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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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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