A friend recently asked me how you learn to wake up from nightmares. It can be done, but it does take practice. I wrote a bit about this in a previous post, but it was a bit stream-of-consciousness. Here, I’ll try to summarize the steps toward lucid dreaming, which is the key to dealing with nightmares, and has a host of other interesting uses as well.
Step 1. Remember your dreams. One of the most important steps in working with dreams in any way is to be able to remember them. While it might not seem like this could help you while you’re in a dream, it does. Being able to remember your dreams when you’re awake somehow helps you become more aware that you’re in a dream while you’re dreaming. The line between dreaming and waking becomes less absolute, which is a good thing. Most people go through their lives remembering almost none of their dreams, losing all the insights their dreams can bring, not to mention being helpless within them.
Remembering your dreams is basically just a matter of practice, day in and day out (or night, as it may be). If you’re the journaling type, keep a notebook beside your bed. Every time you wake up, and I do mean every time, stop and think about what you were just dreaming about. If possible, do this before you move your body or even open your eyes – there is a state of semi-consciousness just before fully awakening that is very conducive to dream retention, but dreams fade within a matter of minutes after that.
Take that time to go over and over your dream in your mind – everything you can remember about it, no matter how strange or meaningless. Take the time to go through the various senses – did you dream in color or black and white? Could you smell, feel, or taste anything? You might be surprised that your other senses can be engaged in a dream. Once you have your dream cemented in your memory, get up and write it down.
If you’re not the type that likes to journal (I’m not), come back to your dream several times throughout the day and see if you can still remember all the details. If you have a spouse, friend, or family member that’s interested in this, tell them all about your dream, or trade dreams (telling someone else helps imprint it in our memories). Do this for as many different dreams a night as you can remember, and every day. With practice, remembering your dreams will become much easier.
If you’re having nightmares that you want to start working with, start with those. Most of us have, or have had, recurring nightmares that we can remember with much greater accuracy than most of our dreams. This may be because the adrenaline rush that occurs while in these dreams has a way of imprinting memories in our minds, whether awake or asleep. Start by remembering all the details you can in a waking state, then add to them each time you have the dream. This is the prelude to Step 2 – knowing when you’re in a dream.