Our dreams and nightmares slip in through the cracks of our consciousness every night. One sign of a balanced state of overall health is when our dreams are pleasant, enjoyable, and interesting.
What does it mean, however, when we instead wake from nightmares in a state of panic, our hearts pounding, and needing to catch our breath?
While nightmares can be generated by many sources, those that cause us the most distress are often generated by unresolved or un-metabolized trauma in our lives.
Trauma-based nightmares may disturb not only our nights but linger with sticky tenacity into our subsequent days. They may mirror the helplessness and terror we feel in experiencing a natural disaster, the loneliness of living during an isolating pandemic, the wide-ranging reactions to violence in our world, or the shame and blame-filled traumas of an abusive past.
Sometimes when these dreams wake us, we have the very real felt-sense that the danger is right here, right now, in our bedroom. In both dreams and in daytime trauma responses, time collapses. It is always “now” in our dreams, not yesterday or tomorrow, and when stuck in a waking life trauma response, it also still feels like “now,” as if the prior events were still current events.
Trauma dysregulates our ability to cope and may also cause us to react to historical events as if they were still happening right now. The past and the present become entangled and confused, much as they do in a dream state. This urgency of “nowness” can point us in the direction of potential healing.
One hallmark of trauma-based nightmares is that they are emotionally intense and recurrent. This type of nightmare represents an SOS from our unconscious—there is something more that we need to know; something in our lives that is not resolved.
Some nightmares may contain the fingerprints of intergenerational legacies. Events from generations past can affect us through the transmission of family stories, parenting styles, and, as the new science of epigenetics informs us, even changes in our gene code.
One of my clients, an author named Hannah, was recently asked to appear on a television show. Her panicked response went way beyond typical performance anxiety. She recalls her dream that night: “As I make my way to the studio for my interview, I know that I will be killed if I go through with it. The only recourse is to run home immediately and cancel the show.”
As we unpacked her dream, she thought back to generations of family history at the turn of the century when her family fled pogroms in Eastern Europe. The message from their experiences was clear: “Don’t be visible—it isn’t safe. The only safety is hiding who you are.”
Living in the United States in the 21st century, this was not Hannah’s own experience, but it registered as such in her unconscious mind. Once we pieced this together, we could use active dreamwork to help clarify what is true in her life now and what belonged in generations past.
The good news is that our systems are wired for resolution and healing. This is one of the tenets of accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP), a therapeutic approach designed by Diana Fosha, PhD, that posits we are not meant to stay wounded, but rather meant to heal. She states that we are “hard wired” for healing.
Using active dreamwork to heal and resolve our trauma-based nightmares is one of the best ways to access our unconscious self; and in healing ourselves, we can then use that knowledge to extend healing to our world as well.
The GAIA Method
One method I use for resolving nightmares is the Guided Active Imagination Approach, or the GAIA Method. I describe it in detail in my books Modern Dreamwork: New Tools for Decoding Your Soul’s Wisdom and PTSDreams: Transform Your Nightmares from Trauma Through Healing Dreamwork. This style of healing nightmares is based on two pillars: Jungian active imagination and best practice trauma treatments.
Our first order of business is always “Do no harm,” and with trauma-based nightmares, we want to be careful to avoid retraumatizing the dreamer by moving into the belly of the beast too quickly and triggering an abreaction (an overwhelming emotional response).
The two stages of this approach honor that we first need to establish safety, security, and accompaniment before venturing into the dream—in a waking state—to confront the thing we are most fearful of, sometimes known as the Shadow.
If you know or suspect that you have a trauma history, it is best to do this process with a trauma-informed therapist with familiarity in this work. The therapeutic modalities of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT), and Somatic Experiencing are all helpful to use alongside dreamwork. The key is to find someone that you feel comfortable and connected with so that you are accompanied on this journey.
If the level of upset in your nightmares is relatively low (5 or less on a scale of 0 to 10), and you have a strong support system in your waking life, then it’s possible to do this work solo or, even better, with a friend, partner, or dream support group.
Part One: Gather the Allies and Helpers
Part One of this method takes as a model the first stage of EMDR work. The therapist has the dreamer collect a mental posse of safe people, real or imaginary, alive or deceased, as well as safe places, objects, or spiritual beings. (One of my clients invited Gandalf to join him, and another invited Mary Poppins, and a third invited the angel Gabriel. All great choices!)
Once the dreamer feels safe enough, as a bridge between the two parts, the therapist invites them to meditatively “peek” inside the nightmare itself to see if there are resources already there that they may not have noticed at first.
Part Two: Enter the Dreamscape
Once they feel safe and ready, the therapist invites the dreamer to mentally enter into the dream (still awake and alert) with these resources and confront that which they have been running from for so long.
The dreamer gathers information or guidance from what they discover in the dream. In this space, we can confront the Shadow from the place of safety and protection that we set up in Part One.
There are multiple dreamwork techniques that can be used here, ranging from Gestalt techniques, where every person and object in the dream is a part of yourself, to embodied somatic dreamwork, where you physically recreate your dream, to Image Rehearsal Technique (IRT), where you replay the dream or nightmare with a better positive outcome, then practice that new outcome each night before going to sleep to create new neural networks in your sleeping brain.
I often simply tell my clients, “This is where you woke up, but it is not necessarily where the dream ended. What happens next? And next?” We continue until there is safety and some resolution.
Part Three: Find the Gift Within the Nightmare
Finally, the dreamer is invited to find the gift hidden inside the nightmare, then take that gift out into their lives to create waking world changes for themselves and others.
Here, then, is where healing is actualized, for the source of the nightmare—trauma—is addressed when we work directly with our unconscious selves in dreaming. When we can turn our own healing outward to help others, then we can be part of tikkun olam, saving the world.
Learn more about working with your dreams here.