Using Imagery Rehearsal to Reduce Nightmares

Some horrible person, animal, or monster is after you. Or some disaster has struck or is about to strike you or someone you care about. You want to protect whoever is in danger, but you can’t. You wake up, perhaps glad it was just a dream, but still so fearful that it’s hard to go back to sleep. Such experiences are nightmares.

Having nightmares every once in a while is a very common experience. For those who have them often, or for anyone who would like to have them less frequently, there is a way to reduce them, called imagery rehearsal.

By the time people are 75 years old, they will have spent perhaps 25 years asleep. And a fair fraction of the sleep time will have been spent dreaming. If we spend years of our lives dreaming, it’s worthwhile to try to make our dreams pleasant, to let them contribute to our happiness and not subtract from it.

Our dreams are one of several things that people once thought we have no control over. It’s true that altering the sorts of stories we create in our dreams is not something quick and easy to do. But researchers have found that it is possible. How do people do it? They do it by imagining more pleasant dream-stories while they are awake. They rehearse the types of mental images they would like to occur in their dreams – thus the name, “imagery rehearsal.”

One major way that people have done this is to imagine the same setting and the same characters that were in a nightmare, and start recalling the plot of the nightmare. But at some point, they change the story line, to make the story much more pleasant.

For example, suppose I dream of being chased by a monster.

In the imagery rehearsal, the story might go like this: the monster starts to run at me, but I put up an invisible shield that keeps the monster at a safe distance. He just gets stopped if he wants to come closer. Just for good measure, I call up as allies a pack of super-dogs that are very lovable but who are very protective of me. They are with me as I now speak with the monster, and ask him what he is trying to do, what he wants out of me. He says, “I’m sorry, but I was wanting to eat you up. Monsters have to eat something, you know.” I reply, “I can sympathize with that. I have a little treatment for you that I promise will make you much happier. Would you like it?” He decides he would. My magical treatment, which I apply instantly, makes it so that the monster has a very strong aversion to eating any sort of person or animal. What nourishes the monster the most is to eat the litter that is lying around near the sidewalks of my city. He tries it out, munching on a couple of soda cans and potato chip bags and plastic cups, and he says, “I’ve never had anything that tastes so good!!” I let him know that for him, this will be a very nutritious diet as well. He is very grateful to me, and says, “From now on it will be so much easier to find food! How can I ever repay you!” The super dogs run over and he pets them and they play with him. I notice from then on, when I go for walks in the city and feel a little lonely, he sometimes shows up to walk along with me and keep me company. And I also notice that the city is much more beautiful because he comes out at night and gathers litter.

This story contains several elements that are very useful for imagery rehearsal.

1. A device that protects you from danger – the invisible shield in this case.

2. Allies who help you feel safe – the super dogs in this case.

3. Calm conversation or negotiation with the scary figure.

4. Magical powers that let you accomplish anything you want.

5. Not killing or hurting the enemy, but converting the enemy to a friend.

6. An ending in which you and the new friend both help or give to one another.

7. Some silly parts, if you like.

The nonviolence of the revised story is, I believe, a helpful element. Unlike in real life, you have the power in your imagination to instantly change the personality and motives of any dangerous or threatening character. You take someone bad, and make them good. Fighting and violence, even if you are victorious in it, do not, or at least should not, make for pleasant, restful, peaceful dreams. Being with someone who is friendly, loyal, and kind to you does make for pleasant dreams. You want the cast of characters in your dream world to be as kind and friendly as you can make them. If you are going to spend years among a group of folks, you want them to be nice folks.

What if you can’t remember your nightmares? Then you can pratice re-making the plots of “generic nightmares.” A few basic nightmare plots probably account for a large fraction of nightmares. For example,

1. Some bad character or characters (human, animal, or otherwise) are after you, or someone you care about. (This is probably the most frequent nightmare plot.)

2. You are totally unprepared for some important performance that is coming up soon.

3. You have done something awful and feel horrible about it.

4. You are lost and can’t find your way back to where you are safe.

5. You, or someone you care about, fall off some high place.

6. Some natural disaster strikes.

7. A human-made disaster happens, like a bomb going off.

8. Your appearance changes and you look horrible.

9. Your friends or family members who were supportive turn against you.

10. Someone you care about gets sick or dies.

Here are some plots for the re-imagining of these basic plots:

1. You magically convert the bad threatening character into a good, loyal friend.

2. You magically acquire the power to prepare for the performance in a second or two, and then you put on a totally successful performance.

3. You run the plot of the story up to the point where you have a choice about what to do, and then you take your time and list options and think of pros and cons and get information and consult with wise people and make a great decision that works out well. Or you take the original plot and make it run backwards, like a movie in reverse, to the choice point, and replay your choice from that point forward.

4. You summon a trustworthy guide who leads you back to where you want to go.

5. Falling turns into flying.

6. Some natural disaster threatens, but you use your power to prevent it. For example there’s a tornado coming, but you make it stand still right where it is before it can hurt anyone and just move the air in a circle till it stops.

7. You point your magic finger at the bomb and turn it into a toy made out of sponge rubber. Or you rewind the story and take the people who would drop the bomb, and change them into people who would deliver food or do something else nice instead.

8. You find that you can look however you want to look, and you change yourself around and have fun looking different ways, or just keep looking how you already look.

9. You communicate with your friends or family and clear up a misunderstanding, and everyone is friends.

10. Someone you care about is in danger, but you use your powers to make them very safe.

Is it even necessary to start with scary?

In practicing imagery rehearsal, it may be good to start with a scary situation, so that you create a reflex chain in which the scary situation turns into one of safety and good will. On the other hand, I’m guessing that it’s also very useful to practice stories that don’t start with scary situations – the sort that just load up your bank of memories with the sorts of stories that would make for pleasant dreams. Imagining people doing things that are kind to themselves and kind to other people, making wise decisions, doing things that lead to harmony and peace and fun among people – my guess is that the more of these you add to your memory bank, the more the nightmare images will be crowded out. Adding many images of wise, good actions to your memory bank has all sorts of advantages other than relieving nightmares – it helps in making good choices about what to do every day.

You’re not trying to write a bestseller

The stories we take in through movies and novels and video games don’t have the bad guys easily turned into good guys. They don’t have dangers easily removed by magical powers. But they are not trying to lead to peaceful sleep. In fact, many of them try to be as scary as they can be, to engage the reader or viewer fully. With your imagery rehearsal, you usually want things quickly to become much safer and kinder than they would become if you were writing a movie script. You also may want to stop watching the sorts of movies that present horrible and scary and violent images that make for nightmare plots.

Don’t give up too soon

For any project that takes practice, people tend to take a small number of practices and then stop. If you’re willing to lots and lots of rehearsing over a long time, your chances of success are much greater.