Are dreams always symbolic? What about recurring nightmares in which the dreamer relives an actual traumatic experience, over and over again, sometimes several times a week, often for decades? This can be the case for people with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder, a type of anxiety disorder following a traumatic experience). How can these replay nightmares be stopped? Can dream alchemy be applied to transform these kinds of nightmares and their underlying issues?
Nightmares disrupt sleep, leaving you tired the next day, as well as stressed about the scary nightmare and what it might mean about you and your life. Magnify that to exhaustion when you have the nightmares several times a week, compounded with daily anxiety about going to sleep and facing yet another replay of the long-ago trauma, and a sense of hopelessness about not being able to stop the nightmares: that’s what many people with PTSD suffer year after year.
On top of that, many suffering these types of nightmares can punch, kick, and hit their bed partners, adding to bedtime anxiety. When dreams occur in the REM stage of sleep, ‘sleep paralysis’ stops our muscles from acting out our dreams, but the kinds of nightmares associated with PTSD sometimes occur in other stages of the sleep cycle when legs and arms are free to move.
Nightmares following traumas are generally symbolic, seemingly unconnected to the actual event, but exact replays are more common for people with PTSD. So what is PTSD?
Diagnosis of PTSD references three main symptoms enduring more than 30 days after the event: reliving a traumatic event in a way that disturbs your daily life; feeling emotionally numb or detached from the trauma; and increased arousal in everyday situations.
Reliving may mean having flashbacks where the trauma seems to be happening again, recurring nightmares about the event, repeating memories, and strong reactions to things that remind you of the experience.
Feeling emotionally numb or detached from the trauma can manifest as not caring about anything, a lack of interest in everyday life, and avoiding anything connected with the event, as well as not being able to remember key details of the trauma.
Increased arousal due to PTSD can include being startled easily and having exaggerated responses, being hypervigilant, having difficulty concentrating, outbursts of anger or irritability, and difficulties sleeping.
The danger of experiencing replays of the trauma, whether by nightmares, flashbacks, or repeating memories, is that these tend to be overwhelmingly sensory in nature, as if they are happening in the present tense. They are not so much thoughts about the event, or feelings that can be eased by considering context. Each sensory reliving embeds the trauma.
The standard treatment for PTSD usually involves cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps the sufferer to identify thoughts stemming from the trauma and replace them with less upsetting thoughts. CBT retrains the conscious brain to change perspective and response to situations that would otherwise trigger negative reactions. When CBT is effective with PTSD sufferers, nightmares featuring actual replay tend to stop, soften, or recur less often.
So CBT works with the conscious mind to reframe thoughts about the event.
The unconscious mind may persist with unconscious beliefs, feelings, and responses associated with the traumatic event. In this case, the nightmares – or other, more symbolic nightmares – will continue, and underlying issues stemming from the trauma may remain unresolved.
So can PTSD related nightmares be stopped when standard CBT fails to achieve this?
One treatment that is receiving a lot of attention at the moment is Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT). Now, if you’re acquainted with dream alchemy, IRT is going to look familiar to you.
In IRT, the sufferer thinks up ways to change the storyline of their nightmare so it’s no longer scary. With help from the therapist, they decide on the best rewrite of the dream and then replay the new version of the dream as a visualisation – while awake – a set number of times. This therapy stops the nightmare in many cases, or reduces how often it occurs.
What’s the difference between dream alchemy and IRT?
IRT involves rewriting the trauma-replay dream to change the trauma story, and repeatedly visualising the new, positive version, while awake.
Dream alchemy involves understanding the dream (interpreting it when it is symbolic), identifying the unconscious beliefs (sometimes based on traumatic experiences) that underlie the key issue, and rewriting either the whole dream or an aspect of it in a way that reprograms those unconscious beliefs into positive beliefs that automatically drive positive responses. The new version is repeatedly visualised*, while awake.
IRT reprograms the conscious mind and the dream storyline. The dreamer either dreams the new storyline or the replay dream stops. Deeper unconscious issues related to the trauma may be reflected in more symbolic ongoing nightmares and dreams, and remain unaddressed.
Dream alchemy reprograms both the conscious and unconscious mind and these changes are reflected in new, positive dreams. Dream alchemy addresses and resolves issues by transforming the underlying unconscious beliefs.
When therapies such as CBT or IRT assist sufferers to overcome PTSD and stop the trauma-replay nightmares, grief associated with the trauma may naturally resolve. When grief remains, or when unconscious beliefs related to the grief have taken hold (beliefs around perceived guilt, for example), these will be reflected in subsequent symbolic dreams. For those who remember their dreams, dream alchemy is a route to resolution and healing.
* Dream alchemy may be prescribed as a visualisation, affirmation, artwork, writing, bodywork, or other modality, depending on the dream and the dreamer.
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