I have a nasty habit of having nightmares about my children.
Usually, I can manage, but this dream was a special kind of suck.
It ruined the better part of my day until I did right by my brain.
The dream was about my youngest son, Isaac, who is two.
In my dream, my husband and I were somewhere that looked kind of like a hotel that had a balcony. Long story short, Isaac was able to flail himself over the balcony. I watched in horror as I saw him fall for what seemed like forever… Hit the ground…. and bounce. Graphic and Terrifying.
I woke up. Heart pounding, with emotions like helplessness, loss, guilt, and anger dominating me. It took me a moment to realize where I was and start to recover.
In technical terms, my cortex (thinking part of the brain) started to take over and make me realize that the danger wasn’t real. My son was right there sleeping in between my husband and me peacefully (during the night, the little guy climbs in between my husband and me).
Unfortunately, the cortex isn’t magic and the resulting emotions were still there.
I woke up my husband and said, you have to wake up and watch Issac. He wasn’t super pleased, but did it anyway.
Irrational as it may have been, I remembered from my dream that I was in charge of Isaac whenever he went over the bannister. The feelings of incompetence lingered and I needed to protect my son from my perceived incompetence.
I was shaken, even after a considerable amount of time passed. I had to prepare myself for a session and that gave me the perfect excuse to practice avoidance. I left my son in the care of my husband with lots of unresolved feelings.
Avoidance helps in the moment and feels good. It provides a temporary and false relief. Our brains have evolved to believe that once we get away from the threat, we will be good.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way whenever the threat is our own thoughts, feelings, and mind-images. The stuff may go away in the short-term, but it comes back with a vengeance later on.
If I could have scheduled myself back to back sessions the entire day, I would have to continue avoiding. However, that wouldn’t have solved the problem. As a therapist, I knew this. I talk with clients about this all the time.
When I was done with my sessions, the distressing thoughts and feelings came right back. I continued to attempt the avoidance and compartmentalizing thing. Doesn’t work as well when I am not distracted by working to help other people.
I found that as the day went on, the more I tried to push the thoughts/ emotions/ images from my dream out, they quicker they came back and with more intensity.
The intensity allowed them to begin masquerading as facts like:
“I am a terrible mother.”
“I can’t keep my kid safe.”
“I have to worry about my son constantly.”
Blah, blah, blah.
I wanted these feelings to go away. I knew they weren’t rational. So, I went to challenging and countering.
Clearly, my son is right here. He is safe. We aren’t near any balconies. I even went to my husband for reassurance. Again, I felt the false sense of relief for short periods of time.
The horrible image in my dream persisted as I played with my son.
I found myself in a cycle challenging and reassurance. I wasn’t able to enjoy playing with him. I then went on to the judgement thoughts. Here are some examples…
“I am crazy.”
“Why in the **** is this happening? This was just a stupid dream.”
“I am a f****** therapist…Shouldn’t be able to control this?!? Along with many others.
As I attempted to answer that last question (after seriously lacking some self-compassion) the answer came to me. I am trying to CONTROL these thoughts and feelings.
Here’s the thing about control, especially in relation to thoughts and feelings…. Research (and experience) show that you CAN’T. The more you attempt to control and resist the feelings and thoughts, the more they will control you.
I tell my clients this all of the time.
WHAT EVER YOU RESIST, WILL TEND TO PERSIST.”
So, what to do?
Lightbulb moment…. Thank G-d.
Regroup and use skills.
Here’s what I did….
#1, Recognize these thoughts and feelings for what they are.
Thoughts, feelings, language.
They are not facts. They are my own internal language and feelings that are happening to intrude upon my life at this very moment and that were sparked by a trigger that owned me (temporarily)
This may seem a little abstract, but let me tell you how I do this.
I like to imagine that I am watching myself on a TV as a cartoon. I then imagine those little thought clouds above my head. I then insert the thoughts and the feelings as words.
This gives me a little separation from them. Once separated, they become less factual and I can observe them with curiosity.
#2 Practice Acceptance and Self-Compassion
I accept that I have these feelings, these fears, these views. By accepting them for what they are and not trying to do away with them, I stopped the internal power struggle that dominated my brain for the majority of the morning.
They were there. I was there. We co-existed and I didn’t allow it to stick to me.
This happening to me does not mean I am a bad person or that I want any harm to come to my child. Quite the opposite, my worry is a hyper-awareness to prevent it.
Not the meditation kind, but the kind that allows me to be in the present moment, mindfully.
In situations like this, it can be easy to get lost in the emotion and not appreciate what you have right here right now. The very object of my fear, my child was right here right now wanting to play. I refocused and started playing with Isaac mindfully.
Anxiety and unhelpful thoughts are like terrorists. Their objective to strike fear into people and make them change their lives and how they are living.
What’s my policy? Just like my great country, I do not negotiate with terrorists.
If fear dictates how I live my life, I miss out on precious moments or joy that I can’t get back. I played with my son mindfully. I experienced the joy associated with that. I took pictures and made memories.
Sure, the feelings crept back in a little. So did the horrible image. But I have done this enough times (I’m in Recovery from Generalized Anxiety Disorder myself), I was able to compassionately and gently redirect myself back to the present moment.
Don’t get me wrong. That dream and the associated image are terrible and terrifying. However, it isn’t fact for me. I am not going to let it take up brain space reserved for facts and the present moment.
I won the battle with the anxiety and intrusive thoughts today. I enjoyed my day.
So…… Suck it nightmare!
I decided to share this experience in hopes that someone else will read it and #1, not feel crazy about being scared of dreams or anything else. #2, realize that everyone has these types of experiences and it is possible to not let them ruin everything.
If you find that you struggle and you want help with dealing with anxiety, intrusive thoughts or feelings, you should get help from a licensed therapist. This stuff isn’t easy and it takes a while to learn and implement.
What I did is just the tip of the iceberg in conquering things like anxiety and intrusive thoughts and feelings.