On Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Nightmares, PTSD, and the War on Terror

Chapter 2 of the book of my book, American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else, is devoted to the impact of the “war on terror” (including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) on dreaming.

Three of the focus group members had a direct personal connection to the Iraq war: Dan, who was fighting in it; Sophia, his wife; and Lola, whose nephew had just joined the Army and been deployed to Iraq.  Here are three of their dreams, discussed at more length in chapters 2 and 6.

Dan:“I am an observer or advisor to a small military outpost.  We get attacked by an air assault, planes dropped tons of soldiers all over our camp.  It was men and women in our camp.  I was with a small number of soldiers who escaped, we were walking through the swamp, doing good, when another group of escaping soldiers ran right into us—bringing the enemy on top of us.  We all ran, and I found an empty refrigerator to hide in.  I remember pulling some seal off the door so it wouldn’t seal on me.  I shut the door and waited.  The enemy found me, the guy was mad at me for some reason—I wouldn’t tell him something or I lied—anyway he wanted to cut off my finger.  He asked if I was part of A11 (my company) and I said no.  I noticed a soldier from our camp who was now an advisor or emissary for the enemy.  He stood up for me and saved my finger, and my life.”

Sophia:“Long and horrible….Dreamt Dan was married to both my sister B and myself.  He was taking me to his place of work where we ended up going on a mission.  This work place was under the guise of a normal office with lots of employees, doing normal work—but he was actually a spy or undercover operative doing dangerous missions, but like a contract worker.  At one point I end up with him in a new helicopter vehicle that we have to jump out of.  He has tons of hi-tech vehicles and equipment and acts ambivalent through the whole dream.  I know that B is expecting him to come home later to take her out but the employees cook a huge feast and everyone sits to eat—but I am not invited to sit and I get extremely upset.  It escalates through the dream.  I plead and cry to him to take me home but he won’t.  The dream revolves around me wanting to go home but can’t.”

Lola:“A guy I work (B) with and his wife (V) and I are trying to cross a bridge.  We are on a flat cart with no sides sort of like a carpet ride.  The three of us are zooming very fast on a path.  We go up a big hill of water, down and up and over.  We come to a bridge that is being built.  There are men everywhere with weapons.  We try to reason with them to let us cross.  They take V away.  B and I are locked up in an open cage overlooking the construction of the bridge.  The men are ogling V.  B is getting crazy.  I tell him to keep his cool, that is the only way we are going to escape.  I look out and see a woman in the distance.  She is winking at me and motions for me to look down.  I see a way to escape…We find V and the woman in the distance winks at us to go.  We are back on the cart again on a wild ride.  Up and over we go…We see a big crowd ahead.  It is a stadium and President Bush is there speaking.  We glide right up to him and tell him he must pull the troops out of Iraq, because we have our own war going on right here.  We tell him about the men at the bridges that we just escaped.  He tells us not to worry; he will take care of it.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is closely associated with experiences of war and terrorism.  Recurrent nightmares are one of PTSD’s most common symptoms.  For more on the cause and treatment of PTSD, see the following:

Haunted by Combat: Understanding PTSD in War Veterans, Stanley Krippner

The Spiritual Side of Traumatic Stress Normalization, J. Michael Hakanson

Trauma and Dreams, Deirdre Barrett

Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope, Kelly Bulkeley

American Dreamers: How Sleep, Dreams, and Religion Intersect

Interested in the ways that sleep, dreams and religion intersect for American Dreamers?  Below are some of the data charts from my book American Dreamers.

Religious Attendance x Sleep

More than once a week Never
Sleep Less than 6 hours a night 11 18
6-8.9 hours a night 84 76
More than 9 hours a night 2 6
Insomnia Never 70 51
1-2 nights a week 13 19
3 or more nights a week 13 27

Religious Attendance x Dream Prototypes

More than once a week Never
A person who’s now dead appearing alive 29 41
Magically flying in the air 25 29
Being chased or attacked 33 45
Falling 40 44
Sexual experiences 34 50
Being in a situation exactly like your regular waking life 53 63
Being aware you’re dreaming and able to control the dream 37 47

Chapter 3 discusses these findings in relation to the religious and spiritual dimensions of the dreams of the journal keepers. For more on dreaming and religion generally, see Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History.

Do Conservatives Sleep Better at Night than Liberals?

What do political ideology and sleeping habits have to do with each other?  Lots, as it turns out.  The data below is excerpted from my book American Dreamers.

Sleep and dream poll results: Political ideology

The sleep and dream poll was designed to balance a detailed analysis of the focus group members with a demographically broader and statistically meaningful source of evidence. I wanted to generate the kind of data frequently used in mainstream political analysis and correlate it with data on sleep and dream patterns. The poll was conducted on my behalf by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in August of 2007. A total of 705 American adults were contacted at home by means of random-digit dialing telephone calls. These people were demographically representative of the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, region, and political outlook. The margin of error for the overall statistical findings was plus or minus 3.7%, slightly higher for the smaller subgroups. The poll data provides two ways of looking at the sleep-dream-politics relationship. In the first, pro-Bush respondents (somewhat or strongly approving of him) were separated from the anti-Bush respondents (somewhat or strongly disapproving) and compared on the frequency of their answers to the sleep and dream questions.

Ideology x Sleep

Liberal Conservative
Sleep Less than 6 hours a night 12 15
6-8.9 hours a night 82 80
More than 9 hours a night 7 4
Insomnia Never 54 63
1-2 nights a week 17 17
3 or more nights a week 28 16

Ideology x Dream Prototypes

Liberal Conservative
A person who’s now dead appearing alive 48 35
Magically flying in the air 23 20
Being chased or attacked 48 40
Falling 54 47
Sexual experiences 47 38
Being in a situation exactly like your regular waking life 58 56
Being aware you’re dreaming and able to control the dream 44 34

Chapter 1 of American Dreamers presents my interpretation of these results.

Quiz: American Dreamers

Read the seven quotations below, and see if you can match them to the seven political leaders who spoke them.

A. President Richard M. Nixon, “First Inaugural Address,” January 20, 1969.
B. President Ronald Reagan, “Remarks about the Congressional Elections,” television broadcast, October 26, 1982.
C. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., “The American Dream,” sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, July 4, 1965.
D. Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, introducing the Democratic Leadership Council’s report on “Saving the American Dream,” July 19, 2006.
E. Governor and President-elect George W. Bush, speaking to the Texas Legislature, December 13, 2000.
F. Senator Barack Obama, speaking at a Democratic rally in Tempe, Arizona, October 23, 2006.
G. Steve Forbes, page 5 in A New Birth of Freedom, published October 25, 1999.
1. The American Dream does not come to those who fall asleep…. We have endured a long night of the American spirit. But as our eyes catch the dimness of the first rays of dawn, let us not curse the remaining dark. Let us gather the light.
2. [T]he substance of that dream…is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is a dream. It’s a great dream…. God grant that America will be true to her dream.
3. Deep down, this country wasn’t built on fear. This country was built on hope. This country was built on a belief in limitless possibilities, on a belief in dreaming big dreams.
4. For [more than 200] years, Americans have been united by a simple, common dream that tomorrow will be better than today. The promise of American life, handed on through a dozen generations, rests on this basic bargain: All of us should have the opportunity to live up to our God-given potential, and the responsibility to make the most of it…. To remain strong in the world, the American Dream must be strong and alive here at home. And as we continue to navigate through these changing economic times, restoring the promise of the American Dream is the central economic issue of our time.
5. We believe in the American dream, because we’ve had a chance to live it. The American dream isn’t about the accumulation of material things. It is much deeper and more profound than that. The essence of the American dream is the understanding that we are here on this earth and in this land for a higher purpose: to discover—and develop to the fullest—our God-given potential. Anything that stands in the way of the dream, we must fight. Anything that enhances the dream, we must support.
6. I have faith that with God’s help we as a nation will move forward together as one nation, indivisible. And together we will create an America that is open, so every citizen has access to the American dream; an America that is educated, so every child has the keys to realize that dream; and an America that is united in our diversity and our shared American values that are larger than race or party.
7. It’s time to stop playing on people’s fears and to begin asking what we can do together to make things better. None of us can afford to play politics as usual. We love this land of ours, because it’s a special place where people are free to work, to save, to believe, to build a better future. The cynics may call it corny, but this way of life we all cherish is best summed up in three simple words: the American dream. From our beginnings as a nation, that dream has been a living, breathing reality for millions. It still is. But it faces serious threats.

Answer Key: A-1, B-7, C-2, D-4, E-6, F-3, G-5

Learning Spiritual Lessons from the Dreams You Never Forget

By Kelly Bulkeley

(This article appears in the recent issue of Dream Time, the Magazine of the Association for the Study of Dreams)

The religions of the world have found a way to disagree on almost any subject you can think of. They’ve clashed over everything from the nature of the soul to the reality of God, from sexual morality to what foods we should and shouldn’t eat. But on one small point most religions do agree, and that’s a point about the nature of dreams. Nearly all the world’s religions share the belief that some dreams are true revelations of the Divine, bringing people into direct contact with some kind of transpersonal being, force, or reality. Not all dreams are believed to have this power; most traditions emphasize that the majority of dreams are related to ordinary daily events and have no unusual, heaven-sent meaning. But almost every religion in the world recognizes that at least once or twice in their lives people have dreams that are different, that have a special energy, vividness, and intensity to them. The Mohave Indians of the American Southwest call these dreams “sumach ahot,” or “lucky dreams,” while the Jamaa church people of Western Africa call them “mawazo,” or “holy dreams.” Medieval Islamic theologians referred to them as “clear dream visions” sent directly from God, and ancient Hindu philosophers spoke of them as “dreams under the influence of a deity.”

These unusual types of dream are not merely the relics of ancient religious superstition. People in our society today experience dreams that are virtually identical to the dream revelations reported in a wide variety of religious traditions. Although many individuals in the modern world use non-religious language to describe their dreams, the dream experiences themselves always have a vivid intensity that sharply distinguishes them from more ordinary types of dreaming. These are the dreams we never forget-the dreams we can’t help but remember, the dreams that throughout our lives linger in our memories and haunt our imaginations.

Carl Jung referred to these momentous experiences as “big dreams,” and he said that such dreams could, if people learned to appreciate their meanings, become “the richest jewels in the treasure-house of the soul.” Unfortunately, many people in modern society have no idea what to think or do when they experience a big dream. They worry that having such strangely vivid and powerful dreams must mean there’s something wrong with them. “Where did that come from?” the dreamers nervously ask themselves, “I’ve never experienced anything like that before, whether I was awake or asleep….”

For many years now I’ve been studying these kinds of extraordinary dream experiences, trying to understand where they come from, what functions they serve, and how we can interpret their meanings. My approach, in both my academic research and my experiential dreamwork, is guided by an integration of modern psychological theories with the traditional teachings of the world’s religions. In Transforming Dreams I share the basic principles of my approach, and I show how it can provide a reliable means of making better sense of your own most vividly memorable dreams. The first part of the book, “Tales,” describes four of the most striking forms that big dreams take: dreams of reassurance, dreams of making love, nightmares, and dreams of death. The book’s second part, “Pathways,” lays out the practical methods of exploration I have found most helpful in discerning the deeper meanings of big dreams. These practical methods include reflecting on a dream’s strongest sensations, sharing dreams with other people, following particular images and themes across a series of dreams, and creatively expressing the energies of dreams in waking life. Transforming Dreams is written for people who simply want to know more about their own big dreams, and it is also intended for the various professionals (psychotherapists, social workers, educators, pastoral counselors, spiritual directors) whose work might benefit from a greater familiarity with the most extraordinary and mysterious realms of the dreaming imagination.

I am not assuming the readers of the book will share any particular religious faith or spiritual worldview. Big dreams come to all people-to religious believers, diehard atheists, and all those people who don’t belong to any formal religion but who feel a yearning to discover greater meaning and purpose in their lives. I try to respect the healthy skepticism some readers may feel toward the subject of dreaming, and I also try to honor the sincere religious convictions of other readers who feel their dreams have truly Divine origins. My focus in Transforming Dreams is on the big dream experiences themselves, and I feel confident in promising readers that no matter what belief system you hold, these vivid and unforgettable dreams have the power to deepen your self-knowledge, broaden your emotional awareness, and open your imagination to new realms of vitality, freedom, and creative possibility.

One topic I discuss in the book is dreams of snakes, and this relates to the current interest of many ASD members in the questions of whether “universal dreams” truly exist and if so how they can best be understood. I present evidence in Transforming Dreams that extremely memorable dreams of snakes have been reported by people throughout history, right into the present day. Thus, in a very broad descriptive sense, I believe snake dreams are a truly universal phenomenon, and I also believe there’s a good naturalistic explanation for this. Because venomous snakes have been a real danger to humans from the earliest period of our evolutionary history, dreaming about snakes (in vivid and highly memorable ways) serves the adaptive function of keeping us alert and vigilant against this perennial waking world threat. To put it in the simplest terms, snake dreams are universal because snake dreams have tangible survival value.

But speaking in a more interpretive sense, I do not believe snake dreams have any universal meaning. The snake dreams I describe in my book express a variety of different meanings, none of which is easily reducible to a simple formula or definition. The most important practical point I emphasize in Transforming Dreams is that each dream is unique to the dreamer, with distinctive meanings that relate directly to his or her personal existence. Although it can be very helpful to hear how other people would interpret a similar dream (hence the value of dreamsharing groups), the dreamer is always in the best position to understand the unique meanings of his or her own dream experience.

Between these two positions-universal dreams, yes, universal meanings, no-lies a great deal of territory for creative exploration and discovery. Indeed, this gets to my basic belief about the essentially spiritual function of highly memorable dreams: these dreams provoke greater consciousness. Big dreams relate directly to our personal lives and they connect us to the universal cares, concerns, and desires of humankind. In this way big dreams truly expand consciousness, stretching our awareness to include an ever wider sphere of experience and meaning.

Transforming Dreams Learning Spiritual Lessons from the Dreams You Never Forget. By Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D. (John Wiley & Sons, February 2000)

Download this article as a pdf file

“The most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances.” Aristotle, On Prophesying by Dreams

International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD)

IASD celebrates the many benefits of dreamwork, yet recognizes that there are potential risks. IASD supports an approach to dreamwork and dream sharing that respects the dreamer’s dignity and integrity, and which recognizes the dreamer as the decision-maker regarding the significance of the dream. Systems of dreamwork that assign authority or knowledge of the dream’s meanings to someone other than the dreamer can be misleading, incorrect, and harmful. Ethical dreamwork helps the dreamer work with his/her own dream images, feelings, and associations, and guides the dreamer to more fully experience, appreciate, and understand the dream. Every dream may have multiple meanings, and different techniques may be reasonably employed to touch these multiple layers of significance.

A dreamer’s decision to share or discontinue sharing a dream should always be respected and honored. The dreamer should be forewarned that unexpected issues or emotions may arise in the course of the dreamwork. Information and mutual agreement about the degree of privacy and confidentiality are essential ingredients in creating a safe atmosphere for dream sharing.

Dreamwork outside a clinical setting is not a substitute for psychotherapy, or other professional treatment, and should not be used as such.

IASD recognizes and respects that there are many valid and time-honored dreamwork traditions. We invite and welcome the participation of dreamers from all cultures. There are social, cultural, and transpersonal aspects to dream experience. In this statement we do not mean to imply that the only valid approach to dreamwork focuses on the dreamer’s personal life. Our purpose is to honor and respect the person of the dreamer as well as the dream itself, regardless of how the relationship between the two may be understood.

Prepared by Carol Warner
International Association for the Study of Dreams
Spring, 1997

Is Dream Interpretation a Sin?” (article)

Penelope as Dreamer: The Perils of Interpretation” (conference presentation)

Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions (book)

Dreaming Beyond Death – Newsweek 2005

Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope (book)

Transforming Dreams: Learning Spiritual Lessons from the Dreams You Never Forget (book).