How to Change Your PTSD Nightmare

July 2, 2013

RadioMichele Rosenthal is the lively and engaging hostess on a radio call-in show, “Changing Direction”, which airs on Mondays and Wednesdays at 2PM EST.  I have now appeared on her show three times in the past few months (February 6, May 15, June 19) as a guest expert, demonstrating the method of dream revision for post-traumatic nightmares.  Audio recordings of each session are available on the show’s website.

In the show on June 19, we had a followup interview with Kim, a client from the May 15 show.  On May 15 Kim  described a recurrent nightmare in which she found herself running for her life and eventually seeking refuge by hiding in a closet.  She reported having gone through an abusive childhood, especially as an adolescent.  She indicated that her most prominent emotion in the nightmare was fear.  I suggested we provide her with a rescuer so she could stop running.  We decided on a policeman as rescuer.

During the five week interval between May 15 and June 19 Kim reported four remembered dreams to Michele (and via Michele to me), including two with policemen.  It was a good sign that she was able to incorporate our discussion into at least these two dreams.

Her two policeman dreams, however, were less than optimal.  On May 18, she dreamt she was training to be a police officer, but couldn’t pass the last test, which involved driving a car at high speed down a parking garage, then slamming on the brakes and beeping the horn.  She tried repeatedly, but kept failing the test, a frustrating dream, to say the least.

In her second policeman dream, on June 14, she encountered two men, dressed up as police officers, who led her into a room and prepared her to be part of their sex trafficking ring.  “It was bad!”, she said, a frightening nightmare.

In addition to the two policeman dreams, she reported dreams on May 25 and June 8 with more positive outcomes, one involving a beautiful warm beach scene, the other alluding to a sense that she was learning to control her dreams (like learning to kick a soccer ball).

The good news was that she could bring policemen into  two of four remembered dreams, but the bad news was that policeman were not helpful.  We needed a different approach.  My first thought was to see if we could incorporate someone else into her nightmare of being chased, someone she knew and trusted, but Kim had trouble coming up with a name.

Michele Rosenthal provided a useful insight from personal experience.  Perhaps Kim needed to trust herself rather than an external rescuer.  Michele had found in her own recovery from PTSD that before she could trust other people she had to trust herself.  There is, in fact, a way that a survivor of child abuse can help herself in her dreams.  This is to be both dreamer and rescuer.  I suggested to Kim that she come into the dream as her adult (32 year old) self to rescue her adolescent (age 15-16) self who was having the nightmare.  Kim liked this idea.  She felt she was gaining self-confidence in her waking life, and could imagine herself as an effective rescuer for her “inner child” (age 15-16).

This became our plan for Kim’s dream revision in the radio call-in session of June 19.  Michele and I said goodbye to Kim on the air, and wished her good luck in her dreams.  “Sweet dreams” seems to capture the essence of my message to clients after a dream revision session.

Just two days after the show, on June 21, Michele received the following email from Kim: “The past two nights my therapist has been in my dreams.  In one dream she was keeping me safe by letting me relax in her office.  In another dream she was living in my grandmother’s old house, effectively replacing my grandmother as ‘the only one that ever showed me genuine love’.”

At Kim’s therapy session, just after the radio call-in show on June 19, her therapist had offered to be the protector in Kim’s dreams.  The radio interview, followed within several hours by a supportive therapy session, gave Kim the protection she needed, and her dreams of the next two nights reflected this.

Kim’s original recurrent nightmare (of running for her life, and seeking refuge by hiding in a closet), which arose out of an abusive childhood, suggested the need for a protector in her dreams.  My initial suggestion of having a policeman as protector didn’t work; Kim needed a protector she knew and could trust.  Kim’s therapist then volunteered to be the protector, which was apparently what Kim was waiting to hear.  Kim’s dreams of that very night and the following night replaced the policeman (a stranger) with her therapist, whom she knew and trusted.

It will be interesting to find out more about Kim’s subsequent dreams.  Eventually, we might hope that Kim will learn to be her own protector, as her dream work and her therapy proceed hand-in-hand.  It is important for her therapist to encourage Kim’s independence and not foster dependency.  My hope in promoting dream revision therapy is that both patients and their therapists will learn to use it, ideally together.  Kim’s case illustrates very well how this can work.