The Rational Basis® of Happiness Podcast

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What is causing my nightmares?

(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)


Dr. Kenner:      Right now I want to welcome Tiva to the phone. It seems like something is keeping you awake at night?


Tiva:                It sure is.


Dr. Kenner:      Tell me what’s going on.


Tiva:                I woke up last night and I had gone to bed probably around 1:30, maybe 2, and woke up about 5:30 and I was terrified and confused and I was sweating. I wanted to cry. But I don’t know why, because I didn’t remember any part of my dream. My covers were kicked to the bottom of the bed, or thrown, but I didn’t even notice that until I went back to sleep. I’m trying to figure out if this is a night terror or a nightmare.


Dr. Kenner:      If you just slept through it and woke up and remember it, it would just be a bad dream that you had. If it’s so frightening that it wakes you up – which in this case it did – it’s a nightmare. And the question is, how old are you?


Tiva:                I’m 20.


Dr. Kenner:      Have you any idea what this might be about?


Tiva:                I don’t. The only image I remember is some man’s face, and I can’t even remember. It wasn’t somebody I knew or anything like that, and I’ve been having nightmares and haven’t been able to remember them.


Dr. Kenner:      Okay. You said you have a history of nightmares. How often do you have nightmares?


Tiva:                It started when I was 12 or 13.  


Dr. Kenner:      What happened back then?


Tiva:                I would wake up screaming and my mom would have to come comfort me and even then it wouldn’t really help.


Dr. Kenner:      What went through your mind? To the best that you can remember it.


Tiva:                I was just scared. Like then, I didn’t know what happened. I know the difference, like I was told that nightmares, you wake up and you’re scared of course, but you can still remember your dream, and night terrors you can’t remember them at all.


Dr. Kenner:      What it sounds like, let me ask you another question – are you on any medications? Because sometimes medications can cause that.


Tiva:                No.


Dr. Kenner:      So here’s what I suggest. If you’re waking up very confused and sweating and there’s no content, it’s just a ball of emotion and anxiety and fear, one of the things you can do is to actually see a cognitive therapist for a few sessions to see if there is any pattern. Is there a theme in the type of dreams you’ve been having? For example, I used to have nightmares, and my nightmares were of a dog and cat chasing me, because in my childhood, a dog almost bit me and I was terrified by them. This is not anything heavy, but you can see how it can torture a child. I remember my mother once giving me a sleeping pill just to get me back to sleep. I was also very worried that spiders would bite me in the night and kill me because I watched a scary movie. So sometimes the content doesn’t come from abuse. Sometimes the content comes from just being traumatized by a movie or something that is a normal activity, a dog almost biting you, and because you’re a kid and don’t know how to file it, you feel terrorized. But sometimes it does come from abuse. Is there any history of abuse in your past?


Tiva:                Sexual abuse, yes.


Dr. Kenner:      Oh, there is? I’m not surprised then.


Tiva:                Yes there is. And I’ve been having a lot of suppressed memories come up that I didn’t remember, like things that just keep popping up and I don’t know if they’re reality or something that my subconscious is making up.


Dr. Kenner:      If you have the ability to go to a good cognitive therapist, I would see one ASAP. Someone who has dealt with abuse issues. Because your mind is trying to put the pieces together. Your subconscious is working while you’re sleeping, and you don’t have a full picture. It’s not fun to go back and remember some of the abuse, but it’s clarifying and you can put it to rest after that. You can grieve your losses and move on and not have it carry through your young adult years. Was it somebody in the family that abused you?


Tiva:                Yes.


Dr. Kenner:      It was. So it’s even more traumatic. The feeling of being confused and sweating and wanting to cry and kicking the covers to the bottom of the bed, when people have had a history of abuse that is a likely candidate. What can you do for yourself now, besides going? You can pursue therapy, is that open to you?


Tiva:                Yes, I can do that.


Dr. Kenner:      There’s a website – you can go to my website too, and I have a link to it – it’s a cognitive therapy website. But what you want to do is really, really treat yourself delicately, gently, lovingly. You want to say to yourself, “I am a good person and something bad happened in my childhood that I need to process so I can get over it.” You’re not bringing up the memories. If you had never remembered it, let’s say it happened when you were half a year old and you never remembered it, why go back there? You’re not going to remember it anyway. But if it’s messing up your current life, that is every reason to go digging. I’ve had people who have been able to let the memories come in and that’s why you want a very good psychologist, because you don’t want them to create memories for you. You want to get the raw data from your own mind and put the pieces together as best you can. If the person is alive, you want to make a choice. Do you want to address it? I’ve had people that have brought the perpetrator into court. I’ve had other people that opted their life is not worth the battle and that they just want to move on with their life. They know why did it, they despise the person, they keep a distance from that person. Other people in the family are protected from that person and they’ve helped that happen. So that’s another direction you can go. You can either try to put the person in jail or not. How else can I help you?


Tiva:                Do you think, given the circumstances of my sleeping pattern, do you think it is a night terror?


Dr. Kenner:      I would say that when anyone has had severe abuse or sexual abuse – that’s severe – I would say you do need to process it. And how we file it away as a kid is not necessarily the way that we do as an adult. I would say that’s a prime candidate. I can’t say for sure, because I don’t know. Maybe there’s another reason, you could be on medications that are messing you up, but you said no. So prime candidate is that, and I would work with a psychologist to see if there’s anything else that could be a possible problem. I would also read about sleep hygiene, how to help yourself have better endings to your dreams. How to not increase the anxiety – oh my God, I’m afraid to go to bed tonight. What if I have another nightmare? You don’t want to get into that loop. So that’s why you need the help as soon as possible, and there are some books that could be helpful to you. One is A Good Night’s Sleep by the Harvard Medical School. Listen, thank you so much for your call and I wish you a great night’s sleep and a great life Tiva.


Tiva:                Thank you very much.


Dr. Kenner:      You’re welcome.