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


Mary Jane Maffini said...

What a fascinatiing post, Mary! I love the insights you bring to this world of dreams. Can't wait to read your book!

BTW, I once got a series of short stories out a recurring nightmare - I had the Grim Reaper visiting nightly.



Dr. Mary Kennedy said...

HI MJ, thanks so much for stopping by. That was clever to turn your nightmares into a series of short stories!!

Unknown said...

Hmmm...kind of funny, but I commented last night right after I read this (well, it was actually in the early morning hours), but the layout of the comment was different and I wondered about it. It never posted here, so I'm not sure what that was all about. I was on this page, so I don't know where my comment went. Hopefully not somewhere strange.

Oh well...a very interesting blog. I mostly just mentioned in my comment that I agreed about nightmares being rooted in issues in your life. I had a recurring nightmare for awhile (in my house, someone breaking in, trying to scream but no sound coming out). It was a really helpless feeling, and I realized that it was likely coming from the fact that there were situations in my life that I felt I had no control over. The nightmares eventually eased up as I got my life more under control. The subconscious is an amazing thing.

Looking forward to the new series - it's getting closer.

Dr. Mary Kennedy said...

Lynda, it's weird...your comment did show up here, and I replied...and now both your original post and my reply are gone. Whoosh!! They were sucked up and lost in cyberspace. I was going to message you and tell you. Thanks for coming back and posting again. Yes, copies of Nightmares will soon be winging their way all over the country!! And who knows, they might be accompanied by a few cat toys. You can never have too many cat toys.

Katreader said...

I'm lucky in that I generally have good dreams, or at least benign ones, most of which are quite interesting. I did have a nightmare last week and last night I had, not quite a nightmare, but one that was disturbing to me. I had recently bought an old house (I love old houses) with lots of dark wood. I woke up one morning and things were out of place. Cabinets in the bathroom were open, the grate off the radiator moved. At first I tried to convince myself that my animals had done it, but deep down I knew that wasn't the case. Then I looked up and cabinets very high up were open. Someone asked about the basement and I said "I don't go there". I had bought a house where one whole level was unusable. I took the dogs outside. I had 3 dogs, 2 I knew would stay with me, but a younger one I held onto his collar, then I grabbed the garden hose and made it into a leash. I had a very bad feeling the whole time.

When I woke up I reminded myself that I lived in my current house for over 12 years and I use my basement. At the moment I don't have dogs, I had 2 at one time (Brioche and Barrett) and then Sam. I have gone ghost hunting-although it's been years.

Dr. Mary Kennedy said...

I've had clients describe the "House Dream" to me and they mentioned that "one floor was completely shut off" or "one floor was completely unusable." I was interested and asked a very Freudian psychiatrist (who is interested in dreams) what he made of it and he said that one aspect of their personality is either 1) hidden or 2) not yet developed. Hah, just like a Freudian. He didn't really answer the question. In both cases, my clients had tremendous potential (in the arts, as it turned out) but they had been so busy with their "day jobs," earning a living, taking care of their families, etc that they had never developed their talents. So, in a sense, that whole area was "walled off." Interesting! Thanks for stopping by, Katreader!

Katreader said...

Very interesting.