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Dreams (II); Nightmares, Daydreams

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 23 - November 1997

In a previous article in Positive Health (No. 21, Aug/Sept 97) dreams and the work of understanding them were considered, from the standpoint of a modem psychotherapy

A number of readers contacted me to ask about recurrent dreams and especially nightmares. In any discussion of dreams and related topics, I am often asked about daydreaming. These are some of the areas which will be under consideration here.

Although we still don't understand exactly why we dream, our dreams are a part of our life and often influence us. A recent British Nobel Prize winner in science recently speculated in a book on the function of the dream, and concluded disappointingly enough, that the dream is only a kind of residue or ash-end of the day's events. But surely, we all sense and know that dreams are more powerful than that!

Shakespeare reminds us of this In Hamlet (Scene II, act ii) where the Prince of Denmark sighs "Oh God! I could...count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

Surprisingly then, some people - probably those who either have no dreams or never remember them, ignore this area completely.

Several of the schools of psychology and psychotherapy make no mention of them: behaviourism, cognitive therapy, for example have no place in their kingdom for the dreamworld.

Yet it is an inescapable part of the landscape of the human mind and many patients present problems precisely with their dream states.

The recurrent,nightmare is a plague suffered by some. The International Herald-Tribune carried a front page article not long ago citing a psychiatry professor who had developed a "new" method for curing patients suffering from nightmares. This turned out to be a restatement of the approach developed by Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy some 50 years ago! Naturally, the professor, living in the western part of the USA, made no mention of his predecessor.

But the important thing is that more people are more aware now that dealing with bad dreams and nightmares is by no means an impossible task. In fact, most such cases can be alleviated by a skilful psychotherapist in a few weeks. The method, taught by Perls, is to eliminate the Interpretation of the dream; focus instead on the Structure – think in terms of closure.

Since the dreamer knows much more about himself than any therapist or expert, it is better to avoid interpretating so-called symbols (or archetypes!) In the dream, and allow the person to work with the dream himself. The main role of the therapist here, according to Perls, is to be a guide or witness. Every interpretation, warns Perls, is a therapeutic mistake!

So if we take for example, a typical nightmare: "I dreamt I was falling, and woke up in a panic and cold sweat". Not necessary to give the classical orthodox interpretation that falling represents sexual fears and/or childhood fantasies of being tossed around by patents though these factors may or may not be true (who knows?). But by focusing on the structure of this unfinished situation, In a guided fantasy in the here and now, the dreamer himself can resolve the tension. Closure, a concept which was used by the early Gestalt psychologists to refer to perceptions which tended to complete themselves, is used by modem Gestalt therapists in an holistic sense: there is a tension for the unfinished situations to seek closure. So as long as this dream, or nightmare, is unfinished, it may repeat itself over and over again with drastic consequences for the sleeper.

Perls would deal with this nightmare in the following manner: the dreamer is asked to re-experience the dream in the here and now.

Imagine you are back in the dreamworld, close your eyes, if necessary, and try to recapture the experience. Now, instead of waking up when you experience the falling sensation, use your creative fantasy to shape a new ending. As a kind of self-scripted psychodrama, the dreamer is asked to play the dream and bring it to a new closure. This can be encouraged by asking him to imagine he is, for example, making a movie. In this film, he is the director, actor, script writer, etc. and can use his own imagination to try any ending he likes. If he is dissatisfied with his first try, he may try again. The idea is to reach some conclusion which only he feels is the correct one.

It should be an "Aha!" experience. The therapist remains in the background, simply keeping the person on focus.

So in this instance, the person may say something like this - I am falling a longtime and I finally hit the ground. (How does it feel when you reach bottom? I ask.) Strangely enough, he responds, I am not injured so badly, only a slight sprain and I get up and walk away, and then a slight smile. Or another example, I crash into the ground and I'm dead...followed by heavy crying.

One never knows in advance how the scenario will end, only that some new closure will be reached, and if there is sufficient emotion in the re-playing of the scene, the nightmare will not recur.

Occasionally, of course, the dreamer will repeat the creative fantasy with a better ending; why not a fantastic rescue by Superman? or a helicopter? anything is possible in the surrealistic world of dreams.

It is this active re-working of the dream material that brings closure and a resolution of the nightmare; not the passive recitation of vaguely remembered childhood events.

Again, another typical example of a nightmare: A man in black comes into my bedroom and starts to attack me with a knife; I scream and awaken with anxiety.

Play it through with a new ending; is the experiment to do: He comes at you with the knife, what happens next? You could imagine that you seize the knife from him, and turn it against him...and who would you like to stab? Or again, he attacks and you successfully defend yourself In a brave struggle, and he eventually runs away,

Any ending is possible, as long as a closure is achieved, and the dreamer senses a finality.

If the nightmare is worked on in this manner, over 90% vanish and never disturb the sleeper again, or else return in a less threatening, altered form.

Now, considering daydreams, I think of the title of a famous poem: "In dreams begin responsibilities". Try to use your daydreams to point you in the right direction. If you are daydreaming about a blue-eyed princess, well, how about looking at someone in your immediate environment who might fit that description somewhat. Turn the passive daydreaming into an active search in the real world.

If you are often bothered by an annoying daydream that disturbs your concentration, the closure technique can be used in another form: say, for example, a young man tries to study his geometry text, but daydreams of his ex-girlfriend keep popping up into awareness and distract him. The solution is for him to allow himself a certain period during the day when it is permitted to indulge in daydreaming about his lost love. A completed fantasy, for 10-15 minutes. During this time, don't even think about studying; but enjoy the luxury of a guided daydream. After this, the completion of this fantasy should permit him to return to his studies without so much interruption.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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