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Advice from a Professional Nightmare Whisperer

If you've ever woken up with a sense of impending doom, convinced you really did just sleep with your repugnant boss, you're not alone—nightmares are one of Mother Nature's crueler inventions. Broadly spoke to veteran dream interpreter Margaret Bowater...
September 14, 2016, 1:50am
Illustration by Lucy Han

The late and great literary critic, Margaret Fuller, once said that "Only the dreamer shall understand realities." She may not have known it at the time, but she was on to something that would come to be known eventually as dreamwork: a process of psychoanalysis whereby dreams are dissected in order to arrive at the emotions residing deep inside our tortured souls.

The practice, which is still largely based on anecdotal evidence and case studies, seeks to explore the feelings and visuals in our dreams without necessarily arriving at a singular meaning. New Zealand psychotherapist Margaret Bowater, who has specialised in dreamwork for over 25 years, says it is the key to using our dreams and nightmares as a tool to better understand hidden aspects of our inner selves.

It's really important for us to pay attention to nightmares, beginning in childhood.

The full-time dream whisperer recently published a book titled Healing the Nightmare; Freeing the Soul. In it, she explains how we can alter our nightmares, so they help rather than hinder us. Because nothing is better than sleep. And the daylight hours are stressful enough.

Broadly: First of all, what is the actual definition of a 'nightmare'?
Margaret: A lot of dreams can be disturbing or distressing without technically being nightmares. Technically, a nightmare is a shocking dream that wakes you up in the middle of the night because you're afraid of what's going to happen next.

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Right. So what causes them?
They are mostly triggered by something in real life. They can arise from traumatic experiences, especially exposure to violence. People who experience domestic violence or who live in a war zone tend to have nightmares. Or we may have witnessed a crime, and fear the same thing will happen to us.

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Do you think all dreams have meaning?
Most dreams do have meaning, but in our fast-paced modern life we tend to often only have dream fragments. It's not quite enough to make a story, or to make a clear image. It's only the dreamer who can validate the meaning of their dream, but other people [like me] can help them explore it. People seem to think that the quicker nightmares are forgotten, the better. But that's not the case. It's really important for us to pay attention to nightmares, beginning in childhood. You can learn from your nightmares, and change them so they're not continuously frightening you.

In your book, you talk about "harnessing" your nightmares. What does that involve?
After a client has awoken from a nightmare and is feeling calm, I tell the dreamer to rethink what happened in their nightmare; to consciously imagine a better way to finish the story so that she or he isn't left feeling helpless. For instance, they could imagine calling in a powerful ally to help them deal with the [dream] situation. Or if somebody was killed, you could imagine their spirit leaving the body and seeking out a new journey.

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You can use all the resources of your imagination. Then, when the dream recurs, they have created an alternative neural pathway, and the dream changes. This gives the dreamer a new sense of power. I have had dozens of clients report on how much difference this makes.

One example: a woman who had been sexually abused and subsequently dreamed constantly about a crocodile attacking her. The next time the dream came, she pulled out a gun and shot the crocodile. She had created a neural pathway in her brain so that it didn't just finish with her being a victim. This time she took charge. It was long after the attacker had died, but the dream had recurred for 30 years. And that was the end of that dream.

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Can nightmares be damaging to our physical health?
There's a strong link between chronic nightmares disturbing your sleep and respiratory problems. One woman contacted me after she'd had a road accident. She'd fallen asleep at the wheel and she said it was because she wasn't getting enough sleep due to her dreams.

Some people find it hard to remember their dreams at all. How can we better recall them?
There are people whose jobs require them to leap out of bed and rush straight to work, or they have a partner or children that disturb them. If you're woken by an alarm, it pulls your attention away from whatever it is that you've been dreaming. You need five minutes when you wake up to check what was going on in your mind before you awoke. Jot down notes. Once people get interested in their dreams, they tend to pay more attention and record them more fully.

What do you say to skeptics who think dreams have no meaning?
Everybody dreams. Why should dreams not have significant meaning, like anything else in your life? I think skeptics are scared of what they might find in their dreams. They're missing out on half of their [life] experience.