Putting the Halt on Nightmares

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.

21 Comments

Steve

My son, 7, was at a friends house watching a YouTube show about ants and there was a cut in of a scene from Alien, the alien bursting from the body. So it’s not a nightmare per-say but fear of thinking about ‘the thing’ as we call it. Any additional suggestions? Thanks!

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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?!

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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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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!

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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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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.

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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.

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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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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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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.

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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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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!!

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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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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?

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heysigmund

Yes. Have a look at this link: https://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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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