On Dreams and Dreaming


Is lucid dreaming used clinically for people who are having post-traumatic or recurrent nightmares?

Dr. Garfield: It sometimes is. The training used here is not full lucid awareness, but to look at the dream as it occurs and be aware that it is a dream. Usually post-traumatic dreaming is filled with very stereotypical, horrific scenes. When you recover naturally what happens is that there are gradual changes in the scenario, as I described with the woman that had been raped. First she replayed the rape exactly as it had happened and then it would be a little different each time. Then finally there was a distance between her and the rapist until he became less important for her.

The same thing happens in all post-traumatic dreaming if you recover naturally. So what one does if trying to work with someone who has post-traumatic stress or recurrent nightmares is help them look for differences in the dreams and to try to deliberately change a small part of the dream instead of waiting for it to happen. You could say, "I wonder if this time you could just wait a minute before the bomb explodes," and help them to see places within the stereotyped dream that they might make a small change.

One young girl had recurrent dreams about sharks eating her that was very terrifying to her. And I talked with her about how it's possible to change your dreams to become active within your dream. Most people don't realize that, but you can make your dreams different if you just think about it.

I said to her, "So, next time the shark is after you in that dream, why don't you bite back? It always gets you anyway, so you don't have anything to lose, or get somebody to help you." When she came back she said, "Oh, when you said that I didn't believe you, but I tried it and you know what? It took a big hunk out of my side. And then I was lying on the beach dead, and all these people in white uniforms were around watching my body and it was still awful."

And I said, "Look! You made it different! If you can make it that different you can make it better." And I encouraged her to keep on trying, and the next thing I heard from her was, "You know, it was wonderful." She said, "I dreamt my girlfriend fell off the boat and the sharks were coming after her, and I jumped in and saved her." This was a dramatic shift from her being in the water, being the one who was killed by the shark, but she needed to do it steps.

Many dreams that have sharp teeth in them have to do with being angry. And she had, had a quarrel with this girlfriend and she said, "I think my dream is telling me that shouldn't let a silly quarrel break up a friendship I've had all my life." She instinctively, almost, understood that this was anger expression, the sharks were an expression of anger, and she saved her best friend. This is how such things can happen with post-traumatic dreaming, if you help the dreamer realize they have options. You, in a sense, are empowering the dreamer. Most people in the Western world simply aren't accustomed to thinking that you can get ready for a dream, that you can change your behavior during a dream, as well as work with a dream afterwards.