their dream.
  3. Have them put their special thing under their pillow, on their bedside table, or anywhere in easy reach.
  4. Prime them before they go to sleep to imagine themselves taking their special thing into the dream and using it.

The good news is that we can be the authors of our own dreams. The even better news is that science has proven it.

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20 Comments

Havenlilianna

Thank you for this! My son (5, almost 6) has been waking up with nightmares around 6/7 nights every week. The problem is, they don’t seem to be recurring subjects. Any suggestions?

Reply
heysigmund

Yes. Have a look at this link: http://www.heysigmund.com/putting-the-halt-on-nightmares/. During sleep the brain sorts through all the emotional ‘stuff’ that has happened during the day. When there is something that isn’t resolved, or if the material is scary, it will come out as a nightmare. It’s not unusual that there are no recurring subjects. The material from the daytime doesn’t necessarily need to be terrifying for the dream to be. He might be worrying about all sorts of different things. Also, the same theme might come through in different imagery, so anxiety about being away from you, say, might come out as being lost in a forest one night, drowning the next night, losing his hat the next night. It’s very personal to the dreamer so the meanings and connections aren’t always obvious. It’s however his brain wants to process the emotion. I’m hoping to do a child friendly article of this this week or next, so stay tuned or if you want to make sure you don’t miss it, every post I write goes through on the newsletter on a Friday. The signup is on the home page on the right hand side. I hope the link I’ve given you is some help for now. Thank you for getting in touch.

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Sam Grant

Thank you for this. My wonderful 5 year old has had trouble going to sleep for 3 years (it can take 3 hours each night). He is now taking melatonin, which is making a massive difference, but he says he is frightened of falling asleep because of the bad dreams. We have tried getting him to visualise something to make the monsters ridiculous (currently, he likes to have them slipping on banana skins and falling on their bottoms!), which helps, but I also have to wait with him until he falls asleep every night so he doesn’t feel alone. I am happy to do this of course, but my littlest who is 3 is beginning to really notice, and resent, the fact that I can’t also stay with her (they go to bed within 30 minutes of each other). I will try your photo idea and see if asking him to take me into his dreams with him will help. I will let you know how we get on!!

Reply
heysigmund

You’re welcome. I love your visualisation!Another thing to try is monster spray. The monsters hate it and you can make your own with a spray bottle, cold water and essential oil – one that will make the monsters (and little monster slayers) sleepy is best – any one or a combo of: lavender, yang yang, sandalwood (there are others). Spray it all around the room just before bed and the monsters won’t come anywhere near it. Do you use a night light? I so get what it’s like when you have a little one who won’t fall asleep by themselves. When you’re ready to try, just go away for 2 minutes every ten. But make sure you go back into his room when you said you were going to. Do that for a few nights then make slowly spend longer away. then In the next couple of weeks, I’m doing a post on dealing with nightmares in children. I would love to know how you get on with the photo.

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Carol

I’d like to respond to Sam. My husband has trouble falling asleep (and staying asleep) and has used melatonin in the past. It does help him stay asleep, but he feels it causes nightmares. So, the melatonin might be making your child’s nightmares worse. I don’t know, but you may want to try something else. I have friends that swear by essential oils and use a diffuser in their child’s bedroom. Just a suggestion.

Reply
Sam Grant

Dear Carol,

Thank you for your comment. That is really helpful. I will keep an eye on him and see if that is making it worse. He does not always take his tablet and if he asks not to then I don’t make him take it; he can go without it for a couple of days but then the cycle of not sleeping starts again. It is really tough to know what to do, especially when your five year old is crying and asking you to help him because he wants to sleep and can’t. When we first said we had some medicine to help him sleep the look of pure relief on his face made me want to cry. I have rarely seen anyone (adult or child) look like a huge weight has been lifted from them in an instant, as I did then. I did try lavender oil but he definitely did not like the smell! Do you know what essential oils your friends use?

Thankyou

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louise laidler

my one year old son has night terrors which started when he was 9 months old – they are getting worse and longer in duration. Have you any advice on what could be causing them. We need to do controlled crying exercise to change his bed time habit and get him to sleep in his own bed in his own room but we’re afraid the incidence of night terrors will increase due to anxiety, and also afraid of not being able to distinguish whether he is having a night terror or a tantrum , thank you for reading

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Kenza

Hello everyone,
What about taking our dreams / nightmares for a sneak peak into our unconscious, working with them to better understand ourselves? I believe fighting them (in adulthood) makes them worse. Our monsters are often our repressed fears talking to us. Trying to tame them without understanding what they try to tell us seems hopeless. Sure, it is uncomfortable, but we can progress so much towards making the most of our lives if we start considering them as allies. Psychoanalysts work wonders with them.
As for comfort, if you don’t like lavender, I feel verbena or orange blossom water work wonders.

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Marilyn

Every night my 27 yr. old daughter has vivid dreams about waking up, getting dressed, the whole morning routine, even going to class. No matter how many alarms she sets she apparently tunes them out. I recommended seeing the school’s therapist. She has been taking Strattera and Prozac for at least 4 yrs.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

I think seeing a therapist is a really good idea. Has she seen a doctor to see whether the medication has something to do with it? It might not have anything to do with it – I can’t say – but it might.

Reply
Naomi

Would you say this could help those suffering from PTSD? I am currently taking medication for the nightmares and they seem to reduce the intensity sometimes but they still come. They are not necessarily recurring but being chased by the devil in dark rooms, hallways, or while traveling-driving towards somewhere but no real destinations. Another one is about an ex husband and frequently intimate with him but while awake that turns my stomach as he was a rapist, took my kids, put them through severe mental anguish several times, etc. Basically, I’m asking if this type of nightmares could be controlled as well? I am going to try the listed steps in this article and hope they work!

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Hey Sigmund

Naomi these dreams must be so distressing for you. It is definitely worth trying this. Dreams are your mind’s way of working through memories and whatever is happening for you emotionally. If your emotions and memories are intense, it makes sense that your dreams will be as well. I would love to know how this works for you and I hope it is able to bring you some relief.

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Mel

Thanks so much for your dream ideas. I use them with my little boy of 5 and it has helped enormously. We even set a ‘dream-scape’ before we sleep now to get him in to the groove. I however, aged 41, still have very vivid dreams of being stalked and chased by lions without being attacked or actually eaten thankfully! But it is a recurring theme since I was a young child and have wondered for years what it is all about. Obviously living in Africa gives the wild lions more credibility regardless of how outrageous the dreams actually are as I wake completely out of breath and with shattered nerves! Will use your day time routine work to put those pesky lions back in their wild reserves and out of my dream-space.

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Hey Sigmund

I love that you do this with your son! And yes – definitely try this for your lions. I hope it puts them in their place. There’s somewhere much better for them than in your dreams!

Reply
Shane

My wife and I suffer from dreams of our past, even sexual encounters… Repeated and somewhat looks like it’s a prediction or a warning?

I’ll admit this, my wife caught me playing with myself as I am sleeping and not knowing it. Twice in a row! Don’t get me wrong, I love my wife and we aren’t having any marriage problems, but my mother is the culprits of our stress… And! I have been able to attack her while I am sleeping! Push, shove, kick, whimper, cry – oh my… The saddest thing is waking up to her with shock and guard up…

My wife has dreams of losing me. From. not being able to find me, or I end up with an EX of mine, or a medical condition or being killed… Plus she’s scared terribly bad that it effects her sleep and the drive to be sleep with peace.

She and I are into essential oils, any advice helps. Keep in mind, music doesnt help me much when I sleep because I can’t hear. (Deaf). My wife can hear anything.

Needs help.. Both of us are suffering from lack of sleep and myself doing inappropriate things and hurting her. As she dreams of me in the worse case scenario…

Help?!

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

It sounds like both you and your wife could do with a restful night! If there is a risk of you hurting your wife during your sleep, you might really benefit from seeing a sleep specialist to see what’s going on there. A doctor or a counsellor will be able to refer you to someone who can help you with this.

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Shane

You don’t think the essential oils would help at all? What about my wife’s situation? Her struggles of losing me…. The stuff I do to her is not as bad… But it does hurt at some point…

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I can’t comment on whether or not essential oils would help. They may, but if you are becoming physical in your sleep, there may be an underlying issue which might be worth getting checked out.

In relation to your wife’s situation, try the strategies recommended in the article. Dreams are the brain’s way of sorting through emotional ‘stuff’, so if she is not able to find relief and it is affecting her while she is awake, it might be worth speaking with a counsellor to help process any fears or anything emotional that she may be struggling to move forward from.

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