Saturday, August 23, 2014

Help! My Nightmares Are Ruining My Sleep

by Mary Kennedy                        
One of the most common questions my clients ask me is: how can I get a good night's sleep? There is no simple answer. People have insomnia for a variety of reasons, and as a clinical psychologist, I know that "mood disorders" (depression and anxiety) are one of the most common reasons for poor sleep.
Some depressed and/or anxious clients are so troubled by their nightmares they are literally "afraid" to go to sleep. This leads to a vicious cycle--insomnia leads to depression, depression makes it difficult to sleep, lack of sleep causes more severe depression etc. Troubled thoughts can easily lead to nightmares.  What we do in therapy is try to change these negative cognitions or thoughts, into more positive, realistic ones.
People want to have "sweet dreams" like the one pictured above, but more often then not, they're plagued with nightmares or as the literature describes them "vivid, disturbing dreams." (Certain medications also cause "vivid, disturbing dreams," so it's a good idea to talk this over with your primary are doctor.)
People dream about being lost in a strange city at night, engulfed in a giant wave that appears out of nowhere, or they see themselves driving down a long narrow road that suddenly falls off a cliff. Sometimes they even picture themselves strapped into the passenger seat, in a car with no driver, as the car careens madly into a river.
Dark water often appears in dreams, along with threatening skies, thunderclouds, lightning flashes and waves that are straight out of a tsunami. The common theme is that the dreamer feels helpless, vulnerable, overwhelmed by her environment. All this is a metaphor for what is happening in her waking life.
The brain needs to dream to process the events of the day and try to make sense of the hundreds of thousands of pieces of information we experience. Sights, sounds, tactile sensations, bits of dialogue, random thoughts are all sorted into files. But when a nightmare takes over, the process is disrupted and chaos ensues.                          
The brain tries to come up with a "story" to match the dreamer's troubled emotions and it usually invents some natural disaster or some environmental threat to explain it. Until you get to the bottom of what's really troubling you and what's keeping you awake, the nightmares probably won't let up. Either talk over your concerns with a trusted friend, or a mental health professional, but in any case, tell yourself you're going to turn this pattern around. Here's hoping all your dreams will be happy ones and you will wake up refreshed and energized, ready to take on the day.
Mary Kennedy

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