Coping with Trauma — 28 November 2003
Why have our dreams changed? 9/11/01

The emotional turbulence we have felt since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has altered not only our wakeful hours -but our night dreams as well.

We are very aware of our daytime preoccupations and their impact on our daily activities. Many people report feeling deep sadness, tearfulness, confusion, fear, bewilderment, difficulties concentrating, anger and anxiety. Performing their familiar routines now seems most burdensome. We understand these to be reactions to the tragic national disaster we have experienced. The vulnerability we feel may be new to many of us. The safety, certainty and confidence we have come to know and take for granted have been shaken. We may fear that the future could become the continuation of the recent traumatic past.

In wakefulness we can rationalize, explain, excuse and accept our distraught state. But when night falls, while preparing for sleep, we anticipate some restful reprieve from tormenting images. Many of us have found this hope to be unmet. Not only do we not become refreshed by our sleep, but the nature of our dreams has changed in a worrisome way.

The nature and function of dreams has been a source of fascination to mankind since ancient times. Freud was intrigued by the use and meaning of dreams in his psychoanalytic work with his patients. Many of the current prevalent ideas about dreams have come from studies of various cultures, like the peaceful Senoi, a Malaysian tribe, who spend much of their days retelling and analyzing their dreams.

Dreams are a series of visual images depicting the dreamer’s present
emotional concerns. Since dreams do not entail the use of language, they are
sometimes hard to comprehend. People, often label their dreams as; “strange”, “weird”, or ” bizarre”, since the logical flow of the dream’s story is missing. The understanding of the dream requires an analysis by the dreamer of the meaning of each of the images, people and objects seen. No person can interpret another person’s dream, since the symbolism of each episode is most personal.

Some dreams seem very transparent and their meaning may be assumed as obvious, yet others are so specific and unique that the dreamer may require guidance in comprehending his own imagery. It is amazing how gifted our minds are in depicting complex, emotionally laden themes through symbolic representations.

To understand the meaning of your dreams, you may want to follow this sequence:

® Keep paper and a pen by your bedside.
® Immediately upon waking up from a dream, and before turning on the light, jot the dream down, without editing. Write as many details as you remember.
® When ready to process, tell the dream tale to yourself, or a listener.
® Retell the dream sequence from the perspective of each character or object in the dream since every part of the dream is the dreamer, not the obvious symbol seen. Speak in a first person. For example, “I am the large lamp illuminating the room, I see a frightened man being chased by a big monster”.

® Summarize the emotional themes. (Fear of being chased by a big monster).
® Identify your current concern by asking yourself: “how do these themes (fear, being chased, etc.), parallel my life situation?”

® Make a decision about how to handle this emotional difficulty.

Children as young as three or four may be taught to change their scary dreams while they sleep.

® Tell your children that they are in charge of their dreams.
® Have them tell you, as they are falling asleep, that they will have pleasant, fun dreams.
® If they have a scary dream, have them use a magic wand to change the threatening image to a friendly one, or have them tell the scary monster to take off his mask, to reveal a positive character that the children cherish.
Most youngsters are delighted to use their dream powers to expunge their nightmares.

Most adults, as well as children, have experienced being awakened from a “horrible nightmare”. This event is often accompanied by intense fright, possible perspiration, fast breathing, panic and slow awakening. When we realize that it was only a dream, we feel relief, gradually relax, and allow our body to resume its homeostasis.

So what are these bad dreams about? They are our subconscious mind’s attempts to alert us to a current concern in our lives.
Dreams are our friends; they are our helpers in processing intolerable feelings and our guides into resolving complex emotions. They aid us in processing psychological stresses that we are ill equipped to deal with directly. Dreams come to us as night visitors, in images and sounds to awaken us to the reality of our deeper awareness. With their assistance we balance the stresses of our lives and their emotional undertones.

It is no wonder then, that at a time of extreme trauma, the nature of our dreams changes. It shifts from the very personal processing of internal conflicts to the deeper fears about security, safety and survival. The threat to these primary human needs forces the creation of more dramatic, graphic dream images that propel us into protective action.

How long will our dream content stay altered? – As long as we feel profoundly threatened, unsafe and insecure. As society progresses in assuring our physical and emotional safety- so will we be able to relax and resume our more familiar dream patterns.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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