Dreams, Nightmares, and Parkinson’s
Last updated: November 2022
What can be done about bad dreams and nightmares?
I have had recurring nightmares from 2 events that happened in my mid-20s. My nightmares repeat on a frequent but erratic basis at least twice a week. I wake up in a cold sweat with ragged breathing and rapid pulse and no conclusions to the "story" of my nightmares.
With the onset of Parkinson’s, my nightmares became more colorful, vivid, brighter, intense and with a heightened state of anxiety on being awakened. Much worse! I’m in therapy for the first time in my life and my therapist with the VA recommended a VA developed program for treating nightmares.
Dream therapy program
The program is intense and is one-on-one with a therapist for 6 weekly sessions of 1 and a half hour to 2 hours duration. There is homework, and lots of it!
Here is where technology meets treatment: I’m in Colorado Springs, my therapist is in Salt Lake, and my nightmares therapist is in Phoenix.
The first sessions were a deep dive into the science of sleep, good practices, and my sleep habits. I kept diaries about sleep and nightmares. I committed to gradually changing my going to bed routines. Dim lights a half hour prior, new specific relaxation techniques, no reading in bed, and no iPad to name a few. Much harder to change ingrained habits than I expected.
Describing my nightmares
I had never talked about my nightmares other than sharing with my wife that one of my recurring nightmares was about drowning and the other about dead bodies. My therapist asked me to describe the dead body nightmares in detail. Multiple attempts! She wanted me not only to describe the nightmare in factual detail, but I had to include context, colors, smells, and my feelings.
There was some sweating and even some crying. I was then asked to write all this down. I tried to get out of doing that by claiming Parkinson’s handwriting issues, but she called my bluff by saying "dictate your story."
The next step was to take my story and imagine at least 3 different endings. Anything is allowed except the interrupted end of the nightmare. It was like pulling teeth, but as I read out loud my story with a different ending I noticed something. The more I wallowed through all the details, the impact of the nightmare lessened. It became, in some weird way, just a story, and one I could look at at arms length. All the detail actually helped change the story to seem less important.
The next step was to tell myself my story with one of the new endings just before falling a sleep. I still had the nightmares during the week between sessions, but the colors started fading and the details made the dream less disturbing. By the third iteration, my nightmare was drifting off into bad dream territory. Quite the improvement!
I have since tried the process on the drowning nightmare with similar results. My nightmares are less frequent and of much less impact. I do tell myself one of the stories almost every night.
I have had success in limiting the frequency and impact of my recurring nightmares. If you have nightmares, I do not recommend trying these techniques by yourself. If you are interested in trying to do something about your nightmares, find a therapist who has expertise in dream therapy.
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