Trauma or PTSD can occur after experiencing an overwhelming, life-threatening event such as rape, physical and sexual abuse, violence or natural disaster. But these are only examples of extreme triggers of trauma. In fact, most people go through life carrying trauma inflicted by passing comments from peers in high school, unhealthy pressure from parents and other sources, some acting out of good intentions. Regardless of the nature of your trauma, engaging in your dreams and tending to the intelligence of their images can help facilitate healing.
Symptoms of PTSD
Trauma, according to Bessel Van der Kolk, a trauma expert, “drives us to the edge of comprehension.” It reorganizes the self so that individuals feel as if the trauma is still occurring. It impacts relationships, work and personal well-being.
Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The trauma is split off from consciousness, so that experiences are not just disturbing but incomprehensible. Symptoms of PTSD include numbing, hypervigilance, flashbacks, nightmares, trouble sleeping, severe anxiety, depression, irritability, anger outbursts, intrusive memories of the trauma and avoidance of people and places that evoke the trauma.
The Neuroscience of Trauma
Van der Kolk in the book The Body Keeps The Score describes how trauma induces physiological changes in the brain, clarifying why traumatized individuals feel and act the way they do. Trauma activates regions in the right hemisphere involved with emotions, and deactivates regions of the left hemisphere involved with executive cognitive functions like planning, reasoning and language. This leads to a breakdown in neural communication. The traumatized individual is both hyper-aroused and unable to realistically assess danger.
Conventional Treatment Methods
Recent advances in neuroscience provide a scientific framework for the treatment of trauma. These advances are multimodal, aiming to restore the balance between rational and emotional parts of the brain, with the goal of enabling individuals to regain mastery over their body while integrating the trauma into their life. Patients can benefit from reliving their traumatic experiences in therapy if they are not overwhelmed by the experience.
Somatic therapies such as sensorimotor psychotherapy developed by Pat Ogden and somatic experiencing developed by Peter Levine access embodied feeling states to help patients tolerate and modulate their hyperarousal states. Additionally, yoga and meditation are used to help patients self-regulate. When individuals can manage their emotional states, techniques like mindfulness and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) will be used in addition to psychotherapy to help integrate the trauma into their lives.
Using Dreams to Work Through Trauma
Current techniques for treating trauma don’t employ dream work, even though one of the symptoms of PTSD is nightmares. Dream Tending, developed by Stephen Aizenstat, is uniquely applicable to working with trauma. Its approach is consistent with current neuroscience research.
It sees the dream image as an embodied image with healing properties. Dreams express the experience of the body/mind, particularly traumatic experiences that are dissociated. The Dream Tending technique is an intuitive body- sensitive approach not only attentive to activated emotional states in the dreamer, but also to the messages embodied in images. The technique of animation accesses unformulated and dissociated material, the essence of trauma, and brings individuals into relationship with these dissociated experiences.
Dream Tending: An Example
I was working with a young man called Jay in his late 30s. In therapy, he became aware that he had been sexually abused by a neighbor when he was 7 years old, causing significant and inexplicable anxiety and depression through his life.
He shared the following dream that I will describe in part, then summarize the dream tending.
I was watching the active period of a famous serial killer in the 1970s. The boy from the house was involved, but I don’t know if he was a victim or the killer. I was/he was watching from the perspective of a victim who came to be trapped in a coffin-like box. I knew it was drifting on the lake. He/I was trapped inside with a bunch of food – like steaks, I think. Then I was present me, thinking how cruel this was.
The dream image of the boy in the box was animated. Jay was able to apologize to the boy for not protecting him. The boy just screamed, “the loudest scream ever.” There was a shift, and Jay described another boy sitting on top of the box who was very sympathetic. The boy inside the box could only scream and was not aware of the boy sitting on top of the box. The boy sitting on top felt helpless.
I asked what the boy might do if we extend this scene.
Jay didn’t think that boy would open the box, because it was dangerous. He wondered what could be dangerous. He imagined if the box opened, the two boys would touch and make out. Jay seemed calmer and said, “all that has to happen is for the boy to stand up and the box would open. The danger has passed, and he would need to recognize that.”
This work was complex and occurred over many sessions. Dream Tending opened Jay to experiencing the profound helplessness, isolation and anguish of abuse. He established a relationship with his abused self and apologized for not being able to protect him. As he established this tender, forgiving relationship, his fear decreased as he realized that the danger had passed.
Written by Larry Brooks
Larry Brooks, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who has been in full-time private practice for 25+ years. In addition to his psychotherapy practice, he provides consultation to post licensed mental health professionals and has written for the Cultural Weekly, an online publication critically examining cultural issues of the day.
- Van der Kolk, B.A., (2014). The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.