Vivid Nightmares

She was chased by Nazis. Fired at. Forced to hide under logs and run through the woods.

But, she says, relieved, “I didn’t get shot.”

That was the first nightmare Tracy Jones, now 32, remembers having. She had watched the movie Schindler’s List before she went to bed that night.

Similar to her occasional bouts of sleep walking, nightmares became a fixture in her life when she was a girl. Today, nightmares come in spurts, she says. And it’s not unusual to experience disturbances three or four times a week. The dreams run the gamut from naked-in-a-grocery-store experiences to dying.

Jones isn’t alone. Six percent of adults have nightmares at least once a month, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), which psychologists often reference. And, aside from people with post-traumatic stress who are reliving a horror such as rape or war, many people are like Jones: they don’t know the cause.

How to get back to sleep

Jones has found ways to adapt. When she wakes after a nightmare, she moves closer to her husband to feel calm and return to sleep. And she’s given up watching anything scary before bed. Jones is on a permanent dose of Family Guy now. She says she’s had peaceful nights after falling asleep to the cartoon.

Despite nightmares that bring cold sweats and sleep walking that means dead-bolting doors, Jones hasn’t sought treatment. Instead, she reads about ways to prevent nightmares, which she says her mom lives with, too, and accepts that they’re simply a part of life.

“It could be genetic, I don’t know,” Jones says. “I’m not really sure why they happen.”

Dr. Amy Mistler, a licensed psychologist who specializes in health psychology, says causes for nightmares are often tough to decipher.

“Most of the time there’s not a clear link in terms of where the bad dream is coming from,” Mistler says. “Bad dreams are often just reflecting stress or negative emotions that the person was experiencing that day.”

Mistler offers these tips for anyone living with nightmares:

Imagery rehearsal therapy

For: Anyone with reoccurring nightmares

How it works: Write out the story of the nightmare. Change the ending to make it peaceful and positive, or even funny and creative. (Hint: If you’re chased in the nightmare, don’t change the ending to include yourself, a la superhero, beating down the chaser. That’s just more negativity. Instead, for example, duck into a café and watch the chaser run away.) Re-read the story with the peaceful ending every night before bed, do a relaxation exercise (such as deep breathing) and then retire to bed. Re-scripting and rehearsing, Mistler says, is effective for reducing and eliminating nightmares. 

Avoid watching television in bed

For: Anyone looking for more restful sleep

How it works: The news, crime dramas and crime documentaries aren’t precursors for good sleep. In fact, Mistler says, skip the television in the bedroom altogether. Let everything in the room promote relaxation and calmness. (Another hint: Don’t even read in bed. This advice comes from the best research, Mistler insists. Reading in bed makes minds too active before sleep.)

Seek counseling from a pro

For: People whose nightmares cause an inability to work or disrupt a relationship. People who night-fight and physically kick, hit, yell or thrash. Or, people who are having more nightmares than they are comfortable with and want them to stop. 

How it works: Collaboration with a trained therapist can help decrease or eliminate nightmares 

Relaxing bedtime routine

For: Children who have nightmares

How it works: Makes them feel safe and secure. (Another hint: Mistler says to encourage children to talk about the nightmare, but don’t force it and risk re-traumatization. Oftentimes kids don’t remember what happened in the nightmare, or they don’t want to talk about it.) 

What are Dreams Anyway?

by Christa Gala

You can’t open your locker. You can’t even remember where it is. And to make matters worse, you show up at school naked.

This is the stuff dreams are made of. Strange, complicated and, ultimately, full of potential.

What’s going on in our brains when we dream?

There’s not a simple answer to this question because scientists and psychologists often disagree on whether or not dreams have a purpose in our lives.

A dream is loosely defined as a form of thinking that occurs when there is minimal brain activation (usually while sleeping, but you can also dream when really relaxed). Dreaming occurs when external stimuli are blocked from the mind and when what’s called your self-system (the conscious “I,” “me”) is shut down, according to Dr. Lucy Daniels, a clinical psychologist in Raleigh who uses dream analysis in her practice and is also the author of several books, including “Dreaming Your Way to Creative Freedom: A Two-Mirror Liberation Process (2005).” 

Here’s how it works: Since your external “real world” stuff is blocked out and your self-system is shut down when you dream, your brain forms consciousness from internal sources, usually memories. And our brain accesses those memories through our feelings.

“Our memories are filed inside our brains according to the feelings that we had at the time,” says Daniels. “When we’re asleep, we’re less defended, less hanging onto reality. The feelings that we have leftover from the day can trigger these memories from the past, and we see something. We just experience it or observe it, but it’s going on in us.”

Researchers may not agree on whether dreaming has a specific adaptive purpose regarding the maintenance of our body or psychological health, but most agree that dreams have meaning. 

What could that dream mean?

Okay, let’s have a little fun here. We asked Daniels to give general interpretations of some of the most common dreams. Keep in mind, every dream is individual. For example: if you dream you’re naked, it could mean you want people to see you exactly how you are, or it could be you’re humiliated or feel exposed. It all depends upon what’s going on in your life and the context of the dream.

Disclaimer noted, let’s have some fun: 

Being chased: Also an anxiety dream. It could mean you want something you can’t have; something psychologically is chasing you that you need to deal with; or you feel threatened that someone is out to get you.

Nudity: Usually deals with how you’re feeling about yourself (exposed, shy, embarrassed, empowered).

Teeth crumbling or falling out: Often has to do with loss. You’ve lost something or feel you may lose something by not being assertive enough or not speaking up for something you believe in. 

Flying: Often seen as a very happy dream; you feel free, empowered and happy.

Dreaming of old loves: Although this dream can be worrisome, typically it’s a feeling you’re having that might mirror the feelings you had with that person.

Nightmares: “Nightmares have to do with strong feelings that scare you and wake you up,” says Daniels. “Most people who deal with dreams would say that nightmares are an attempt by the unconscious mind to solve very distressing problems; instead of solving them, it just kind of dumps them,” says Daniels. Which is why you wake up in a cold sweat.

Recurring dreams: Usually means there’s an unresolved conflict or problem in your life. If you deal with the feeling or the problem, the dream often stops. 

Getting Creative

Dreams have been around a heck of a long time. Dreams are in the Bible. Dreams have inspired music, art and writing for years. For example, in the late 70s Billy Joel dreamt the melody and chord progression of his 1982 Grammy-winning hit “Just the Way You Are.” He wrote the lyrics a few days after the dream re-occurred to him in a meeting. He bolted from the meeting saying, “I have to go home!” and did just that, writing the song in a few hours.

Daniels offers a class through the Lucy Daniels Foundation called Our Problems as the Roots of our Power, designed to help artists understand and utilize their dreams in their work. Classes are open to the public.

Daniels launched the class 18 years ago. “One great thing I’ve learned from this seminar is by having a whole mix of people—writers, artists, musicians, teachers—there’s no competition. I just started it as a project for the foundation and learned while doing it that it was fun and interesting.

“My own analysis is what got me into it,” continues Daniels. “We all have problems. They are never going to go away. No therapy can make your problem be gone. What you can do is learn how to deal with them.”

For more info., visit ldf.org or lucydaniels.com; 18 classes are taught in three 6-week sections for a total cost of $180, held at Daniels’ Oberlin Road office Tuesday evenings beginning in the fall.

Kate Turgeon Watson

Kate Turgeon Watson is a freelance writer who lives and works in Raleigh. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Media and Journalism, she has 15 years experience writing for print, digital and broadcast media. Kate is an award-winning writer whose work has been picked up by the Associated Press national news wire.
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About Kate Turgeon Watson 29 Articles
Kate Turgeon Watson is a freelance writer who lives and works in Raleigh. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Media and Journalism, she has 15 years experience writing for print, digital and broadcast media. Kate is an award-winning writer whose work has been picked up by the Associated Press national news wire.