Dreams Cloud Educational Series by Dr. Robert Van de Castle - Session 5 Nightmares
In our visit today we're going to be talking about traumatic dreams and nightmares. A traumatic dream is one caused by something that's traceable in waking life. So you may have been the victim of an earthquake, of a flood, of a fire, of witnessing a murder, of having been sexually abused, of having had a bad breakup in a marriage, so that there would be something you could trace back to and say -- yes this specific incident, the flood, the fire, the breakup, has caused the trauma. Then that will show up and the content can usually be identified -- so if it's a flood you can still be dreaming about water, if it's fire you would still be dreaming about fire. It may be in an exaggerated way but there's more of a cause and effect -- there was the trauma, there was the reflection of it within the dream.
If we jump ahead to the idea of a nightmare, sometimes it's difficult to make the distinction between a nightmare and just a bad dream. Sometimes those are used interchangeably. “Oh. I had a terrible dream last night.” “Oh, I had a really troubling dream last night.” So trying to differentiate what has the characteristics of a bad dream that differentiated that from the nightmare is kind of a fuzzy distinction.
There has been some very interesting work done on nightmares by researcher, Ernest Hartmann, who has come up with the concept of “thick” and “thin” boundaries. A thick boundary would be like this [knocking on wood]. A thin boundary would be more like this piece of paper or tissue paper. There is a psychological test that you can give to people where you can determine how thin versus thick they would on body boundaries. People like military personnel, bankers, CPAs and so forth would be people that would be more likely to be over on the thick boundary side. People who are artists, writers, actors and so forth, would be more likely to be over on the the thin side. Now the thick boundary people generally don't have much dream recall in comparison with the others, so they don't have much in the way of nightmares, and don't have much in the way of recall, but when they do, they would still have some kind of nightmare in there that could be identified for them.
There's some good and some bad to being a thin boundary. You can look at a painting and be very deeply moved by it, and listen to music and find it very, very inspirational, reading a great novel, because your boundaries are so thin, so porous, you take stuff in very, very deeply. At one level, it's great to have the deep, aesthetic experience of things in life, on the other hand, you're more likely to be someone who has problems with nightmares and these are really intense, they're highly original because thin boundary people are more likely to value individuality and creativity, so that their nightmares may be really kind of Frankensteinish and rather original types of nightmares that way.
Now if the trauma has been something experienced by a service member with post traumatic stress disorder and they’ve seen people blown up and total chaos and destruction -- that can show up in their nightmares there. One of the techniques that has worked fairly well with recovery for them is to be in group therapy with other veterans. Because if you haven't been there, you can't really talk about what you’re feeling when you look over and see your buddies blown up next to you and see his body parts or what’s left of him. So that having someone who has experienced that, and we can feel accepted and not judged, as you might not by a civilian, has been very helpful for them.
There's one other type of condition that sometimes can get confused with nightmare, a night terror, that is associated with a particular stage of sleep called non-REM, or non-Rapid Eye Movement, sleep and it is more likely to be experienced by children and younger individuals when one is dealing with a lack of familiarity in surroundings. You may be on a trip with the kids and at a different hotel every night, having to live with grandma or someone else on a temporary basis, it's sort of disorienting because their usual things are not around and this sense of non-familiarity, not having their usual pets or friends or family around, can be disturbing to them and they may have night terrors. Sometimes about 10% of the time, there’s the ability to remember it, but 90% of the time, even though the child wakes up screaming and yelling and when the parents come in trying to comfort them they may not even recognize the parents for a while, so they are just totally screaming and screaming and they cannot be settled down and don't even recognize the parents for a matter of a few minutes. So it's understandable that it's very troubling to the parents. The good news is that they gradually outgrow it as they get to feel more in charge of their surroundings and their environment. There’s a great deal of not only cardiac acceleration but a great deal of breathing difficulties ... so they are breathing very, very hard and they frequently are just completely disoriented when they wake up, they don't know where they are and don't know anything about their environment, they are just completely out of it for a period of about 5 to 10 minutes.
With all of these, what is the common denominator is that something is troubling to you -- it gets processed back in your dream imagery and if you take the time to try and identify these and either work pretty hard on yourself or with someone else you trust, or get some professional help with them, the good news is that these can get to be diminished in their frequency and the intensity will be less and that will be the reward for having used the dreams. Because in a sense a nightmare can be your best friend and can indicate -- here is something I really needed to have attention paid to -- this physical symptom of having some sort of heart irregularity, you need to get it checked out. If you’re having these kind of really troubling dreams, but again remember most dreams are unpleasant so don’t be troubled by the by the fact that it’s unpleasant, it’s just the intensity of the kind we’ve been talking about tonight.
I look forward to our next meeting.