Saturday, December 3, 2011

Recurring Dreams

Someone recently mentioned to me the often common occurrence of recurring nightmares that plague those of us who have spent a lot of time in school. You know the ones: you are taking a final exam and realize that you've somehow forgotten to attend this particular class...or you are trying to find the room where your dissertation defense exam is being held and you are lost....or you can't find your class notes and have an exam in a few minutes.  There are many variations on this theme, but they all have the same underlying fear of failure. 

I had such nightmares periodically all through school and even long after I had obtained a Ph.D. and had a job.  Mine always involved high school and an inability to find my locker (where my books and class notes were) or the appropriate classroom (always a math class) or both.  In the dream, I would be forced to go back to high school (regardless of age or the fact that I already had a Ph.D.) to take a math class that I had somehow neglected to take.  So there was also an element of not fitting in with the other students due to my age and other factors.  There I would be, back in high school...sort of like in the movie, Peggy Sue Got Married, in which a woman has an accident at her high school reunion and wakes up back in the 1950s.  In that case, Peggy Sue gets to relive a lot of events during her high school years, but with the mind of an adult. 

My dreams were similar to Peggy Sue's in that I would have the mind of an adult and all my memories and skills acquired up to that point.  You would think, then, that I would be more adept at finding my classroom and keeping track of my class notes.  But nooooo....I would be totally at a loss to figure out my class schedule, the locations of my classrooms, and how to find and open my assigned locker.  In some cases, I would find my classroom, but I would be so hopelessly behind, due to prior absences, that I would just sit there in complete bewilderment at what was being discussed.  Or I would find myself taking an exam for which I had not studied. Excruciating for someone who was always prepared for exams and always made high grades.

You would also think that someone who had managed to acquire a Ph.D. in a science field would be immune to such dreams.  Quite the contrary.  For me, they actually got worse after I completed my schooling and was working as a professor at a university.  I found these dreams to be unsettling because I realized that they indicated a lack of confidence.  I suspected also that they were related to my tendency toward perfectionism. 

Ultimately, however, I discovered how to stop these recurring dreams.

I had been reading about lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer realizes that they are dreaming and is then able to direct the dream.  The advantage of lucid dreaming is that you are only restricted by your imagination, not by the laws of physics or rules of society.  I've only managed to have a handful of lucid dreams over the years, but they were all quite amazing and realistic...bordering on out-of-body experiences.  The trick is to realize that you are dreaming, which is not as easy as it sounds.  For me, when I think I am dreaming, I apply a test, which is to see if I can fly.  If I am able to fly, then I know I am dreaming and can proceed to direct the dream.  It's a tricky balance, however.  I think what is happening is that you are in between a state of dreaming and consciousness.  Once you recognize you are dreaming, it often happens that you wake up because you slipped too far toward consciousness. 

My lucid dreams always seemed to have a very practical storyline.  The first lucid dream I ever had involved an ability to shoot a laser beam from my fingertips.  So what did I do with this amazing gift?  I proceeded to use it to trim the trees in my yard of dead branches!  Other dreams involved flying and traveling great distances to see different ecosystems of the Earth.  A bit more adventurous, but still practical from a professional standpoint.  These are quite vivid dreams, which upon waking, are difficult to distinguish from a real memory. 

I had other recurring nightmares about elevators, for example (don't ask me why, because I don't have a phobia about elevators in real life).  I began thinking that perhaps lucid dreams could be used to rid myself of these annoying recurring dreams. Unfortunately, I couldn't just turn lucid dreaming on and off at will.  I had to wait for one to occur spontaneously.

That's what finally happened with the school nightmares.  I found myself in the middle of a typical dream in which I was running around my high school, desperately looking for my math class, when I suddenly realized that this was a dream.  I then stopped and said to myself, "I have already graduated from high school and college and also completed graduate school. I have a Ph.D. and a job at a university. I don't need to go back to high school and take some silly math class."  Then I just turned and walked out the front door of the high school.  I never had these dreams again, and my sense of confidence increased dramatically.

My experience exemplifies one advantage to learning how to dream lucidly: overcoming fears and other psychological barriers to success.  You can accomplish the same thing with psychotherapy, of course, but going the dream route may work faster.  It certainly worked for me.  From what I understand about it (which isn't a lot), the best predictor of lucid dream ability is whether you have good dream recall.  I've always been able to recall my dreams in great detail; in contrast, my husband reports that he has great difficulty recalling any dreams at all.  In any event, dreams provide powerful insights into your psyche, and the ability to modify or control them might provide a means of treatment for certain disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder, for example).  It is definitely a way to minimize or eliminate nightmares.

I've been quite pleased to be rid of these recurring dreams about school.  However, I wonder if students these days have such nightmares?  Considering that skipping class and not having to take notes (the professor provides these on a website) are more common now than when I was a student, perhaps these fears of missing classes or losing notes are not as great? On the other hand, maybe it's worse?

Photo Credit: Promotional image for Peggy Sue Got Married, Tristar Pictures.

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