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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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