In the previous post, I wrote about how trauma-informed dreamwork can be meaningful in restoring well-being for those whose nervous systems have become disregulated by overpowering experiences. Here in part two, I’ll use some of my own dreams as a case study to reflect on dream themes that are typical when people are recovering from trauma.
It’s especially important not to over-think trauma-related dreams but to attend to the impressions they leave in the body and emotions. For people with PTSD, sense impressions in dreams can often be disturbing or confusing. Dreams may be difficult to describe or fully experience because the nervous system views disturbance and confusion as threatening, and is mobilized to react by “fighting” (denying the validity of the dream experience), “fleeing” (forgetting or fogging the dream memory), or “freezing” (becoming overwhelmed). Even vague trauma-related impressions can be emotionally intense, and can leave the person feeling haunted if the dream remains unexplored. Regardless of whether these dreams seem positive (helpful), negative (disturbing), or neutral (mundane or confusing), there is tremendous healing potential in giving care and attention to the specific sensations and emotions they bring to light.
In groups or with a therapist, theater and bodywork are wonderful tools for PTSD dreamwork. Playing the role of a dream figure allows a person with PTSD to experience themself as someone who is not “the one with the problem.” A dream scenario can free them from the need to make sense of a chaotic situation, as it emphasizes the dynamic flow of interacting characters rather than following a linear storyline. This flow—interpersonal and often playful—is particularly meaningful for those whose lives have been reduced to a series of reactions. Bodywork generally involves a similar freedom from the need to seek cognitive solutions to somatic problems. Instead of analyzing the dream’s imagery, bodywork helps the dreamer to focus on the sensations that arise as the dream is recalled, and to explore those sensations through breath, touch, or movement.
If a group or trained guide is not available, there’s still a lot of dream exploration that can be done on one’s own. When working with PTSD dreams, always engage with intense sensations and emotions in small doses, returning to a baseline of safety frequently so you (the dreamer) can trust that you have a choice about how much to experience. If the dreamer can’t access a baseline of safety (free from physical agitation and anxiety), then it is not a good time to work with disturbing, negative dreams. Positive dreams, however, can be appreciated anytime.
If your life has been impacted by trauma, as mine has, here are some types of dreams you might recognize, and approaches you might consider.
Some dreams offer a glimpse of life energy and possibilities. Others may set up problems that have solutions, requiring some effort but bringing a sense of accomplishment. Such dreams are simply to be savored, as they give the body a direct experience of what is needed for healing.
Mouse In Trouble: A frightening storm. Through the window, I see a mouse huddled on the ground. I plunge into rain and wind, and nudge the trembling creature into a container, but she wriggles out again. She is afraid of me and won’t cooperate. I keep trying until finally I’m running down the trail with the mouse at least temporarily contained. She escapes just as we reach the sheltered place I’ve found for her. It’s a dry area under a shed, and there’s a cereal box lying open there. The mouse goes into the box and gobbles cereal. She must have been starving—she is so thin and frail. She knows I helped her, so she’ll be willing to trust me from now on.
[This dream suggests ways of reassuring my own traumatized body. I can savor the mouse’s sense of safety and fullness, as well as the dream ego’s experience of having the courage to go into the storm, the patience and gentleness to ease fear, and the capacity to provide nourishment and protection to vulnerable aspects of myself.]
Especially early on in the healing process, some dreams may seem ugly, discouraging, shocking or nightmarish, leaving the dreamer feeling worse rather than better. You’d probably want to forget such dreams as quickly as possible, but it can be useful to notice how they affect your body. Try allowing your body to respond naturally, with exaggerated gestures, sounds, or facial expressions that convey the revulsion, anger, hopelessness or fear the dream evokes. Repeating these gestures vigorously (or imagining them, if they’re too intense to enact) can be cathartic and empowering.
Eating Lizards: I am eating a snack of small lizards from a paper cup. This is supposed to be one of my favorite treats, but as I become aware of what I am doing it becomes more and more revolting. I look at the last lizard and wish it were actually alive so I could let it go—but it’s dead and I have to swallow it.
[This dream captures the misery and shame of painful experiences I was unable to stomach. As I recall the sensation of swallowing dead lizards, I allow myself to make faces and gag, shaking my head. After a while, revulsion is replaced by sadness. I can feel the strength of my longing that the last lizard might live after all—that I might live.]
During the worst times of PTSD, I had violently frightening nightmares where I found myself drowning, being eaten alive, or fighting with dead-eyed attackers. Other dreams evoked grief and helplessness as I watched loved ones being harmed, or saw my home swept away by floodwaters. It was difficult to find a gesture that would encompass the enormity of such images, but I could respond by imagining myself screaming—letting the scream carry all the pain that I was unable to contain or express otherwise. Paradoxically, intense emotional pain represents a very powerful suppressed life force, and by screaming it out (in my head—it was too strong for my voice), I actually felt energized. I let the scream go on until the pain broke like a wave into crying, shivering, deep breathing—and finally receded so I could rest.
Recently, I’ve been having dreams that give me direct experience of being free of PTSD.
Spacewalk: We journey into deep space, beyond the known universe, on a mission. My beloved and I met on this spaceship journey; we are trying to figure out how we will maintain our connection once we have returned to our home planet. For now, we share the freedom of deep space where none of the laws of physics apply. We can actually go outside the ship without spacesuits, and walk on the emptiness, which is like walking on stars. We’re surrounded by sparkling lights and infinite, rich darkness.
Every dream is a healing journey into deep space. May we all step into emptiness and experience the infinite, in darkness and in light. We can trust ourselves to come through our most difficult experiences, restored to our home planet, reunited with our inner beloved.
[This article was originally published in in the Winter, 2023 issue of DreamTime Magazine. If you enjoyed it, please consider subscribing to DreamTime by joining the International Association for the Study of Dreams ]