Saturday, April 2, 2011

A little self-help for the masses

How Can You Combat Something You Cannot See?

“The snake is sliding across my floor when it springs right at my face and its eyes are so vivid. In real life, I scream and throw off all the blankets, proceed to curl into the fetal position. Sit there scared, decide to write it down.” This excerpt from my dream journal, and ones like it, are not uncommon antagonists of my nightly sleep schedule. Ever since I can remember I have been plagued by these disturbing snake dreams. Snake are my biggest fear, I’m convinced I have ophidiophobia, an irrational, crippling fear of snakes, so it may not be difficult to imagine how troubling these nightmares are to me. When I was younger, I would wake up terrified and lie perfectly still for hours so the assumed snake in my bed wouldn’t know I was there. More recently, my snake dreams don’t usually cause as much mental and physical strife, but I always wake up scared and can’t fall back asleep until I write them down. Sleeping for me is comparable to the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies; even though sleeping and dreaming are supposed to be restful, peaceful, and enjoyable parts of one’s life, I have become afraid to fall asleep because of the things that haunt me there.

Unfortunately, the snake dreams are now accompanied by a new recurring dream; though not necessary scary, is truly is bizarre and the potential repercussions are unsettling. In the new set of dreams, it’s the end of the world and I’m fighting off zombies in various, always shifting, situations. It’s a lot less fun than it sounds. Though it may be acceptable to violently kill zombies in an apocalyptic scenario, I am particularly ruthless and even bloodthirsty at times in these dreams. Since this is extremely contradictory to my waking self, it makes me paranoid to think I could be repressing these violent and sociopathic impulses. On the bright side, in real life, most people have some tentative zombie survival plan, but I have actually been able to practice and nearly perfect mine.

Considering the pervasive nature of my dreams, I have been fascinated with their possible interpretations, and ultimately hope to understand why I have them in the first place. This has been an initiative of mine for a long time now. Two years ago, I started a dream journal, so that every time I wake up from a particularly disturbing dream, I write it down to compare to other dreams and see if I can find common themes. As of this year, I have come to I believe that I have nightmares more often than I realize. I do not believe I always wake up when I have a nightmare, because my roommate has noted on multiple occasions that I sometimes scream in my sleep. It is not unreasonable to think that this happens because something troubling and even terrifying is occurring in my sleep, but perhaps I am too consumed in the sleep cycle to wake myself up. One notable component of this pattern of disturbed sleep is that I never experience nightmares or exhibit any kind of strange behavior when there is someone sleeping beside me. Maybe it is the comfort they bring me, or maybe it is just yet to occur.

Dreams are just one of the subconscious’s outlets into the conscious mind. The events and objects in a dream are often symbolic of a real-life situation or struggle. I say struggle because dreams most often depict negative thoughts as opposed to positive ones. In fact, “The most common emotion experienced in dreams is anxiety” (BoredPanda). Perhaps this is because negative thoughts are more enduring and troubling to a person than feelings of content or happiness, which tend to be relatively temporary. Also, it is not usually necessary to depict positive feelings through dreams because there is no internal issue which needs to be resolved via the dream. Dreams represent situations in real life, even if the awareness of such situations exists only on a subconscious level. Furthermore, they serve to alert the dreamer of this internal state.

A nightmare is like an alarm going off inside oneself warning or reminding the conscious mind of issues that need to be resolved. Depending on how in touch with oneself someone is, dreams signal that one may be repressing these negative feelings to the point where he or she is completely unaware of them. In this sense, the nightmare serves almost as a call for help, pleading that these feelings be expressed and resolved. The subconscious mind is not punishing one for having these feelings in the first place, rather, it is using the stress of nightmares as an attempt to alleviate the stress of the original situation, which is probably far greater. Nightmares “represent opportunities for personal healing through much-needed emotional release,” (Dreams) so it is important to take their meanings to heart and remember that they serve a purpose.

Often, people see dreams as random and strange, something to be ignored. Perhaps they could gain insight into their true selves if they were to attempt to interpret their dreams, but it is uncommon for someone to seek to do so. Nightmares are another story entirely, especially persistent ones. They are nearly impossible to entirely ignore because of how unsettling and terrifying they are. Still, people tend to wake up from a nightmare and comfort themselves by saying, “It was just a dream.” This is true; the antagonists in nightmares do not usually exist in the waking world, but “Dreams speak in a deeply symbolic language” (BoredPanda). This means that whatever is plaguing someone in a dream is symbolic of and comparable to something plaguing them in their waking life. As previously mentioned, a dream is not just a dream; it is a representation of the true self, so it should not just be written off. People who experience consistent and troubling dreams sometimes seek medical help and are usually prescribed medication. This medication really just disrupts the REM sleep cycle, which is when people dream most vividly. People experience relief with the use of the drug because the dreams no longer occur. In reality, when someone seeks to ignore a nightmare they are further repressing emotions which need to be resolved for one’s well-being. Dreams come from what people are thinking about, whether consciously or unconsciously, so ignoring or writing off a dream is comparable to writing off one’s true self. Typically, people deal with nightmares by ignoring them or by eliminating their capacity for remembering them, when really this just masks the problem associated with the nightmares instead of resolving it.

Although nightmares may serve an important purpose, they still are extremely troubling, and any sane person would hope to get rid of them. Ignoring or masking the problem is clearly ineffective at rooting up the core issue/s. Instead, the way I attempt to alleviate my nightmares is by writing them down and then interpreting them. By recording my dreams, I am better able to notice common themes; my dream journal also serves as a record of my emotional state over time. Though the specific content of my recurring nightmares varies, both the zombie and snake dream have the same common theme: I am being chased and attacked. This is actually the most common theme for nightmares generally, and shows that “Your actions in the dream parallel how you would respond to pressure and cope with fears, stress, or various situations in your waking life. Instead of confronting the situation, your dream indicates that you have a tendency to run away and avoid the issue” (Dreammoods). Clearly, since this theme has been recurring in my dreams my whole life, this is an emotionally taxing and recurring issue that is ever-present in my life. In this sense, sharing a dream with someone is really one of the most personal things a person can divulge, especially if the listener is astute.

The specific manifestations of my fears are also represented in the dream through various outlets. When I don’t understand what a symbol in a dream means, I look it up on to get a general idea. Sometimes, their interpretations are correct, but it is more important to get a sense of what that object symbolizes to the dreamer. As an example, says that running from a snake stems from a phallic fear. I do not think this is the case in reality, but rather, it more likely symbolizes the mortal fear and danger I once felt, since snakes are the most threatening physical object I can fathom. Reliving these horrifying experiences in childhood, then, is the most threatening emotional state I can imagine. By keeping a journal of my dreams, and referencing what these symbols typically represent within a dream compared with my own interpretations of what an object means to me, I am able to learn from my dreams. By taking the warnings of a dream to heart, one is better able to understand and improve upon the troubles of waking life. In this sense, “knowledge is power”: understanding a dream is the most effective way to stop it, and resolve the real-life emotion repercussions it represents.

My nightmares have plagued me my entire life. For the majority of the time, I tried to ignore them and hoped they would gradually diminish. I was never successful in this endeavor. I did not understand until recently that my nightmares are a cry for help from my subconscious mind. The most effective and healthy way to stop recurring nightmares is to understand what they represent in waking life, and seek to solve the problems they reflect. Nightmares can be terrifying, but what is even more terrifying and stressful are the situations one seeks to suppress, until the mind can no longer cope and must cry out for change. The lesson I draw from all this; don’t ignore a nightmare, learn from it.

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