Everyone dreams. The ability to understand and control dreams baffles psychotherapists and scientists from Freud to today's top sleep researchers at universities and institutions around the world. People who experience terrifying dreams may prefer stopping them altogether. Boston University neuroscientist Patrick McNamara studies the evolutionary characteristics of dreaming and comments on the social impact of "negative" dreams. He says, "...many of the awkward, embarrassing, anxiety-producing experiences from our more negative dreams tend to filter into our waking life, leaving a sort of lingering emotional residue that puts us at an adaptive disadvantage by compromising our everyday social interactions." For those who carry the weight of bad dreams, research provides suggestions to stop unwanted dreams.
Monitor your sleep to see if you wake up during the night. People most often wake with a clear impression or memory of a dream if they awake from R.E.M. sleep, which happens when sleepers wake multiple times during the night. If you find a correlation between restless sleep and unwanted dreams, work to relax and unwind before bed in order to approach sleep from a calm mind frame. You may want to try such things as drinking warm tea, listening to soothing music or describing your worries or tensions on paper.
Reflect on how you wake up in the morning. Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School as well as director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition says, "Studies have shown that any sensory input or moving around when you wake up will tend to wipe out your dream memories." If erasing dreams before you have time to remember them is your goal, try placing an alarm clock away from your bed. The activity of getting up to turn it off increases your chances of forgetting a dream.
Decide now that the next time you are involved in an unwanted dream, you will change the course of action mid-dream. The ability to control your dreams is called lucid dreaming. Some people experience lucid dreaming more often than others, but with practice and persistence you may gain control. Start by telling yourself before sleep that you WILL direct your own dream.
Think about a recurring or unwanted dream and imagine turning the action around so that what you want to happen, happens. Imagining yourself overcoming an attacker or stopping a tornado by looking it in the eye, for example. Imagine something pleasant in place of the disaster, something that makes you feel strong and free. Do this envisioning practice right after telling yourself that you will no longer tolerate a bad dream.
Write down this revised dream. After it is copied down, spend 5 to 20 minutes a day "conjuring" the reworked images by reading and envisioning them. Dr. Barry Krakow of the Miamonides Sleep Arts & Sciences center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, found that study participants who used this method of "imagery-rehearsal therapy" had "significantly fewer disturbing dreams."
These dream-stopping methods work with children if guided by an older, patient family member or friend.
Sela Chavez began freelancing in 2008. Her nonfiction has appeared in "Today's Texas Woman Magazine" and her fiction in the "San Antonio Current." She earned both a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in English from Our Lady of the Lake University.