In the last post, “Helping your Partner Heal from Loss or Trauma,” I provided some practical tips from the book Healing Together. Here I’d like to share how dreams affect us after trauma, and how we can use dreams to help us heal.
Co-authors Suzanne Phillips and Dianne Kane include interesting information on the importance of dreams in overcoming trauma. They report researchers used to think dreams protected our ability to sleep, but now they surmise sleep protects our ability to dream. In other words, dreams are of crucial importance to our wellbeing, and there appears to be a neurological need for our bodies to dream. Sharing your dreams with your partner can build intimacy, particularly after a trauma.
Even if you haven’t experienced loss, sharing dreams with your partner can enhance intimacy. Sometimes hearing what your partner is dreaming can be somewhat bewildering. But it’s a sign of intimacy if your partner is willing to share these inner secrets, and visa versa. I most enjoy dreams where I’m flying unassisted over the trees, but my most common dreams are those in which I am unprepared or lost. I often know the meaning of my dreams, but sometimes explaining them to my husband gives me insight.
“Researchers think that REM sleep and dreams play an integral role in helping us to regulate our emotions, consolidate memories, process information, and adapt to stress (Fossage 1997). It is therefore not surprising that dreams play a significant role in the processing of and recovery from trauma,” say Phillips and Kane.
Dreams also help us solve problems, learn, and develop our identity. The authors say dreams can even restore psychological functioning by allowing us to have thoughts that can’t be verbalized, and helping us move to a new state of self-awareness. Sharing dreams offers the following benefits:
- If partners have become distant, a dream can foster more sharing by serving as a point of reference.
- Sharing positive dreams provides a shared positive experience.
- Talking about positive or neutral dreams may lower anxiety and foster dialogue for working together to detoxify nightmares, flashbacks, and other intrusive trauma symptoms.
- Sharing can build trust.
- If someone is working through feelings of trauma in dreams, then sharing them can help move those feelings to a different level of consciousness, often giving insight. It’s a way to help process when your mind is trying to work through confusing feelings.
Keep a pen and paper by the bed to record any dream fragments as you awaken—either in the morning or during the night, say the authors. Alarm clocks can jar us awake so abruptly that we cannot remember our dreams. So, if possible, wake up on your own. Some individuals will be unable to remember their dreams after a trauma, but will begin to recall them as they become more psychologically ready to remember.
Even for those who cannot remember their dreams, the authors suggest sharing a daydream, a song lyric or movie scene, a flashback, a diary entry, or other private thought that might help your partner connect and get insight.
As many as 90 percent of people have nightmares after experiencing a trauma. Nightmares can also be triggered by anniversaries of traumatic events, or they may recur when experiencing a different kind of loss later in life. Sometimes professional help is needed to deal with traumatic memories or nightmares. Professionals can often help individuals change the dream to have a better outcome, or empower the patient to handle things within the dream in a way that is beneficial.
Most couples who experience a loss will not require professional help. However, couples who have attempted strategies to reconnect after a loss, such as those outlined in the book, but who struggle to re-establish intimacy in their relationship, may find professional assistance to be helpful in their marriage. Of course, any individual who is struggling to move past a trauma or experiencing troubling nightmares can also benefit. Every person is affected differently by a trauma or loss, and some are just harder hit. Those with PTSD may require some professional help to move on successfully in their lives. Many couples can benefit from a marriage counselor’s guidance on how to reconnect with their spouse after a major crisis.
If you are hoping to have insurance cover the cost of therapy, call your insurance provider to ask for names of approved therapists. Your primary care physician may also help direct you or refer you. Organizations that may assist with referrals in your area include the National Center for PTSD or the American Psychological Association. My resource page also has helpful information on finding a marital therapist.
Personally, I have found dreams to be extremely helpful in overcoming loss. Do you pay attention to your dreams? Do you share your dreams? Do you find your dreams become troubling during difficult times? Do you remember your dreams? What’s your most common dream?
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