Well-Being

Bad Dreams Can Be Good for You

September 7, 2015

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Even if we’re not going back to school, how many of us still have the unsettling, anxious  dream about how we forgot to do a paper or didn’t study for the final exam? What does it mean? Well-being editor Mary Carpenter talked about the importance of being sensitive to your bad dreams in this story first published here in April. 

NIGHTMARES CAN BE RICH fonts of learning about yourself as well as helpful for working through difficult issues – especially if you “dialogue” and “practice courage” with your demons in those dreams, according to Rubin Naiman,* sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona.

Speaking at a recent Psychotherapy Networker conference in DC, Naiman disagreed with familiar treatments of dreams, from the use of “dream dictionaries” to psychoanalysis and Freud. Interpreting dreams when we’re awake, he believes, is a “utilitarian perspective” and involves taking the dream out of context, like looking at a fish out of water: “You can’t understand it.”

Naiman pointed to anti-depressants and sleep medications along with addictions and over-exposure to light at night as wreaking havoc with our dreams by suppressing them.

“Dream loss is the basis of the modern epidemic of depression,” according to Naiman, who traces many problems commonly blamed on sleep loss to dream loss instead. “Most of us are significantly more dream-deprived than we are sleep-deprived,” he said: Rats die in experiments where they are prevented from dreaming.

Dreams occur throughout the night, but it’s during REM sleep that we are most aware of them, Naiman said. He compared dreams to stars in the sky: they are always there but not always visible to us. REM sleep occurs every 90 minutes or so throughout the night in ever-lengthening periods. Because the longest REM periods occur in the final third of the night, Naiman is opposed to using wake-up alarms, which can snip off the end of an important dream.

When we suppress REM sleep with drugs or by sleeping too little, dreams move to earlier in the night and interfere with normal sleep patterns, according to Naiman. With PTSD, nightmares come earlier in the night and during non-REM sleep. But he said, you work with all nightmares in the same way.

“Morning grogginess,” Naiman considers “an exquisite hybrid state of consciousness” – part waking, part sleep, and part dream — and tapping into that state can help us access our dreams. If we are more sensitive to the importance of our dreams, he believes, we will have an easier time recalling them – especially if we practice “arising slowly” in the morning. Upon waking completely, Naiman recommends “bridging our dream experiences and the waking world” by journaling or jotting notes about the dreams, also by talking about them with a “receptive bed partner.”

Nightmares give us an important opportunity to practice courage, Naiman said, and that generalizes to our waking life. Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is one approach to nightmares, based on the idea that we can change our dreams. If you dream of a dragon in the closet, ask yourself what you wish to say to it, or take up a weapon or turn it into a fruit tree. Rehearse this new script during the day, or write a description of the new dream and read it over.

“Lucidity” is another approach, in which the dreamer makes an effort during the dream to remember that they are in a dream – where everything is therefore harmless — and to maintain an attitude of “intrepid curiosity” towards the dream content. Studies on particularly adept lucid dreamers have found more activity in the part of the brain that enables self-reflection (the anterior prefrontal cortex) than in those less skilled.
“Conciliatory dialoging” with dark dream characters is a third approach, which can turn “demonic beings into puppies,” Naiman said. He recommends treating demons as equals and asking them: who are you, who am I and why are you here? By “conciliatory,” he means friendliness — not submission — to encourage dark dream characters to transform.

Finally, the approach Naiman is personally most involved with is shadow work. “The shadow is everything we wish not to be,” he said. For example, a woman who dreamed about a shadow figure slicing her open with a knife was struggling with fears of opening her heart. Naiman advised: “Even when it’s painful, stay in dialogue with the bad sides of yourself.”

Before going to sleep, “it is helpful to set an intention to become receptive to our dreams by first considering that there is something worthy of our attention in our sleep,” Naiman wrote in the Huffington Post. “As we slip into bed, turn out the lights and close our eyes, it is helpful to be mindful of where our attention goes. Most of us routinely think about the next morning…What will I wear? What do I need to get done tomorrow? We can instead allow ourselves to consciously descend into the sea of sleep with our ‘third eye open.’ Rather than setting our sights on the shoreline of tomorrow morning’s awakening, we can allow the deep currents of our dreams to carry us through the night.”

People have trouble remembering their dreams either because they don’t sleep well, because they allow lifestyle factors (worrying about the next day, using alarms to wake up) to get in the way or because they don’t “offer [dreams] sufficient regard.” Naiman believes that “to dream well, we must first sleep well.”

While REM-suppressants include alcohol and mind-altering drugs, Naiman also believes that suppressing our dreams is an important reason why we consume these: “when we lose our ability to naturally expand consciousness through dreaming, we inadvertently seek to do it with excessive indulgence in alcohol, drugs, food, sex or work. Addictions can be viewed as a spiritual quest gone awry.”

To help counter REM suppression, Naiman recommends melatonin, because it “appears to support REM sleep and dreams.” He advises consulting a knowledgeable health professional because side-effects can include serious drowsiness the next day.

As for psychoanalysis, Naiman queries: “Might some patients be better off napping on their therapist’s couch?” In answer to an email noting the risks of scheduling his lecture at 3 p.m. after a long lunch break, he responded: “The nice thing about presenting on sleep is that it doesn’t matter if people stay attentive or nod out. In either case, I feel like I’m doing my job.”

*Rubin Naiman has written several books on dreaming, including “Healing Night,” “Hush” and “The Yoga of Sleep.” He conducts week-long “Healing Sleep Retreats” at spas like Rancho La Puerta.

–Mary Carpenter



2 thoughts on “Bad Dreams Can Be Good for You

  1. Nancy Gold says:

    This post was REALLY interesting. Thanks, My Little Bird.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      I think so, too! Which reminds me to thank the author.

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