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
- Write down the bad dream.
- 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.
- Imagine this new dream scenario for 10 to 15 minutes.
- 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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- Have them put their special thing under their pillow, on their bedside table, or anywhere in easy reach.
- 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.