Dreams, nightmares and their meaning

Dreams - a subject that my clients often bring up in the course of their therapy hours with me. “I dreamt this or that – what does it mean?” – “I always keep having the same dream, what is it telling me?” Those and others are the questions on this subject. Dreams are by their nature an interesting subject and not just as they relate to psychotherapy. Many people wonder about the meaning of their dreams and many researchers have of course already literally forever dealt with the subject of sleep and dreams.

A variety of theories and attempts at explaining the phenomenon of dreaming already have a thousand year history. In antiquity dreams represented the path used by the Gods to transmit messages to the mortals in order to predict the future or warn them of impending dangers. For instance, legend has it that Priamos’ wife and queen of Troy during her pregnancy dreamt that she would give birth to a torch that would eventually set Troy on fire. In order to save his city, Priamos had his newborn son Paris abandoned – unfortunately shepherds found the boy, raised him and by later abducting the beautiful Helena from Greece as an adult Paris indeed was responsible for devastating Troy with fire and war.

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In the 19th Century Sigmund Freud defined the dream as being the “guardian of sleep”. He was convinced that interpreting dreams is the best way to gain insight into the unknown and thus an important vehicle to control the instinctive impulses originating in our subconscious. Today many researchers merely see the dream as an insignificant neutron tempest, a meaningless remnant of the evolution during the nightly phase of rest when the brain is not subjected to external stimuli, simply generating irrelevant reflections without logic or coherence, an “at-rest” phenomenon, so to speak. On the other hand, others are convinced that our dream contents can provide us with significant clues to open questions in our life or represent a significant element of creative thought- and problem solving processes. For instance, the chemist August von Kekulé is said to have dreamt of a snake biting its own tail – and upon waking up to have realized that this was the exact solution for the benzene ring. Maybe at night we deal with things that were uppermost in our minds during the day and impossible to deal with in the waking state? Do dreams primarily serve to transfer information from our brain’s short-term memory into its long-term memory and in this manner improve its retention? Or do our dreams provide us with access to information or parallel realities out of reach to us during the day? Some New Agers are firmly convinced that dreams are a form of astral projections or soul journeys into other worlds. To date nothing of this has neither been scientifically proven nor truly been refuted. Despite extensive research in many ways the dream and its function still remains an enigma.

On thing is for sure: Everybody dreams, and everybody also dreams with approximately the same frequency. Therefore, whoever claims: “I never dream!”, is simply mistaken – and that because not all of us remember our dreams equally well. By the way, according to research women remember their dreams more frequently than men. Most of our dreams occur during our REM-sleep, a sleeping phase consisting of approximately 20 – 25% of the entire sleep and among other things is characterized by the sleeper’s rapid eye movements. During the 60s it was determined that people sometimes also dream during Non-REM-sleep but those dreams are generally less vivid and less frequently remembered and by the dreamer registered as less important than REM-dreams.

Interestingly there are certain typical dream themes known to many people constantly re-occurring as repetition dreams. Dream researchers at the University of Montreal have determined that dreams of being haunted occur with 81.5% of all people while 72.4% of those polled reported dreams having to do with exams, school and teachers. Other classic dreams deal with being late, falling, flying, being naked in public and the death of important persons of reference. Dreams with these motifs have been found to occur with many people worldwide independent of age, nationality, educational background or cultural environment. Does this now mean that dreams actually represent something like a “message” – be it from whatever Gods or our very own unconscious?

I categorically always suggest to clients who come to me with a question about the meaning of their own dreams to see their dreams as something like a movie – and to see themselves in the director’s role. Even in real movies the director does not always choose a real, but rather a symbolic language to conceptualize that which he wants to impart to the audience. As with a dream, this is a very subjective matter – a Quentin Tarantino is bound to choose a totally different metaphorical language than a Werner Herzog and a movie by Lars von Trier has a totally different effect than one by Fatih Akin. The director’s personality, world of experience and perception impacts the choice he makes regarding the interpretation of his ideas in the images.

I believe that also applies to our dreams and therefore I find it to be so tricky when some of the dream forums or dream interpretation books offer sweeping responses for dream symbols. For instance, it really bothers me when it categorically states that a pistol in a dream has to be seen as the symbol of male sexuality (and that a woman dreams about being shot and in that way expresses her wish for sexual aggression), or that a, with precious stones encrusted necklace announces the inheritance from a distant relative. I believe that our dreams are much to distinctly personal to be categorized in this way. For someone who loves dogs, a dog in a dream may represent the symbol for loyalty, fidelity and devotion – for someone who is afraid of dogs the same dream symbol surely appears to be as something threatening, aggressive. A dream about flying can feel great and exhilarating – or mainly be accompanied by the fear of crashing.

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With my clients I therefore always try to find out that which a dream image- or content represents especially for them – and that can often be very interesting and lead to fascinating further reflections: Why does this particular subject could possibly matter right now? Where does it point my attention? Could it be something that is also presently very much on my mind when I am awake – or on the contrary does it represent something that I tend to suppress while I am awake, for instance of being something presently amiss in my life?

There are obviously certain dream motifs where the interpretations tend to lead in a similar direction. It is always worthwhile to ask oneself who for instance, a haunter in a dream could symbolically represent – what is it that is “haunting” me in my own life at the moment? What is preventing me from finding peace of mind, what is it I would rather run away from than face? When I keep dreaming about exam situations: Where and when may I have the feeling of being “examined” by life? In which situations do I feel like a sitting duck, under pressure, possibly badly or not at all prepared? In which situations do I feel like a pupil, an ignoramus, a seeker? Where in my life could I perhaps be in a threshold- or transition situation symbolizing this “exam”? However, in my opinion, these already exhaust the general symbolic character of dream images – everything else should really be dealt with very individually, given its own meaning meaning and “decoded”.

By the way, in this context I also find the subject of nightmares interesting – dreams we experience as frightening or threatening. Most people have occasionally had those dreams. Almost everyone of us has probably at one time or the other woken up bathed in sweat in the middle of the night or even rudely awakened the peacefully sleeping companion with a panic stricken scream. However, some people and according to studies 2 – 5% of all adults in Germany suffer from chronic nightmares. That can get to the point that the persons affected are afraid to go to bed at night – because they might dream! – and develop fully-fledged sleep disorders. Source of nightmares can sometimes be a traumatic experience, but by far not always. Either way nightmares and particularly recurring nightmares and even if they occur not all that frequently are obviously extremely unpleasant.

A relatively new method developed by behavioral therapy, the so-called Image Reversal Therapy (IRT) now promises relief. In initial sessions this method has proved to be extremely effective and additionally a quick path to success: With most patients only four therapy sessions proved to be successful in getting rid of their chronic nightmares – truly a dream rate that is almost akin to miracle! Still, it is basically very simple and, so say the therapists at Frankfurt University who are working with this method themselves – by all means also applicable without a psychologist present:

Initially the chronic nightmare must naturally be described as exactly as possible. For most of the affected this is not difficult, after all, nightmares are extremely impressive and thus are remembered in every detail. Then the patient “relives” the nightmare together with the therapist again as vividly and graphically as possible. Now the therapist and the patient together invent a “good” end of the creepy dream: For instance, if the patient is continuously haunted in his nightmare, maybe now a protective character appears on the scene in a timely fashion and defeats the attacker; in case the patient frequently dreams of failing an exam, at the deciding time something occurs that helps him/her pass the exam, etc. Therapist and patient simply re-write the script of the dream together, turning it from a nightmare into a “good dream”, so to speak. In his/her sleep the patient remembers the alternate script and continues dreaming the nightmare to a “good” ending by using the by him/her previously imagined method.

This sounds almost too simple to be true but appears to work extremely well: In the course of a pilot study of this method the, by patients related incidents of nightmares declined with the application of IRT from three-and-a-half to once a week – an impressive success and an immense relief for the afflicted. Therapists emphasize that this method does not work with patients whose nightmares are symptoms based on a deeper serious emotional disorder (for instance the consequence of an acute traumatic reaction). To all others it is herewith suggested as an aid for self-help! Read more at http://www.nightmaretreatment.com/home

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