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Bad Dreams: Tips and Activities to help with Dreams

Why do we dream?

While there are many explanations for dreaming, some spiritually based and some based on neuroscience or neuropsychology, we know more about the what rather than the why. There is evidence basis for the fact that dreams are used during REM sleep to assist the mental processing of the person. They might stem from random memories being deleted, be used to work through different problems or scenarios or help us find solutions and stories that calm our fears.

Whatever their internal uses are there is no disputing that some dreams are unsettling. Many can find comfort in speaking the dreams aloud to another person or writing them down in a dream journal. But for those times when the dreams are frightening or disturbing, we may need to do additional processing work with ourselves or with our children. When you are helping a child it is important to remember that the goal is in reducing the dreams or changing the way we feel about them. It might not be possible to make them go away entirely and we would not want that to be the expectation.

The approaches below are targeted at children and teens but can also be easily used with adults who are experiencing dreams. These approaches work best for imagined or story-based dreams. Trauma-based dreams where the person revisits actual or feared events are better handled by a trauma-informed therapist who can guide the processing of the individual.

Part I: Dream Journaling and Self-Exploration about Dreams

These questions can be used to help you or someone you are working with exploring the nature of their dreams. They are best suited for journaling and can be the opening entry for a dream journal. These can be modified into a conversation for younger people to have with their parent.

  • What kinds of dreams do you have?

  • Do you dream often?

  • Do you see color in your dreams?

  • Do you smell and taste?

  • What sorts of bad dreams and good dreams do you have?

  • What meaning do you get from your dreams or what do you think they signify?

  • Do you believe in a spiritual component or basis for dreams?

  • Does your family have any cultural or spiritual beliefs about dreams?

Part II: Activities to Assist in Processing

Skill 1: Lucid Dreaming techniques

Lucid dreaming means to become aware that you are dreaming and holds the possibility to stop or change the dream while still asleep. There are many mechanisms for this that can be explored via videos on youtube or the internet. Whether all people can do this is something that is in question but it is worth a try. A simple technique involves the palm technique where a person pushes their fingers into their palms several times while awake stating that if they are dreaming one hand will pass through the other. When it works while asleep the person knows it is a dream when it works. The person could then say "wake up", "stop" or "go away" to the scary things in the dream.

Skill 2: Finishing the Dream

Another way to handle bad dreams is to complete the dream. We dream in a brainwave frequency known as delta (asleep), the next waking stage is known as theta which is often referred to as a twilight stage. Some artists are known to drift into theta when they are really involved in their work or theta is shown when people are so deeply into a movie or book that they do not see or hear the things around them. This stage when we just wake but have not yet opened our eyes or sat up is the best time to do this activity. If the dream is not caught that early, it can still be effective. The point is to re-imagine the ending of the dream in a way that is better. The monsters may leave and go back to their planet, the villains may be caught and put in jail, or the trauma might be discovered to be a dream or not have really happened.

For children, one especially good way of doing this is to use the "Harry Potter" method. This method was featured in the books and movies when the children faced a creature called a "boggart" who could change into their worst nightmares. The only way to defeat it was to use a magic wand to change it to something silly or funny. This was putting roller skates on a giant spider or putting the bad guy into your grandmother's clothes. Ask the child or person to imagine something funny happening to the bad guys. You might suggest the ghost's mother coming and telling it to be nicer to humans, an alien might turn pink with ruffles, or a person's head might turn into a balloon and float away.

Skill 3: The Dreamcatcher

Another way to combat bad dreams is one that has been a spiritual device used by indigenous people. Many people and children already possess a dreamcatcher without knowledge of the belief behind it or the way that it can be used with respect and dignity to those for whom it is sacred. The legend of the dreamcatcher as told by one Lakota tribe is below. This also gives the person experiencing the dreams some ability to put their own spiritual energy or physical "offerings" like stones, feathers, and beads into the web. It can be both a spiritual and practical approach that especially enables children to feel that they have personal control or agency over their dreams.

The Dream Catcher: Legend of the Dreamcatcher

From the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center

Long ago, when the world was young, an old Lakota spiritual leader was on a high mountain. On the mountain, he had a vision. In his vision, Iktomi - the great trickster and teacher of wisdom - appeared in the form of a spider.

Iktomi spoke to him in a sacred language. Only spiritual leaders of the Lakota could understand. As Iktomi spoke, he took the elder's willow hoop - which had feathers, horse hair, beads and offerings on it - and began to spin a web.

He spoke to the elder about the cycles of life and how we begin our lives as infants. We then move on to childhood and in to adulthood. Finally, we go to old age where we must be taken care of as infants, thus, completing the cycle.

"But," Iktomi said as he continued to spin his web, "in each time of life there are many forces - some good and some bad. If you listen to the good forces, they will steer you in the right direction. But, if you listen to the bad forces, they will hurt you and steer you in the wrong direction."

He continued, "There are many forces and different directions that can help or interfere with the harmony of nature and also with the Great Spirit and all of his wonderful teachings."

All while the spider spoke, he continued to weave his web ... starting from the outside and working toward the center. When Iktomi finished speaking, he gave the Lakota elder the web and said, "See, the web is a perfect circle, but there is a hole in the center of the circle."

"Use the web to help yourself and your people ... to reach your goals and make use of your people's ideas, dreams and visions. If you believe in the Great Spirit, the web will catch your good ideas, and the bad ones will go through the hole." (Note: Some bands believe the bad ideas are caught in the web and the good ideas pass through to the individual. Either account is acceptable.)

The Lakota elder passed his vision on to his people. Now, the Sioux use the dreamcatchers as the web of their life. Traditionally, it is hung above their beds or in their homes to sift their dreams and visions. Good dreams are captured in the web of life and carried with them ... but the evil dreams escape through the center's hole and are no longer part of them. (Note: Some bands believe the bad ideas are caught in the web and the good ideas pass through to the individual. Either account is acceptable.)

The Lakota believe the dreamcatcher holds the destiny of their future.

The museum notes that this story was obtained from historical documents and believed to be public domain. Donations to support the efforts of the Lakota Museum & Cultural Center can be made at this link

Article was written by Erin Prieskorn, Associate Marriage and Family Counselor


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