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'We should never ignore bad dreams'

Wednesday 6th December 2017

REM isn’t just a band.

 

Photo: The Wireless/Koroi Hawkins

A few nights ago I decided to give acting a go.

I auditioned for a play, got the part and was given a script. The next night, I went to the theatre only to be told the first performance began in a matter of minutes.

I didn’t know my lines. I panicked.

This, of course, was all a dream and I thankfully woke up before having to go on stage.

A few days ago, researchers at Cardiff University published a new study that explored why people dream.

“People who are frustrated because their basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and feeling competent are not met are more likely to have a recurring bad dream,” they found.

These dreams tended to involve falling, failing or being attacked.

Margaret Bowater, who is based in Auckland, has studied dreaming and worked as a dream therapist for more than 30 years. She has also written two books about the subject, including last year’s Healing the Nightmare, Freeing the Soul.

I further explored a fascinating topic with Margaret and discovered more about myself than I cared to know (or admit).

Hi Margaret, you speak almost every day to people who have, in your own words, “disturbing dreams”. What is a disturbing dream?

Margaret Bowater.
Margaret Bowater.

Photo: Supplied

Disturbing dreams are any kind of dream that leave people feeling anxious, upset or afraid something bad might happen. Most people come to me because they’ve been having a recurring dream or nightmare that leaves them feeling like there’s something wrong.

They describe their dream to me and I ask them questions about it. I ask them what the main feeling in the dream is, what it reminds them of, what imagery is in the dream and where it derives from. Imagery in dreams is very important and is a bit like an iceberg where you can only see the tip, but there’s a whole lot going on under the water.

How do you help them?

If someone’s dream is disturbing, I’m more concerned with the way it finishes. Often, nightmares leave people feeling helpless, horrified, terrified and unable to act - that may reflect something in their life. I try to help people translate the story of their dream into what is causing them anxiety and what might be possible in their life. We try to create a new ending in their dream.

I often give people advice for sleep hygiene that, for instance, involves people turning their screens off before going to sleep, or not sleeping with their phone under the pillow.

Your website states you’re also an Anglican leader. Do you speak mostly to people who are religious or superstitious in some way?

Oh, no. Everybody dreams. Everybody dreams every night - we’ve known that since research in 1963. For about every one-and-a-half-hours every night, people go into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. If you wake someone during that period, they can usually recall dreaming. Everybody usually has about four dreams per night and they reflect the emotional issues going on in their lives.

The process of sleep is about trying to soothe your mind in order to let go of things and relax and regenerate for the next day. Dreaming is a way of tackling particular issues of emotional concern.

What might my dream about acting and not knowing my lines mean, for example?

Well, acting is probably a metaphor for something else going on in your life, perhaps your role in the media. If you were on air on the radio, it may be a fear that you miss a cue. It may be a real fear that you might arrive late for something. But more likely it’s an ongoing professional fear of not living up to your own standards. Does that sound familiar?

The last bit does. Um, let’s move on. Do people’s dreams change as they age?

Dreams move along with what’s happening in people’s lives. A young adult might be looking for romantic relationships, for example, so a lot of their dreams may be about that. As someone gets older, their dreams may be about parenthood or paying bills. A lot of dreaming is about workplace issues and getting on with workmates.

You also say people should never ignore bad dreams. What does that mean?

No, we should never ignore bad dreams. We give priority in our dreams to things that seem to be a threat to our wellbeing, or even potentially our lives. For instance, children who grow up in violent homes are likely to have quite severe nightmares. They may also have post-traumatic dreams after the violence occurred that act like the aftershocks of an earthquake.

All of our dreams can also be for our benefit because they draw attention to issues that are unresolved. Recurring dreams are especially important. For me, there was a period in my life when I kept dreaming about babies - now this was a long time after I had my own babies - but they told me my inner self wasn’t getting enough time to relax and play and just be, rather than coming under constant pressure.

What else influences our dreams?

Young people, in particular, tend to watch horror movies and absorb a lot of other quite disturbing things like violent media, computer games and pornography that inevitably influences their dreams. The imagery in our minds is what we draw on to create our dreams. If you fill your mind with horror and terror, that’s likely to dominate your dreams.

What’s the most common nightmare?

The most common dream involves being chased, whether someone is trying to run away or hide or protect themselves from some sort of attack - physical or verbal. These dreams may be a metaphor for someone feeling under pressure to achieve or meet standards, or them trying to avoid being bullied. Bullying is an incredibly common source of dreams.

Another one is about teeth falling out …

Oh man, I’ve definitely had that one.

It’s a common one for people in the media and on the television or radio, especially. But you have to ask yourself, what is it that comes out of your mouth?

Um, words?

Exactly. So, following that line, because in the dream you feel embarrassed your teeth are falling out, it could mean in reality you’re embarrassed about something you wish you hadn’t said.

Yeah, that happens often. Although, earlier this year one of my teeth did randomly fall out - a false one I got as a child after a hockey incident - so that dream did actually come true.

Oh dear.

Because I’m fascinated by your ability to decipher dreams - can I ask you about a recurring dream I had as a child?

Absolutely.

Ok, so I was walking down the street with my mum. She started to walk a little faster and I couldn’t catch up. Eventually she turned a corner and was gone. What does that mean?

Well, there you are in the city and you’re a little person and she’s a big person and you’re afraid that she might not pay attention to you. Of course, both children and adults often fear people not paying attention to them.

Another dream I always used to have involved a really frightening security guard in a shopping mall.

This sounds like a symbolic authority figure. Perhaps, at the time, you were frightened by authority figures like your parents or your school teachers.

Ok, thanks, Margaret! Let’s wrap this up. Sorry this turned into an impromptu counselling session.



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Max is a journalist who has worked for The Star, Bleacher Report and RNZ News.
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