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Changing a Nightmare's Script

January 1, 2007
by Roger Martinez, LADC, NCAC II
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The purpose of this issue's column is to provide helpful exercises showing step-by-step techniques for diminishing and even eliminating nightmare content from the dreamer's life. The focus will be on aspects of my work.

Dream recall constitutes the first step to dream work. I will not focus on recall techniques here, as most nightmares that a client experiences remain a vivid part of memory. It is important, however, to write down the dream as completely as possible. Along with the composition of the dream, dating the entries and titling the dreams are important parts of dream journaling.

External dream rescripting

As soon as someone talks of having nightmares and having a difficult time sleeping or getting to sleep, I ask the person if he/she is ready and willing to let go of the nightmares. This is very important—surprisingly, not all clients are ready for this. The dreamer must be ready and willing to work on dreams. For many dreamers, recounting a trauma-related dream can be very difficult. Many individuals with post-traumatic stress have not shared many of their experiences with anyone and if they have, it has been only at surface levels.

Once the dreamer is ready, I let him know that after doing this, he probably will have no dream recall for a few days. This varies in terms of number of days with different dreamers. I also let him know that we will not use any drugs or medications as part of this process; we will use only the dream.

I take out a notepad and ask the dreamer to share the dream. I do this four times to begin with. For the second time and subsequent ones, I ask the dreamer to close his/her eyes. In rare instances when the individual is unable or unwilling to do this, the process can take longer—not so much in this session, but most likely in the need for more follow-up sessions.

After the fourth time the dreamer goes over the dream, I ask him what he would like to change in the dream. With few exceptions, the dreamer tends to want to change part of the dream's ending. Every now and then a dreamer will state openly that he wants to change the entire dream. I invite the dreamer to go into the dream further and do the process slowly.

Here is a waking-life example taken from a typical war veteran. The dreamer has a real-life experience of having been in a combat situation in a war-torn country and having seen some of his close buddies die. The dream will follow nearly the same if not the identical scenario, with the change being that the dreamer also finds himself at death's door. The dreamer usually will go to this ending and change it. I ask the dreamer to rescript the dream using active imagination, and go over the dream one more time with this change being the ending. Either he won’t get shot at or his closest comrade does not die. The next step usually finds the dreamer not being in a dangerous zone, and then in the next step animals and other natural settings become more a part of the scene.

Roger Martinez, LADC, NCAC II

I continue to ask the dreamer to make changes. We continue the process until the dreamer reaches the beginning of the dream and has very little to change. At this point, I encourage the dreamer to change the last scene, to bring it home. He is to find himself in a place he enjoys, with loved ones or people with whom he is comfortable. I also encourage him to change all parts of the dream at this time, from the clothing worn to the people seen. I encourage him to keep his buddies out of this final scenario. I also invite him to connect with all of his senses, being aware of the scene around him.

While in this example I used a war veteran, the process is the same no matter what the trauma is that may be resulting in someone having nightmares.

Sometimes the nightmares do come back after several days to a few weeks, depending on the trauma's severity, intensity, and duration. This is normal. I have sat with a handful of dreamers doing the rescripting over again. The ideal situation is for the dreamer to incorporate the process into his/her dream life.

Internal dream rescripting

While in external rescripting the counselor or dream coach may offer suggestions for change using the active imagination, internal rescripting comes from within the dream. Some call it “lucid dreaming,” but the dreamer does not have to be in a lucid state while in the dream to do this work.

Lucid dreaming is a state in which the dreamer recognizes that he/she is dreaming and at that point can make changes in the dream. For many, this is not a difficult state to achieve, but for the rest of us there is an internal rescripting technique. External dream rescripting sets the dreamer up to recognize that changes can be made within the dream. From there the dreamer is encouraged to do the same in internal rescripting. I encourage the dreamer by letting him know that it is as simple as walking across a room and, having seen an item on the floor, stopping to pick up the item and continue in whichever direction he desires.

I also encourage the dreamer to call into the dream helpful friends—whether they be his/her sponsor, a trusted hero, an animal that can be helpful in certain situations, or an angel. The goal here is to use internal powers—a different persona, so to speak—to combat the dream's nightmarish quality. It is in dealing with the situation rather than fleeing that changes the outcome of the dream. This can often be difficult, but it will lead to interesting changes in waking life, eventually including sobriety.