Dream On Dreamers – Getting the Most Out of Dream Time

During sleep, the brain has a ‘to do’ list that makes the average fairy godmother look like a lightweight.

As well as keeping us alive, it finds creative solutions to problems, consolidates memories, works through painful ones, stimulates new insight, processes emotion and works on important unfinished issues. Dreams are a critical part of the process. Here’s how to make them work for you …

Dreams are the work of a busy mind sorting through the information it’s collected during the day – some of it consciously and some of it not – to process information, emotion and solve problems.

The adage ‘sleep on it’, didn’t make itself into everyday language by bribery or coercion. It’s there because there’s scientifically proven truth behind it.

Dreams can lead to rich insights and creative solutions because the part of the brain that controls rationality, logical decision making and deciding what’s socially acceptable becomes dormant during sleep.

When the gatekeeper is gone the dreaming mind is free from censorship and the rules that might kneecap creativity in waking life.

This is why we can dream ourselves flying to Malta and asking the pilot, Mick, ‘Excuse me Mr Jagger, but any chance of popping my jet on auto and jamming with us for a bit? Don’t be shy. I’ll start.’

This disinhibition is critical to thinking creatively because it allows new ideas to form.

As you could imagine, it could get a bit messy if limbs joined the party and acted out the dreams of an unrestricted mind. Fortunately during dreaming the neurons in the spinal cord are shut down so limbs can’t move.

This is done to ensure we don’t hurt ourselves or anybody else when we fight slipper-stealing ninjas, deliver a left hook to an ex (come on – who hasn’t wanted to go there) or hand over the ironing to Mr Wonderful who’s confessed his undying love because we fit the glass slipper – wait – the trackies (it’s a dream – who’d wear a glass slipper if trackies did the job).

Here are some important discoveries that were made while people were sleeping:

  • ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. One day in 1965 in a small room in London Paul McCartney woke up with a sweet tune playing in his head. He played it straight away, asked the fellas what they thought (they were keen) and then set about making sure he hadn’t heard it anywhere before.

    ‘I liked the melody a lot, but because I’d dreamed it, I couldn’t believe I’d written it,’ he said. Fast forward a few decades and that sweet tune is the most covered song in history.

  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. During a miserable summer in 1816 Mary Shelley and a group of friends went to stay with the poet Lord Byron. With the weather particularly moody, the friends were often forced inside where they told ghost stories.

    One night Lord Byron suggested a competition that involved everybody making up their own ghost story. That night, Mary Shelley went to bed and a story ‘haunted her midnight pillow’. The story was Frankenstein, and it’s genius is still celebrated today.

  • Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt the plot for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He became so adept at dreaming he could return to his dream the following night and dream a different ending.
  • Dr Otto Leowi had a hunch about the chemical transmission of nerve impulses but was struggling to come up with a way to test his theory. He let the idea slip to the back of his mind but one night in 1920 he woke up, turned on the light and scribbled something down. When he woke up in the morning, he remembered he’d ‘written down something most important, but … was unable to decipher the scrawl.’ The next night the idea came back – it was the experiment that would help him prove his theory.

    Thankfully at that time the world was free of funny YouTube clips to distract the brilliant from being brilliant, so Leowi was able to spend the next decade refining his theory. His work was critical to neuroscience and eventually won him the Nobel Prize for medicine.

  • The sewing machine needle. In 1845 Elias Howe was struggling to invent a machine that could stitch faster than other machines could spin and weave. He fell asleep one night frustrated and dreamt – so the story goes – of being tied up from his toes by cannibals and hung over a pot in preparation of being their cup-a-soup snack. Every time he tried to escape their boiling pot, they’d poke him with spears. He woke up from his nightmare and was at first struck with the high emotion of the dream. But, one thing he remembered was that the spears had holes in the points. Holes in the points. Get it? Nuff said.

Manipulating the Content of Dreams

Harvard researchers have shown that it’s possible to manipulate the content of dreams. 

Here’s how that works:

  1. Write down your problem – just a short phrase or sentence will do – and place it next to your bed. Keep a pen and paper nearby.
  2. Think about the problem for a few minutes before you settle down to sleep.
  3. Once you’re settled, try and think of the problem as an image. (The visual part of the brain is especially active during sleep, which is why dreams are so visually rich.)
  4. As you drift into sleep, tell yourself to dream about the problem.
  5. When you wake up, lie quietly for a short while. If you jump straight out of bed you’ll lose a lot of your dream content. Write down any trace of the dream that you remember. More may come as you write. If you can’t remember anything, pay attention to what you feel, the tempt the memory back.

 Dreams are the normal, natural, unavoidable work of a sleeping brain. They are not prophetic, mystical or magical. Nor are the the domain of incense burning Skytrain Moon Pixielar and the dreamcatchers she collects on her astral travels. They are as much a neural process as the thinking and feeling done during when we’re awake.

Without the shutdown of the rational part of the brain dreams are also surprising, creative and insightful – which is excellent and something we should make work for us.

See here for a how-to on understanding dreams.

The good news is that it is possible to harness the power of a sleeping brain and set it to work on a  particular issue … and you’ve gotta love anything that works like that while you’re sleeping. 

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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