Healing those horrible nightmares

Healing those horrible nightmares

We dream more intensively when there are lots of big changes going on in our lives. When it feels like something’s out of control. And those dreams vary from warnings about something bodily going wrong, to tidal-wave-dreams in which you fear that something awful’s coming, ready to overwhelm you.

(good news about bad dreams)

a conversation with Margaret Bowater

by Paul Freedman

“To sleep, perchance to dream … ay, there’s the rub!”

Poor old Hamlet (according to playwright William Shakespeare) was obviously troubled with nightmares. And Margaret Bowater – dream-specialist, counsellor and author of a new book ‘Healing the Nightmare; Freeing the Soul’ – says most of us are in the same leaky boat. 

But she doesn’t just leave us there. Nightmares, she claims, aren’t simply freaky phantoms of the night sent to torment us. On many occasions they’re also useful information, coming from our minds and bodies, and telling us something needs fixing.

A fascinating idea? Yes, we thought it was. So Grapevine tracked down Margaret and asked her about … well … her worst nightmares!

GRAPEVINE: Before we get into the scary stuff, just what are dreams? And why do we have them?

MARGARET: All mammals have dreams. It seems that the mammal brain, because it’s so complex, needs time-out to sleep. And, from time to time within that sleep, there’s a process of ‘rapid-eye-movement’ (usually abbreviated to ‘REM’) which allows the mind to construct images and stories about issues going on in our lives.

We typically have eight hours’ sleep a night. (Well, that’s what we need!) And within those eight hours, we might have four or five periods of REM sleep, where we engage in vivid dreaming.

One popular theory about sleeping and dreaming is that it calms our system, and helps us get ready for tomorrow. Dreaming seems to pick up issues in our emotional processing that are a bit unusual – or, if they’re strong dreams, things that feel like a threat to our wellbeing. And if we can just track down what we feel anxious about in daily life, we might find that the dream tells us, metaphorically, how to deal with it. 

When I’m listening to somebody describing a disturbing dream, I tune-in to their feelings. I’ll ask whether the dream ends satisfactorily or not. If not, I invite them to ‘re-enter’ the dream and ‘continue the story’. What might happen next to bring about a better ending?

GV: You call this kind of counselling ‘dreamwork’, don’t you. How long have you been doing it?

MARGARET: I’ve been running dream workshops since 1985 – for 32 years! While I was a director of the Human Development & Training Institute I ran a training programme in dreamwork for our counsellor trainees.

GV: Are all dreams useful in helping us calm down and fine-tune our lives?

MARGARET: Well I’d like to say “yes”, but I have to admit that there are times when I’ve been dreaming and catch only a fragment … not enough to tell me anything definite. A lot depends on how much time and effort we’re willing to put in to recording and pondering.

We dream more intensively when there are lots of big changes going on in our lives. We may get other sorts of dreams which have a mystical component – and they can be useful for predicting or warning about something …

GV: What do you mean by ‘mystical’ component?

MARGARET: Well, people often talk about visionary experiences – glimpses of ‘another reality’. They don’t know what they are or where they comes from, but they feel much more real than ordinary dreams. These are most obvious in ‘near-death’ experiences – and vast numbers of these have now been recorded.

GV: Are you talking about near-death-experiences or dreams here?

MARGARET: I’m talking about a mixture of near-death-experience and pre-death visionary dreams (which can begin as an ordinary dream and then become something deeper). The boundary between the two is quite difficult to define. But people are often left feeling this is a spiritual experience. 

GV: You recommend keeping a dream journal. Why’s that? 

MARGARET: Recording a dream on paper or in a notebook is a good way to hold on to the images in your mind. I’ve been recording my dreams now for 30 years. I number them (I’m up to dream number two thousand four hundred and something). If you also give them a title and date, it helps you see which dreams lead on to others. This tells you whether any particular theme (if it’s a nightmarish, or uncomfortable dream) is being dealt with or is getting worse.

GV: Some dream themes might seem rather obvious I guess. I’ve quite often dreamed I’m driving in a car, and even though I’m pushing the brake pedal full force, the brakes just aren’t working. Would that would mean I fear my life’s out of control?

MARGARET: Well, it might suggest there’s some life issue that feels like it’s out of your control, yes.

GV: So how do you work out what it’s really about … and then deal with it?

MARGARET: When you wake up, try and record what you can. But also ask yourself, “What, in my life, brings that feeling on?” You see, the feeling is your first connection. “Exactly what do I feel anxious or panicky about? What am I afraid might happen?”

GV: One of the expressions you’ve coined is ‘lucid dreaming’. What’s that?

MARGARET: Lucid dreaming can occur when you move from an ordinary kind of dream into another level of dreaming – which includes the awareness that you are dreaming. And once you recognise that, “Oh – I’m inside a dream!”, then you can steer it. You can actually make things happen. “Ah! I can get myself out of this mess!”

Some people do it naturally. Others spend ages trying to learn to do it. But as far as I can tell it’s not that easy. I can’t quite say that I’ve never had it … I’ve come close … but only in those dreams where I’m right on the point of waking up and my waking-brain is beginning to kick in. 

I know some people who can choose to go into lucid dreaming at will, and have tremendous adventures – even quite powerful spiritual experiences. 

GV: You mention dreams and visions. Dreams I know, but what do you mean by ‘visions’?

MARGARET: The most powerful visionary experiences that I’ve heard of recently tend to be near-death experiences, when the mind moves out of the ordinary framework into another dimension and has glimpses of something beyond. People who talk about this tend to be people who’ve had pretty good experiences. (There are a few who’ve had not-so-good experiences …)

GV: You mean going up a tunnel towards a great light … feeling happy and peaceful … heavenly music and stuff like that?

MARGARET: Yes – up a tunnel towards a light which gets brighter and brighter, and if you get to the end of the tunnel you meet a being of light. You may receive instructions to go back because it’s “not your time yet” … you may be aware of a boundary … or you may go further into what seems like a beautiful scenario of some sort.

GV: Well, beautiful scenarios aside, your latest book concentrates on nightmares. Most of us would surely prefer to forget them, wouldn’t we?

MARGARET: True. But I think we should remember them, think about them, and deal with them. 

GV: So nightmares are an even stronger message for us to react in some way?

MARGARET: Yes. And they vary from warnings about something bodily going wrong, to tidal-wave-dreams in which you fear that something awful’s coming, ready to overwhelm you. 

GV: Do we all have nightmares?

MARGARET: I think probably, yes. We don’t necessarily call them nightmares. If you expand the meaning to “disturbing dreams that leave us feeling threatened and helpless” – I think everybody has those at times.

Children have them more often because they have less power to control their environment. In the workplace, for example, (and I’m hearing from counsellors who do employment work), there’s a lot of bullying going on. And bullying can lead to terrible nightmares.

GV: We do have odd nightmares don’t we? Tell me about the lady who had the mouth filled with glue.

MARGARET: She attended her first dream workshop in her midlife years, and described this recurring nightmare. Her throat would fill up with some horrible, glue-like jell and she’d be unable to say anything. It turns out her boys had airguns, and they’d been going around the neighbourhood shooting things. She needed to talk about this with her husband. But he thought this was “woman stuff” and nothing to do with him. So she couldn’t get her concerns out. She’d choke up. And if she ever did manage to get anything out, it shot out like a bullet – a sharp criticism – “You never listen to me!” or whatever. There was never any one-to-one discussion or dialogue.

The problem went back, we discovered, to her early childhood, when she grew up in an abusive household and couldn’t talk about it or tell anybody. She’d learned to simply shut up.

GV: So how did the dreamwork therapy help her to change things?

MARGARET: She learned, in counselling, to talk about the abusive experiences and failures that had messed up her life. And as she got better at expressing herself, life came more under her control – and she could say, “Yes, of course! I can see how the nightmare of being choked up with this glue described my situation perfectly.”

GV: Do you put nightmares in categories?

MARGARET: Well, all nightmares are unique in their particular circumstances. But you can usually tell a Category 1 nightmare, because the dreamer will say, “I dream exactly what happened!”

GV: Like death of a loved one?

MARGARET: Yes or the horrible scene when that person died. Whereas, in a Category 2 nightmare, things are beginning to shift.

GV: How many categories are there?

MARGARET: Three. That’s Harry Wilmer’s categorising system. He was working with military combat veterans.

GV: I suppose veterans would be dealing with exceptional trauma, wouldn’t they?

MARGARET: On the whole, yes. Trauma nightmares are very powerful and very frightening. If you’d grown up in a violent, alcoholic home, for example, you might have suffered beatings or witnessed other family members being beaten. And if you’re a girl in that situation, you can become very afraid of men. With trauma experiences, you mightn’t have understood what’s happened to you … and the nightmare is likely to recur, over and over, like earthquake aftershocks. It’s so important that you’re able to talk about this and about how you felt. 

One woman came to me saying, “Look, I have this recurring nightmare about being on a quad bike. It’s tipping over and I’m going to get killed.” 

I asked, “Have you ever been on a quad bike?” “Yes,” she said, “I went on a trail ride quite recently.”

“Did anything happen?” I asked. “Yes!” she said. “My bike did tip up and almost went over, but it righted itself again and I was okay.” 

She’d dreamed that it could’ve kept going – that the worst could’ve happened. But then she took that to mean it was going to happen – it was a prediction. So I explained, “No – it’s just a natural echo of what has happened and why you were so frightened. Because it could’ve been worse.” 

Some cultures believe that any repeating dream must be a prediction. Apparently Arabic cultures are like that. And if you’re working with somebody from a culture like that, you have to emphasise that their dream’s most likely a reaction to what’s already happened. 

Understanding that can help de-fuse the power of the nightmare.

GV: You suggest that people with recurring nightmares can help themselves by putting a ‘ ‘new ending’ on the dream story. How on earth do you do that?

MARGARET: Ah well, if you were in lucid dreaming it’d be easy. You’d know you were in a dream. But most of us aren’t lucid dreamers. So what we do when we wake up feeling helpless and terrified, is wait until the next day. Then later, as we remember the dream, it helps to consider: “What could I do to take myself out of that situation?” Let the dream run through your mind again, but now carry on imagining the new situation – the new ending that makes things better. 

You might even try imagining two or three different endings. And, in the process, you’re proving to yourself that you aren’t helpless. 

GV: Have you ever had one of these recurring nightmares?

MARGARET: Yes. For ages I had a vivid recurring dream in which I lost my handbag. Now my handbag’s my access to all my important independence. Losing it is serious. And the first few times I dreamed this I was really quite distressed at being so paralysed and helpless. So I made myself consciously think, “What should I do?” 

In most versions of the dream I’ve put the bag down somewhere and the shock hits when I realise it’s missing. So what I’ve had to do first is go back and look for it. Or, another ending that helps – I go to the lost property office – or the police – and ask if anyone’s handed it in.

Once I start imagining new endings, I find I don’t have the nightmare any more – or the distress is eased. 

GV: How do you tell if a simple technique (such as you’ve just mentioned) is enough – or whether you need more professional counselling?

MARGARET: When it prevents you from doing something that’s ordinary in your life, like getting on a bus, or doing anything that most people can do without a qualm. If you really can’t handle those ordinary things, then you need to investigate deeper. 

Standing up to a bully would be a common one – and a much more serious issue. You can choose not to go on a bus, or go caving, or venture out into wide open spaces if that’s what your nightmares are about. But bullies will find you. And many people haven’t learned – or don’t know about – a middle ground between passive and aggressive behaviour. In the middle of those extremes, there’s assertive behaviour in the middle, where you can stand your ground and speak your truth and possibly influence the bully. 

GV: But how do nightmares fit in? You can’t ‘dream away’ bullies can you?

MARGARET: In the nightmare you might feel, for example, that you’re being attacked by a wild dog … or you might dream that Dad’s about to beat the hell out of you again … whereas the trigger experience in real life may be the boss at work picking on you, disparaging you or putting you down. How do you get through that? 

Well, I’d encourage you to imagine a new ending to the dream in which you stand your ground. And, as you feel what that’s like, a new assertiveness may begin developing for you in real life too. At the least, it’ll clarify for you where the problem really lies.

GV: Children have bad nightmares don’t they? The ‘monster under the bed’! I used to see the wardrobe door slowly opening – and didn’t dare look away from it.

MARGARET: Once again, it’s that sense of helplessness. Some of it can be brought on by the scary stories children see and hear. There’s plenty of frightening stuff on TV they really shouldn’t be watching.

One of my friends attended my workshop. She’d had her four-year-old granddaughter stay with her, and, before they went to bed, she and granddaughter read a story the child liked called Bob the Burglar. In the middle of the night the child awoke screaming. Nana soothed her and eased her back to sleep. But in the morning my friend asked the girl, “What was it that so frightened you last night?” “Oh,” she said, “There were burglars coming in my bedroom.” 

Well, Nana gave her a big sheet of paper and a lot of crayons and said, “Draw a picture of yourself … BIG!” So the little girl drew this big picture of herself. 

Next, Nana said, “Now draw all the burglars … little!” So she drew the little burglars. And then Nana asked, “What do you want to say to those burglars?” And the little girl answered, in a big voice, “GO HOME!”
They practiced this together – both of them yelling “GO HOME”. The grandchild was delighted and every visitor to the house received a demonstration of the dream! She was learning that she can do something about this nightmare. At age four she knows she is not a helpless little girl about to be violated.

GV: But lots of little girls have been, or may have been violated.

MARGARET: Yes – an alarming percentage of New Zealand girls have been sexually abused to some degree before they’re 16. And it’s shocking! The average age it starts for them is just nine … 

GV: What sort of dreams might a child describe that should alert a parent, grandparent, doctor or caregiver that something’s seriously wrong?

MARGARET: She dreams there’s somebody trying to attack her – trying to harm her. Sometimes children won’t feel free to tell their story to parents. They need to have others they can talk about it with. And, of course, some of the nastiest examples of child abuse are carried out by friends of the parents – and the children aren’t believed when they talk about it.

I had one woman come to me aged 69, a Polynesian woman, having terrible nightmares. She’d thrash around in bed, screaming. Her daughter sent her to me with a little note saying, “I don’t think she’s had a good night’s sleep for years!” 

The woman was glad to tell me her story: “I’ve never told this to anybody before, even my daughter, because I wanted her to have a good relationship with her father …” (The daughter, however, had already worked out that her father wasn’t safe!) 

Within two sessions the woman had stopped thrashing around at night. Within four, she was sleeping peacefully. And after that we practiced assertiveness. So, even after 60 or more years, you can still do something about those locked-in bad memories and fears.

GV: Many of us feel we should be able to just ‘deal with’ this stuff and get over it – right?

MARGARET: Boys get that a lot, yes. Don’t ask for help – that’s weakness. Whereas girls are allowed to be weak – but they’re not allowed to be a fighter. It was felt that women always needed a man around to protect them. Well, thankfully, those attitudes are shifting now.

GV: You talk about ‘spiritual crisis’ nightmares. What are they?

MARGARET: They occur when there’s something getting in the way of your having a healthy spiritual life. Where you can pray freely, for example, if that’s important to you. Where you can join in with a spiritual community. Where you can talk about life in a constructive way, and you’re not terrified of death.

GV: So the spiritual crisis nightmare then, is that an attack on these beliefs?

MARGARET: It may be an attack. And the one that’s been most prominent recently is when men with spiritual authority take advantage of their situation to introduce sexualisation into their relationships with people in their care. Like the priests who’ve abused altar boys, or clergy who’ve indulged in inappropriate touching with girls or women. 

GV: We know that happens, sadly. But where do nightmares fit in? And how does understanding them make the situation any better?

MARGARET: Well, victims often dream that somebody’s taking advantage of them … that somebody’s pursuing them. And it often turns out that they were abused in childhood, and have never learned how to establish boundaries. 

A guy came to me wanting help with his marriage. His wife suspected him of unfaithfulness, and he confessed pretty quickly that he had indeed been unfaithful. Even worse, he’d exploited people in their community, and he was petrified his wife would find out. He wanted me to ‘fix up’ his marriage! 

Now he wasn’t into exploring nightmares, but he did have a very revealing dream that a strange cat came in through the window of his bedroom, sat on the bed as if it had a right to be there, and was spitting and snarling at their household cat. He didn’t know what that meant, but it seemed pretty clear to me that there was an ‘invader’ who was at least verbally attacking somebody who belonged there. We managed to unpack a bit of that. But, sadly, the man wouldn’t take responsibility for his actions …

Spiritual crises also show in people who are terrified of death. I counselled a 94-year-old man who was so frightened that he simply declared he was “never going to die!” Now his body was getting shaky, and he had nightmares about walking on a high ridge, with the ground crumbling away beneath him. We understood that fairly quickly. But what he simply couldn’t deal with was a recurring nightmare about a little child, sitting on his lap and gazing at him with pleading eyes. When he described that dream, he cried, even though he had no idea what it meant.

Eventually I asked him, “So what happened to you when you were a little boy?” And out came the story about watching his mother suffering terrible asthma attacks. He thought she was dying, and feared he’d be left, just four years old, on his own with no one to care for him.

His image of dying was gasping in terror, fighting for breath, and he wasn’t going to let himself get into that situation. 

Once we’d brought this out, his daughter said, “Dad! We’d never leave you alone! We’d all sit here with you until you passed over … and when you get to the other side, the rest of the family will be there waiting for you!” 

Well, he relaxed, after that, and later died peacefully.

GV: I liked the way you finished your book with a dream of your own. Like to share it?

MARGARET: Sure. I have a dream that sometime soon all health professionals, pastors, chaplains, teachers, social workers, care givers and parents – really everyone who cares for others – will learn how to use nightmares for healing, and value dreams in general for their insight and inspiration.