NIGHTMARE REMEDIES: RESCRIPTING BAD
Alan Siegel, Ph.D.
Copyrighted Excerpt from
Dream Wisdom: Uncovering Life’s Answers
in your Dreams
by Alan Siegel, Ph.D. (Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 2003)
During a crisis or after a traumatic event, it is important to know
nightmares are more common and upsetting. We experience each nightmare as
a traumatic event and for those who have experienced violence, a natural
disaster, accident or other trauma, posttraumatic nightmares rub salt on
our emotional wounds. Keep in mind that moderately upsetting nightmares
may actually be a positive sign of normal coping but very graphic
nightmares that are repetitive and unchanging may signal an emotional
Nightmare remedies are self-help techniques that can help adults and
children break the spell of their bad dreams and use them for personal
growth and creative inspiration. A simple method for transforming
nightmares is to use the 4 R’s of nightmare relief. Reassurance,
Rescripting, Rehearsal, and Resolution.
Reassurance is the first and most important step. This breaks the spell of
the nightmare by giving emotional reassurance and for family members or
children, physical comforting may help as well. Once you feel reassured
and the nightmare’s reign of terror has been overthrown, you can relax,
become curious about the nightmares meaning and message and begin to
approach the dream in a more playful manner.
Knowing that occasional nightmares are normal and their frequency and
intensity may increase during crises may also be reassuring. A key factor,
especially for children, is not to dismiss or ignore the nightmare with a
message that “it’s just a dream” or you should just ignore it. Nightmares,
especially during a life crisis are very hard to ignore.
Reassurance paves the way for Rescripting the dream. Rescripting uses
discussion, fantasy, writing, art, or drama to re-experience and revise
different parts of the dream narrative with the goal of opening up new
endings and directions. You can use techniques from the Experiential Dream
Menu in Chapter 11 of Dream Wisdom, to transform and tame the most
threatening interactions and moments in the nightmare. This can be as
simple as experimenting with rewriting one or more new endings for the
dream or may involve more elaborate free associations to link the
conflicts in the nightmare to unresolved life issues.
The third R needed to implement a nightmare remedy is Rehearsal. This
involves multiple forays and trials of rewriting and re-enacting the
dream. If you are having nightmares about an auto accident or serious
physical injury, imagining one new ending may only be the beginning.
Depending on your creative inclinations, you may need to write out one or
more new endings, sketch or paint the threatening elements in the dream or
role play with a friend or with a psychotherapist or dream group. Creating
new endings does not have to involve killing your dream adversary. The
terrorist or robber or wild animal can be frozen or shackled. Walls,
cages, force fields, or even magic wands can be made available as you
rehearse dream solutions. Adults may need to loosen up their imagination
but children take to this easily especially with adult guidance. And for
children, non-violent strategies for subduing dream villains can model
creative problem-solving strategies that do not necessarily emphasize
Rehearsal is somewhat parallel to the phase of psychotherapy, called
“working-through” which involves taking breakthrough insights and testing
them out in a variety of ways with people and situations. When nightmares
are extremely painful or repetitive or related to a profound trauma,
rescripting and rehearsing dream solutions may need to be repeated before
the nightmares subside. It is important to keep in mind that conjuring up
one new fantasy ending for a dream is not going to solve a deep problem
that may be causing the nightmares. However, even if dream rehearsals must
be repeated for people who are suffering more severe trauma, even initial
efforts at rescripting may in some cases, dramatically reduce the
incidence of posttraumatic nightmares.
The final Nightmare Remedy “R” is Resolution. Discussion and various
trials of rescripting and rehearsing solutions usually trigger insights
about what life issues are causing the nightmares. At this point, the
dreamer on her own or with the help of a friend or psychotherapist is
ready to resolve the nightmare. Resolution occurs when the dreamer
brainstorms and identifies behaviors they can further examine or try to
change. Examples of resolution would be Lisa’s work-related nightmares
series in Chapter 6, of Dream Wisdom, which included the dream, ‘Too Many
Chefs Spoil the Stew”. After rescripting the dream, she realized, she had
denied her assertive side and was being taken advantage of by the
employees in her restaurant. After rehearsing various dream assertiveness
strategies for rescripting the attacks of her wayward employees, she made
a series of changes that led to exerting more clear authority at work and
being more aware of her tendency to deny her assertive side.
We do not have to suffer nightmares in silence. Using the menu of
techniques in this section and chapter 11 of Dream Wisdom, you can
detoxify your nightmares, and use them as a source of insight and personal
growth. In more acute situations, resolving nightmares can create
breakthrough in dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic situation.
WHEN TO SEEK HELP FOR CHILDREN’S
Whereas moderate nightmare activity may be a potentially healthy sign that
the unconscious mind is actively coping with stress and change, frequent
nightmares indicate unresolved conflicts that are overwhelming your child.
When children’s nightmares persist, when their content is consistently
violent or disturbing, and when the upsetting conflicts in the dreams
never seem to change or even achieve partial resolution, it may be time to
seek further help from a mental health specialist or pediatrician.
Especially if there is no obvious stress in your child’s life, repetitive
nightmares could also be caused by a reaction to drugs or a physical
condition, so it is advisable to consult a physician to rule out medical
causes when nightmares do not appear to have a psychological origin.
A further issue to consider is whether your child may be suffering from a
sleep disorder. Many parents may confuse sleep disorders like sleepwalking
and talking with nightmares which are more psychological in origin. Sleep
disorders may or may not be accompanied by nightmares and are generally
organic in origin. They are surprisingly common affecting over 15% of the
United States population with 95% of all cases going undiagnosed. The
International Classification of Sleep Disorders published in 199010,
lists 84 conditions that interfere with sleep including Primary Snoring,
Jet Lag, Restless Leg Syndrome, Narcolepsy and Sleep Apnea. Many sleep
disorders such as Jet Lag will go away on their own. Others such as
various forms of insomnia may reduce children’s ability to learn, lower
their resistance to disease, and increase accident-proneness. Some sleep
disorders may even be life-threatening such as sleep apnea. If you suspect
that your child is having a sleep disorder11,
speak to your pediatrician to determine if he or she needs to consult a
board certified sleep specialist or to be evaluated in a sleep center12
The current diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association
(DSM-IV) includes Nightmare Disorder as an officially recognized
affliction of both children and adults. Those who suffer from this
disorder have “extremely frightening dreams, usually involving threats to
survival, security, or self-esteem” that “generally occur during the
second half of the sleep period,” and may cause “significant distress or
impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of
Repetitive nightmares are often accompanied by other symptoms especially
fears of going to sleep, anxieties or phobias. Increased nightmares can
usually be linked to a recognizable stress in the child’s life such as
absence or loss of a parent, suffering abuse or violence, marital or
custody disputes in the family, social or academic difficulties at school,
such as being teased or having an undiagnosed learning or attention
Nightmares are more often like a vaccine than a poison. A vaccination
infects us with a minute dose of a disease that mobilizes our antibodies
and makes us more resistant to the virulence of smallpox or polio. As
distressing as nightmares can be, they offer powerful information about
issues that are distressing your child. When children share their
nightmares and receive reassurance from their parents, they feel the
emotional sting of the dream, but also begin the process of strengthening
their psychological defenses and facing their fears with more resilience.
Gradually, a parent’s empathic
response to their child’s nightmares can break the cycle of bad dreams and
transform intensely negative experiences into triumphs of assertiveness
and collaborative family problem-solving.
10.Diagnostic Classification Steering Committee,
International Classification of Sleep Disorders: Diagnostic and Coding
Manual (Rochester, MN: American Sleep Disorders Association, 1990).
11. Richard Ferber, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems
(New York: Simon and Shuster , 1985).
12. Christian Guilleminault, Sleep and its Disorders in
Children (New York: Raven, 1987).
13. Charles Schaeffer, (editor), Clinical Handbook of
Sleep Disorders in Children (New York: Jason Aronson, 1995).