Monday, February 18, 2008

How To Avoid Traumatic Dreams

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
- Plato, philosopher, pupil of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle (428-347 BC)

Harkening back to our prehistoric past, as social but uncivilized dwellers of forest and savannah, we required a degree of caution and sensitivity toward activity that might take place around us at night, activity which might result in our becoming lunch for a predator.

However, why should a child be afraid of the dark today? In the womb, the fetus had nothing to fear in permanent darkness. That fear, like all fears, had to be learned after birth. In most cases, the fear would be learned as a result of something a parent did, or did not do when something alarming happened during the night.

Others, including extended family or other children, might have implanted scary stories in the mind of the child, but the parents have control of the child's activities during most of the times that he or she could experience something that could develop into a fear.

Night is also a time when most children are left alone in their bedroom, apart from the security they enjoy during the daytime with parents or other caregivers. But nothing in nature says that they should be afraid, unless something has sparked that fear.

Sure, scary dreams can produce a fear of the dark. However, dreams tend to be frightening for a reason. We have control over our conscious mind during the daytime, but our unconscious mind takes over at night. The unconscious can be just plain crazy sometimes, unfettered by norms, securities and boundaries we have during the daytime.

In general, my experience tells me that a brain that is active and learning fruitfully during the daytime seldom has scary dreams at night. If anything, the brain that is intellectually active during the daytime tends to have rather boring dreams at night, such that they are quickly forgotten. A brain that is active during the daytime with thoughts relating to emotional or social problems is more apt to have bad dreams at night.

The best way to give a child calm dreams at night is to provide a stimulating environment in which they can learn during the day. A boring daytime or an insecure one might well lead to scary dreams at night. Daytime fears or insecurities tend to develop into nighttime dramas. Small daytime experiences can become monstrous at night.

It's equally true that fears in adults are learned. Nothing in nature suggests that we are born with fears, though we might have some degree of caution built in (see above). It's also equally true that adults who lead mentally stimulating lives during the daytime tend to have fairly mundane dreams at night. Those who lead boring daytime lives may well have nightmares or bad dreams.

The whole topic of dreams is not as simple as this, of course, because science knows relatively little about consciousness or the unconscious. However, the tips given above may help you to analyze your own daytime and nighttime mental activity to determine if you need to change something about how you spend part of your daytime life.

You can as well help someone else--especially a child--who may be having trouble coping with traumatic experiences at night. It won't be the whole answer, but it could be the beginning of a solution to apply the knowledge you received here.

The brain, like the rest of the body, wants to exercise, demands to be exercised. Provide that exercise--without forcing anything that causes information overload--in the daytime and the nights should pass peaceably.

Bill Allin
Turning it Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book for adults who want to learn why they are the way they are and how they can change themselves. And for parents who want to know how to grow their children well.
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