Nightmares particularly of the recurring variety can have a depilating effect on an individual.  Recurring nightmares often lead to a sense of dread, terror, frustration, and hopelessness.  One way to deal with recurring nightmares is to change the mindset and attitude we have towards dreams.  For instance, viewing dreams as a creative signal to develop mastery or well being differs markedly from viewing dreams as a source of dread and despair.  Overtime a different mindset can soak through so that what was once upsetting is less so.  For instance, though I might experience a disturbing dream occasionally and I might even wake up startled, I might immediately begin to think “well that’s interesting, what is the message that is trying to be conveyed”?  The accompanying terror and dread which might be normally associated with a nightmare like dream upon awakening does not take hold.

The downside of this type of strategy is that it can take considerable time for the mindset to change and take hold.  Think months or even years to implement effectively.  This is due that its not just the saying the words “that’s interesting” but rather developing a deep-seated core belief that the dream indeed is interesting even though it might be initially disturbing.  The way to develop the deep-seated core is via working with dreams and understanding some of the ways in which dream processes work.

There is another way to work with nightmares which does not require the same length of time and this comes in the form of dream incubation.  Dream incubation is a method to elicit specific dreams, much like I outlined in this previous article  It is a firm intention to will a specific dream into existence.  As Dierdre Barrett – a prominent Harvard dream researcher – points out that dream incubation can change the content of nightmares.  The change in the content can have a positive effect on our recurring nightmares.

Without stepping into the territory of trauma, imagine an unpleasant scenario in your mind with an unpleasant outcome.  Then imagine the same scenario with a different outcome which is more favorable to you.  Effectively, this is what we are attempting to train our minds to do, but in the context of a nightmare.  The shift is from feeling helpless, overwhelmed and out of control of nightmares to developing a skill in incubating dream mastery.  Dierdre Barrett has conducted some research into incubating dream mastery and it seems to work with many people.

Before proceeding with outlining a dream incubation technique, a word of warning.  If there is a history of trauma and the nightmares relate to trauma, it is a good idea to work with a therapist.  One of the reasons being that there is potential for re-traumatization.  Thus, while utilizing dream incubation to deal with traumatic dreams can have great benefit for a person, there is also a risk involved.  The risk can be minimized in a relatively safe healing relationship.

The term dream mastery implies a command over the content of a dream.  Rather than being terrorized by a nightmare, a person can take charge of dream content and amend the outcome of a dream.  There are two central aspects to this strategy.  The first of these is rehearsal and the second is the incubation itself:


The rehearsal part of the strategy is where we practice changing the content of the recurring nightmare – perhaps an alternate ending or alternate important part of the dream.  This is a conscious process that utilizes waking imagination.  For example, if a person is being pursued by an attacker in a dream, they might shrink the attacker.  Alternatively, they might make themselves larger and stronger in the dream so that they can overcome the attacker.  Another possibility is that they change the attacker into something benign – say a butterfly.  Or develop an ability to outrun their attacker.  They could develop superpowers to counter their attacker.  There is a myriad of possibilities available so feel free to add your own variations to the small list provided here.

One of the important aspects which you may want to change is to abate the terror with something more soothing and calming.  We can work with the emotional aspects of the dream in this imaginal rehearsal by getting ourselves in a relaxed state of being.  You could even play some soft gentle soothing music, which you can then also add to the dream incubation stage.  More on that shortly.

The main thing in the rehearsal stage is to gain a sense of safety and empowerment over the nightmarish aspects of the dream.  Its also important to keep persisting with the rehearsal.  The more we rehearse while feeling relatively safe, the greater the chance of success.  Do not be surprised if it takes more than a couple of weeks for the alternate dream scenario to manifest.

The second part of the overall strategy is the dream incubation itself:

Dream Incubation

The second part of the overall strategy is the dream incubation itself:

Intention is important and the first step in dream incubation.  Our intention should be set to have the recurring nightmare again, but with the alternate aspects that we have previously imagined.  There is an interesting sidenote here in that some research suggests that many people experience a positive shift even though they do not recall the nightmare.  It might be that the intention combined with the alternate visual rehearsal is enough for some people to experience benefits in their day to day life.

Many other people do manage to have the alternate dream scenarios manifest in nightly dreams.  Typically, these do not occur on the first or second attempt, but rather seem to require persistent effort as outlined previously.

With our intention set, keep a notebook or recording device by your bedside lamp.  Its an important step as it has the tendency to firm up the intention, but also helps people keep track of their dreams.  Often just this step alone greatly aids our ability to recall dreams.  In your journal, write down the intention to have the dream, but for the dream to integrate the alternate version you have been practicing.  Writing it down in this way greatly increases the likelihood of the dream occurring.

Dierdre Barrett recommends putting some visual aids next to your bedside table as well.  They could be practical, i.e. if it’s a relative in a dream, place a photo of the relative (as long as its not a relative who traumatized you) near you, or if your changing into a superhero place a figurine.  What you are after are some visual cues that the dream you want to incubate to focus upon just before you fall asleep.

Earlier I mentioned that while rehearsing alternate scenarios that some soothing gentle music could help to relax a person.  The same music can be played while asleep as a further aid in incubating the dream.  Here you want the music to be barely audible so as it does not keep you awake.

Building on the same style, you can also use a sense of smell to help incubate a dream.  Often smell is a powerful reminder for us.  During the rehearsal aspect put on some scent that you would not normally wear otherwise.  It does not have to be a strong smell, just something that is distinct so that the mind can correlate it with the alternate scenario. Then at night scent your pillow or a tissue so that your gently breathing in the scent.  Of course, you can use all three or more senses to help incubate the dream.

Repeat the intention throughout the day.  It might be useful to repeat it while in a state of self-hypnosis or meditation or being relaxed.  This is partly because we want the intention to filter through to the unconscious, and partly because we want to establish a different outcome in relationship to the nightmare.  By learning to be relaxed during the day, we often find we are not as caught up in the aftereffects of the nightmare.

The idea of dream incubation is to build a climate which is conducive to manifesting a specific dream or dream theme.  The rehearsal part help to build mastery over something which can be unsettling and troubling.

Another possibility to help with recurring nightmares is to develop the ability to have lucid dreams.  Again, it is the idea of developing mastery over the dreamscape which is important.  For many people lucid dreaming is significantly harder to develop and can take longer than the techniques outlined here.  But I would not discount it out of hand, especially if you have had some experiences in lucid dreaming.

Just to finish up, please if you believe you have been traumatized and that your dreams are in some way reflecting that, see a professional.  Its not that the technique is not useful with people who have been traumatized, its more that there must be extra care and safety applied.