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Things That Go Bump
In The Night

How to take control of your nightmares

by Therese Droste

Every night, the unicorn chased the little girl in her dreams. The unicorn’s menacing behavior left the girl shaken, and that anxiety followed her throughout the day. With reassurance from her parents, however, she was able to imagine that she got safely got away, which ended her bad dreams.

“Apparently, the little girl was getting ready to start kindergarten at a new school,” explains Alan Siegel, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor, University of California at Berkeley. “Unicorn was the name of the preschool she attended; she felt safe there. Deep down, she was afraid of attending a new school.”

Whether as children or as adults, we’ve all had nightmares--distressing dreams that scare us into wakefulness and leave us tense and anxious. It’s often difficult to grasp a nightmare’s meaning. The language of nightmares--metaphors, symbols--differs from the logical thinking in our waking lives.

Yet a disturbing nightmare--whether it’s a one-time occurrence or recurring--may actually be therapeutic and helpful. “It’s telling you to pay attention to something in your life,” says Robert L. Van de Castle, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center, Charlottesville, VA.

Life events such as marriage, divorce, or pregnancy can trigger nightmares, says Siegel, as can some foods or medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are prescribed to relieve depression and anxiety. Some also link melatonin and B-6 vitamins to nightmares, adds Siegel.

According to these dream experts, we can help our children--and ourselves--overcome the nightmares by using a few simple tools. (Nightmares resulting from a particular trauma, such as rape, may require professional help.)

For children, Siegal offers four “Rs” of nightmare relief.

* Reassurance. Talk to or physically hold your child to help break the nightmare’s spell.

* Re-scripting. Change the storyline to a safe ending.

* Rehearsal. If the child can’t verbally communicate either because he’s too young or too upset, draw or paint new endings.

* Resolution. Once the child figures out how the dream connects to his life, the dream will resolve itself.

The same tactics of integrating different endings also work for adults, as do a few additional tips.

• As you fall asleep, remind yourself that if you have a dream about X, you want the ending to be Y. “Falling asleep is a good time to influence dream content, because you’re in a suggestive state, much like hypnosis,” says Deirdre Barrett, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

• Keep a dream journal by your bed, or talk into a tape recorder. Write in it upon waking, even if it’s only phrases or images. “Even a fragment can act as a skeleton key that opens a door to learn more,” says Siegel.

• Wake up naturally, or to a tone alarm. Avoid clock radios, says Siegel. If you hear a radio announcer’s voice or music, it may draw you away from the dream.

• Talk to someone about your nightmare. “The act of telling is a release, it’s similar to how crying works to relieve grief,” says Jill Fischer, a Norwich, CT psychotherapist.

• Visualize a safe place. And visit that place during the day if the nightmare causes anxiety. Think of that place before falling asleep, says Fischer, who helped launch the National Nightmare Hotline (1-866-DRMS911).

How long does it take to resolve a nightmare? Some people can do it immediately, for others, it takes months. “Sometime you don’t get the exact outcome you pictured, but something else in the dream changes or the nightmare gets better. If it doesn’t work the first time, it’s worth continuing every night at bedtime for a matter of weeks,” says Barrett.