How To Stop Having That Awful Recurring Dream

Photo: Sergey Mironov via Shutterstock

In my recurring nightmare, I have done something awful, truly heinous. What that dreadful thing is is unclear, but what is certain is that I’m about to be caught for it — so I’m running. And running, and running, and running and always just about to be caught. Now this has the standard nightmare emotional content of terror, but the dream throws in some shame, too, just for an extra f-you from my subconscious. I always wake up shaky and distraught.

Good times.

It turns out that I’m not alone — a lot of people have ongoing sleep disturbances. “The majority of adults will report having at least one recurring dream during their lifetime, and five to six per cent of the adult population will report an ongoing problem with nightmares,” says Antonio Zadra, a professor at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine. These dreams and nightmares even fall into certain categories: the “examination dream” for example, in which you haven’t adequately prepared for a test; or a health-related nightmare, in which you or someone you love is about to die; or the kind of nightmare I’m having, a classic “chase-and-pursuit” scenario.

And whether our recurring dream of choice is terrifying or merely irritating, a lot of us want to nip these nocturnal disturbances in the bud. Hence this Ask Metafilter question I found when searching for how to nix my own nighttime adventures: Possible to Nuke The Most Annoying Dream?

To get an idea of what to do to either stop having the recurring nightmare – or at least alter it so it’s not so frightening – I spoke to a couple of sleep experts who coach night-terror sufferers in a technique known as image rehearsal therapy.

The first question, says Daniel Lewin, a psychologist, sleep specialist, and the associate director of Sleep Medicine at the US Children’s National Health System, is are these nightmares new? A sudden spate of nightmares or other sleep disturbances “requires a general medical workup.” Ruling out underlying physical and mental health problems such as thyroid dysfunction, PTSD and depression can be an important first step. “In rare cases there can be an underlying severe problem,” says Dr. Lewin, so if your sleep issues appear suddenly, get checked out by your doctor.

First, What’s Going On In Your Waking Life?

The content of your dream may inform how sleep doctors will approach treatment. For the examination dream, Dr. Zadra says, “I’d have a specific set of recommendations. If people try to dismiss it or get rid of it, they might be missing out on something important. These kinds of dreams tend to happen in particular moments and are a really great metaphor for ongoing self-doubts we might have, doubts about work, relationships, family, or our own view of ourselves.”

They tend to occur when we’re questioning whether we’re up to a task — before giving a big a talk or presentation, for example – “when we’re wondering if we’re really up to the job,” says Zadra. “So first, take a moment and reflect on what’s going on, what’s stressing you out?” He notes that these things don’t have to be literally exam-related – in what area of your life are you not feeling up to the challenge at hand? “Are people going to discover that I’m not really as good as I think I am? Paying attention [to these feelings] is better than dismissing them or trying to make them disappear.” If you’re feeling generally low or troubled, or need to work through specific anxieties, it might be a good idea to make an appointment with a mental health professional.

Then, Rehearse

That may sound counterintuitive — rehearse something terrifying? But a great deal of Dr. Zadra’s work involves helping people alter their dreams by practicing them in image rehearsal therapy. The morning after a nightmare, he says, “Take out a sheet of paper, or even just use mental imagery, and think of an element that you’d like to change in the dream. This can be whatever feels right for you.” It can be something big — like you change the ending, or it can be a very fine detail, like the colour of a wall. “It really depends on the narrative structure of the nightmare. If you rehearse that nightmare [with the details changed], it can diminish the frequency or intensity of the dream.”

When I tell him about my recurring chase-and-pursuit nightmare — that I have done something truly shameful, and I’m this close to being caught — he gives me some instructions: “In your dream, as you enter a park or your car, note something visually salient.” This means that as I’m being chased, leaping over walls or running around corners, I should take note of some visual detail in my dream.

I choose a column that I remember seeing as I skid out a door, trying to escape my pursuers. “That’s the cue that you are dreaming,” says Dr. Zadra. So that’s the moment in which I need to change the narrative. “Do you confront the aggressor? Fly away?” he asks. If you think about it beforehand, you can neutralise the frightening part of the dreams. Dr. Lewin echoes this: “It’s turning around, facing the fear, and examining it. Focus on changing the course of the dream or the scenario. Modifying the dream story and implementing lucid dream techniques to be a more active participant in your dreams can help to change their course.” Which brings us to…

Lucid Dreaming

Some lucky folks can take can control of content of their dreams, as Lifehacker’s own Patrick Allan describes in What is lucid dreaming and how do I get started? To wit: “Lucid dreams…are like exploring an amusement park that you built yourself. Not only can you go wherever you want, you can do whatever you like. It’s your world. In essence, a fully lucid dream is a dream you have complete control over. Want to fly like a superhero? It’s possible – I’ve done it. Want to confront a bully without fear? No sweat. Want to have romantic relations with a beautiful dream person? You most certainly can. Imagine going to bed every night and living out your most extravagant fantasies, then waking up still feeling refreshed and rested. That’s lucid dreaming.”

Lucid dreaming is a popular topic right now (this episode of Radio Lab is interesting, if you want to explore more) and works for some people in shifting their nightmares to mere dreams. Dr. Zadra does note, however, that it doesn’t work for everyone — that using it to combat recurring nightmares is “difficult unless you’re already a lucid dreamer.” Still, it’s worth a shot if you want to give the amusement park a whirl. Check out the link above and the book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming to get started.

For me, I’m trying the imagery rehearsal. When I see the column, I’m going to turn and fight back – especially on the shame part. In my rehearsal, I turn and kick like someone from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. And for good measure, I’ll scream “I’m not ashamed!” – just for a little extra f-you to my subconscious.

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