Nightmares can be overwhelming and distressing. They can ruin your day and leave you feeling anxious, depressed, and out of control. I never experienced debilitating nightmares until I worked as a psychologist in prison. I was absolutely stunned by how severe and disruptive dreams could be.
I worked in the prison system for over 3 years before experiencing nightmares. My nightmares were almost at the same level as someone with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It all started when my supervisor inappropriately assigned me and another female colleague to work exclusively with severely mentally ill sex offenders. I expressed concern to my supervisor about being assigned to this population but he did not listen.
Within a few weeks, I had my first nightmare. I dreamed that a strange man was standing over my bed in a threatening manner. The dream was so vivid it seemed 100% real. Prior to this, my dreams were entertaining fantasies that I always knew were dreams. But in this dream, I began screaming and I woke myself up to my own terrifying screams. I lived alone at the time with my little dog so had no one to turn to.
At first, I thought this was just a fluke and wouldn’t happen again. Unfortunately, the dreams kept coming. Most of the time the dreams were about me and my dog. I would run frantically around trying to save my dog from a predator, which was usually another animal. The dreams continued to feel real and I would wake in a panic, drenched in sweat.
Pretty quickly I realized that I needed help and began talking with my colleagues. I talked to at least 20 other psychologists with whom I worked with and asked for their advice. One psychologist in particular suggested I work with him on a Jungian Dream Analysis process. I read about the process and thought it might be helpful. However, I was skeptical.
The process was as follows:
STEP 1: Keep a log of all the dreams that you can remember. In the middle of the night or in the morning, write out a few sentences about each dream. I kept a log on my iPhone notes app.
STEP 2: After you have collected dreams for 1 week, begin analyzing the theme of each dream. (Note: you must continue logging your dreams each day until the process is complete.) It was clear there was a common theme in all of my dreams. There was a predator trying to hurt both me and my dog but more so my dog than me.
STEP 3: Describe each person and object in the dream in as much detail as possible and then identify the roles they play. Many of my dreams included me, my dog, and another larger animal. In my dreams, I was always trying to save my dog. My little dog was being stalked by a larger animal such as a snake, lion, bear, etc. Most of the time I was able to save my dog, but just barely.
- Me: Savior
- My Dog: Victim
- Larger Animal: Predator
STEP 4: Imagine that you could become each of the characters or objects in the dream. Empathize with them and/or their feelings. When the psychologist asked me to sit with the feelings of each of the characters, I found it very difficult. It was easy for me to associate myself with the savior. I had control and I was in charge. But when I imagined becoming the victim it was more difficult. The hardest character to become or empathize with was the predator.
STEP 5: Embrace all characters or objects in the dream as representing different aspects of yourself. I remember sitting with the other psychologist feeling like it would be impossible for me to ever believe that all the characters in the dream represented me. Part of me could accept that I was the victim, but I would NOT accept that I was the predator!! The psychologist would patiently say to me, “Why is it hard for you to embrace these aspects of yourself?” I would say, “Because they are not aspects of me!”
STEP 6: Integration. For weeks, I tried to sit with the feelings and experiences of the different characters in my dreams. I tried to empathize and understand them. The psychologist I worked with would say, “In Jungian analysis these aspects are your shadow self or dark side.” “It is always easier to accept the light than to accept the dark.” He told me that until I could embrace the darkness and integrate it into myself, I would continue to have nightmares.
Breakthrough Dream: As I reluctantly worked to accept my shadow, I had a dream that was very helpful. I dreamed that I was in a beautiful house and my dog was playfully running around in it. It was a sunny day and I was happy. When I looked around, I suddenly noticed a large crack in the floor. Before I could stop my dog, he fell through the crack and a giant pole went through him and he died. When I woke from the dream, I was more curious than upset. If everything in the dream represented me, then I was the house. Everything looked good except for the large, dangerous crack that I was falling through and could not avoid.
The house in my dream represented the predator and I could finally understand and embrace the predator. Anyone could have a problem like the house, even me. The house did not want to be dangerous. It just had a design flaw. You might say the animals in my dream had no control over their predatory nature. They just did what they were programmed to do. It made me sad to think of someone who was programmed to be a predator. Even though I was NOT programmed in the same way as a criminal or sex offender, I was programmed with problematic reactions and behaviors.
This dream would lead me to a place of deep surrender and acceptance. I began to smile at and embrace my shadow self. We became friends and I was not scared of it anymore. It would take me about 6 weeks until my nightmares stopped and changed into ordinary dreams.
I worked with my colleague for approx. 30 min a day, 4 days a week for 6 weeks. Basically, I had intensive therapy to overcome these nightmares but it was such a transformational experience, I would never wish for anything else.
After I healed, I continued to work with the severely mentally ill sex offenders for another 2 months. They no longer triggered nightmares in me and I could be more objective and empathetic with them. My supervisor pulled me out of the rotation and I never saw them again. But this experience taught me an invaluable lesson and since 2009 I’ve worked with clients to overcome their nightmares.
If you struggle with nightmares from PTSD or any other mental health condition, please contact me through my website to schedule an appointment.