This exercise is grounded in the basic principles of Imagery Rehearsal Therapy and involves using your imagination to change nightmare images.
If you are distressed by a recurring nightmare or bad dream, here are some steps you can take to work on these dreams and put them in new perspective.
1. First, know that you have the power to activate the ‘imagery system’ of your mind.
With repeated practice, you can learn to take your mind anywhere you want, whenever you want. As a thought experiment, practice this skill for a moment. Close your eyes and conjure up an image of pleasant scene of your choosing.
If you find this task difficult, get some practice using positive imagery before undertaking the next steps of this exercise.
2. Now, select a focal nightmare or bad dream that you’ve had recently.
If the imagery of the dream is of a traumatic nature and focusing on it might cause you to be flooded or overwhelmed with emotion, then we recommend either:
- Doing this exercise with the help of a trained therapist. You can sign up for online therapy with our partner, BetterHelp.
- Or selecting a less intense dream that feels more tolerable for you right now. Much can be learned from just practicing these techniques. Plus, the progress you make on one nightmare is likely to lessen distress associated with other nightmares as well.
In either case, there are a variety of mindfulness and self-care strategies that can be used to cope with extreme emotions, thoughts, and images. And practicing these skills can help you to better tolerate difficult imagery from your nightmares.
3. Try to recall as many details about this nightmare or bad dream as possible.
It’s okay if you don’t remember whe whole dream. In fact, you can even work with brief fragments if that’s all you remember.
You may find it helpful to write down the dominant themes and images of the dream when awakened by it or shortly after. Also jot down on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the worst) how distressing this dream is to you now. But avoid typing these notes into your phone or computer at night, as the light emitted from their screens can exacerbate sleep problems.
4. When you’re ready, revisit your focal nightmare or bad dream and alter it in some way in your mind’s eye.
You might recruit superheroes to come in and save the day, for example. You could perhaps float away to safety. Or maybe the villains in your dream shrink in size or morph into Teletubbies. What’s most important is that you develop an altered version of the dream that seems to work for you. Write down the gist of this new version.
5. Practice imagining this new version of the dream.
At a time of your choosing, rehearse this new dream for a few minutes each day. Try to really picture it in your mind. Replay it several times, until you feel like you’re pretty familiar with it.
6. After about 3 to 7 days of rehearsing this new version of the dream, track your progress and take stock of where you’re at.
Using the same scale as before (from 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst), consider how distressing your focal nightmare or bad dream is for you now. How does this compare to your original rating?
If you’re still bothered by a nightmare after going through these steps, you might consider focusing on a less intense dream or consulting with a professional therapist.
Stay focused on one dream at a time, and if you’re having multiple nightmares, try not to focus on more than two in a given week.
Also, know that it’s not necessary to do this exercise for each and every bad dream you may have. By just learning this skill and practicing it with a few nightmares, you’re likely to notice changes in the way you feel about many of your dreams.
We hope you get something out of this exercise, and if you give it a try, please let us know how it goes in the comments below.
Aurora, R. N., Zak, R. S., Auerbach, S. H., Casey, K. R., Chowdhuri, S., Karippot, A., … & Lamm, C. I. (2010). Best practice guide for the treatment of nightmare disorder in adults. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 6, 389-401.