How to stop unwanted recurring dreams?

I’m posting this in GQ, as I really hope someone has a factual answer. Mods, feel free to move if it drifts into conjecture and opinion.

Practically every night, I am enduring similar dreams featuring my dead husband. He was an alcoholic; I put up with it for years, threw him out, and he drank himself to death. (You can find the full story in this thread.) He was 45 years old.

The dreams are disturbing, and so realistic as to make you believe in ghosts. Sometimes I can actually feel him lying in bed beside me. Sometimes in the dream I’ve caught him drinking neat vodka the morning of an important social event, and giving him a very hard time about it (including reminding him that he’s actually dead because of this behaviour). Sometimes I’m visiting him in hospital, knowing he’s about to die or is already dead. Sometimes the dreams become sexual, which is especially disturbing.

I go to bed every night dreading what’s coming. I wake up from the dreams in tears and struggle to start the day.

I’m on Prozac and seeing a psychiatrist. I’m becoming increasingly desperate.

Does anyone have any tips - any tips at all - on how to stop these dreams, or at the very least deal with them?

Learn about lucid dreaming. This is a technique for becoming aware that you’re dreaming, and controlling the content. (It may have a New Age-y feel, but it’s really a very down-to-earth procedure.)

Before going to bed each night, have a conversation with yourself, saying clearly and calmly things like “I am not going to have that dream tonight”. The basic idea is that you’re talking to your own subconscious mind, explaining your wishes. The clearer, simpler, and more direct you are, the better.

Keep going to the psychiatrist if you want, but try a cognitive behavioral therapist for this problem.

Try and think about what other things in your life these dreams might actually be about; a lot of times, dream content is a metaphor for something else, often something that’s bothering you but that you’re not consciously confronting.

Talk to your doctor about the possibility of changing medications. Many SSRIs have vivid, recurring dreams as a side effect. If you’re taking Prozac as an antidepressant, you may want to try other SSRI antidepressants, or try another class of antidepressants altogether, in order to find one that doesn’t prompt or exacerbate the dreams.

I second psychonaut’s suggestion. When I was on Celexa (an SSRI antidepressant), my dreams were vivid to the point that it would sometimes take hours for me to convince myself that they hadn’t truly happened. Before and after, I was and am the type of person who almost never remembers their dreams.

This is certainly an issue that you should raise with your psychiatrist.

This has worked well for me in eliminating unwanted and disturbing dream series on a couple separate occasions. I learned how it was done before there even was a “new age.”

I know a woman who keeps a TV on while sleeping - and keeps it tuned to kid’s shows. She says it helps keeps her dreams pleasant. (I think it would keep me awake.)

Thanks for the advice so far people. To cover some of your points:

  • I’ve raised it with my psychiatrist. But you can’t beat the teeming millions for real life experiences.
  • Because the Prozac is working as an antidepressant, and the dreams are pretty much the same as before I was on it, both my psychiatrist and doctor reckon we should stick with it.
  • I’m going to move on to Cognitive Based Therapy shortly.

There’s been a couple of occasions when I’ve recognised that it must be a dream, but haven’t tried the “lucid dreaming” thing to try and turn it around. Sounds helfpul. I’ll also try the positive thinking on going to bed.

Keep the ideas coming…

Consider getting tested for GERD (reflux). When I’m on my Protonix, I barely dream at all*. It’s a vivid night-and-day thing. After being on it for some time, if I go off it for a few days, I’ll have the bizarrest dreams imaginable.

*barely dream at all == don’t remember anything I dreamed, IMHO.

If using lucid dreaming to stop the dreams doesn’t work, try asking, either mentally or out loud, during the dream: “What is this dream trying to tell me? Why am I having this dream?”

You may or may not get an answer, but asking will reinforce the certainty that this is a dream. You may be able to relax more just knowing that.

And if it helps at all, I read the other thread when it was posted. You did everything you could. Grieving is probably unavoidable, but you should not be feeling guilty. Easier said than done, I know.

For years I would have dreams that I was lying in my bedroom trying to fall asleep. I finally used lucid dreaming to tell myself to make something happen in the dream so I would know it was a dream.

Since then I’ve dreamed about people coming in my bedroom and shooting, stabbing, punching, and doing all sorts of nasty things to me. It does convince me I’m sleeping, and it rarely wakes me up.

Tell yourself as you fall asleep that when you have the dream, you will make something happen in it.

This ‘lucid dreaming’ concept people have mentioned is something I’ve used before to stop bad dreams.

This stuff always sounds a big fuzzy and new age-y, but I think the psychological empowerment you get from taking matters into your hands and doing something positive and proactive to stop it - that alone can be as beneficial as whatever it is you’re actually doing. Try writing a letter to your ex-husband; take some time to think it over, outline exactly what it is you had a problem with in the dreams and what you’re saying is going to happen from now on. Read it out loud before you go to bed and recite it in your head as you fall asleep. Also I find making actual physical changes to your environment can be helpful: if you dream that he’s in bed with you, put something in the bed next to you so that you know he can’t be sleeping there. If you dream about him drinking vodka, get rid of any vodka or alcoholic drinks you have so that you’re certain there’s none in the house. As someone suggested, try steps like keeping a light on so that if you open your eyes you can immediately see there’s no one there; play relaxing music or keep TV programs you enjoy on. You could even try recording yourself reading the letter you wrote to him and playing it softly while you sleep.

Personally I think it’s the process of actively taking matters into your own hands, so that you can say to yourself, ‘this isn’t going to happen any more, and I’m sure of that because I’ve taken these steps: …’, that helps almost more than what the steps are.

It appears like there is some ongoing bitterness, as such you have to forgive him and his actions. As long as you hold on to the negative aspects he (in dreams) can get to you. If you can release it he won’t be able to bother you. From your post I’d say he had problems/ (spiritual) pain that he self medicated with drinking. You used his drinking to control him (threw him out of his home is control over him). This further diminishes him.

IMHO those dreams are real, along with the sex part. You and him (spiritually) need to be healed and released from each other.

An update.

Last night I tried talking to him out loud before I went to sleep. “Leave me alone, I need to get on with my life. It was nice of you to drop by my dreams, but the time has come for both of us to move on. Please, please leave me alone.”

And so on. Now, I’m not really a “believer” in the various types of life after death, so I’m pretty sure I was speaking to my own subconscious rather than him, but it seemed to work. Only one night, right enough, but it’s a start. I slept like a log last night.

Today, I’m very emotional with the feelings of loss and bereavement, but they come and go, so I don’t know if it’s related or a coincidence.

So, thanks for the help. If anyone has any other ideas, keep them coming.

As “cjepson” suggested, our subconscious uses dreams as a way to resolve unfinished business and also to reconcile the past/future with the present. I have had the same recurring “tornado” dream since I was a teenager, where a tornado is approaching and I have to find shelter. I did some basic research on the functions of dreams, and found that recurring themes in dreams usually symbolize an area of the life that needs reconciliation or closure. I realized the tornado dream only surfaces when I am about to undergo a major change (new house, new job, new situation), and the tornado symbolizes a “twist” in my life.

If you’ve never resolved your feelings about your late husband and still harbor guilt/resentment/disappointment/grief/other strong emotions from the life you led with him, the dreams will continue because they allow you an audience with him to “tell” him what you need to tell him, which will help clear your mind and rest your conscious.

I think as your therapy progresses and you work through the emotions and feelings you have had to deal with for the last 20 years, your sleep will be less disturbed by these dreams. The dreams you are having are part of your therapy in a way. You can’t speak to your late husband in therapy sessions, but in your dreams, you are able to say what you need to. Another helpful thing would be to write in a journal before you go to bed and when you wake up. Before you go to sleep, write down things you should have said when he was alive and things you want to tell him now that he’s not. When you wake up from your dreams, write down what happened in your dreams and what you think it means. Self-realization of the situation will help more than anything.

I hope your dreams are peaceful soon …

Thank you, b_watson. That’s really helpful and makes a lot of sense. It also reiterates some of the counselling I have received from professional sources.

I’m just expanding on what’s already been said, but hope it’s helpful or at least interesting.

My take on the nature of recurring dreams: it may not always be the unfinished business you think it is. In my experience, I may have some strong unresolved feeling in daily life, say frustration, that gets played out using details from something else entirely.

At work right now, I’ve been assigned to analyze an old project, to recommend how best to bring it up to date on a very small budget. The more I look at the project, the less I see worth rescuing, and the more futile it seems to spend money on it at all – ya can’t polish a turd – but it’s not up to me to do anything else.

However, I seldom dream directly about this work frustration in images from my current life. I dream about something that has stuck in my subconscious as iconic of that same feeling: desperately looking for something in a dark, obstacle-filled room, and not being able to find the lightswitch – or when finally finding the switch, discovering that it turns on a 5-watt bulb. When I was a kid, my paternal grandma, very traumatized by the Depression, was indeed a hoarder and a clutterer and a penny-pincher, and finding the lightswitch in rooms in her house was like that. For a little kid, Grandma’s house could be nightmarish after dark.

Grandma passed away years ago. I’ve worked on it, so that I’m no longer creeped out if I encounter situations *literally *like that in real life, such as in the spare room at a friend’s house (though I still get momentarily cross if the switch is behind a bookcase!). You could say that I’ve resolved my feelings about lightswitches in cluttered rooms. But I’ll never be able to completely avoid situations that make me feel powerless and frustrated, and the lightswitch theme shows up in my dreams often when those feelings are on my mind. The lightswitch is a powerful personal metaphor, and my brain apparently finds it handy.

I think the prevailing current neural dream theory is that during REM, part of your brain is doing clean-up, deciding what to do with bits and pieces of things in short-term memory, filing some things for permanent storage, tossing some things out. During this, another part of your brain is watching the leftover bits flying by, interpreting this compost heap of memory as a narrative (because humans are hard-wired to seek narratives in order to make sense of the world). The narrative-making part of your brain may need to borrow a few old, familiar images to stitch the scraps together, and the most potent memories are easiest to pull. (It would be nice if you could put certain memories in a file cabinet marked “ACCESS DENIED for dream-narrative use.”)

Mind you (heh), a third part of your brain may be taking advantage of this process to work through those feelings, those memories, or both; the key idea of this “clean-up” theory is not that dreams can’t be therapeutic, but that they aren’t necessarily designed to be therapeutic. IOW, their therapeutic value may not be optimal, you might have to work to get anything out of them, and sometimes they just aren’t useful.

I never dedicated as much effort as I could have to lucid dreaming, but I have learned to tell my dreaming self, "Oh, this is a f*ing lightswitch dream. I’m really frustrated about something else. This isn’t real." I usually can’t derail the dream completely, but I can at least be bored in it, and detached, instead of panicky.

Obviously, dealing with your husband’s death and emotional legacy is tough stuff requiring ongoing work, but it may help you immediately to clarify whether there’s something in your life that might be echoing how he made you feel, as well as working on the lucid-dream strategy of “It isn’t real.”

Maybe there’s a catylist to these dreams, and you can figure it out.

For years I had reoccuring dreams that I’d be driving and suddenly have a crash. They’d happen a few times a month. It took forever for me to connect the dots, but what was happening was this:
The dreams happened when I was in college. I went home every other weekend, and tried to make a point of spending some time with my preteen-young teen brother. Often this meant playing his video games with him. We played sports games, fighting games…and racing games. I sucked the most at those last ones. Several days later, I’d have nightmares about crashing whilst doing ordinary, non-racing driving.

The reason it took so long to realize what was sparking the dreams was the delay. If it had been the same night, or even a day or two later, I’d probably have remembered playing the video games, but the dreams were a week or more later. Once he outgrew the games, I stopped having those nightmares.

So, clearly our brains are suggestable, even when the thing that sparks the dream is mundane. Have you been watching or reading anything set in a bar or otherwise associated with drinking? Or hospitals? Or parties? Or, can you think of something else that might make you think of your ex that you might be coming into contact with on a regular basis?

When I was quite young (around 6 or 7 yo) I continually had very bad dreams. My mum told me that when I was going to sleep I needed to imagine that I was holding magic sand and when I was scared or upset all I needed to do was throw the imaginary sand at whatever was bothering me and it would magically disappear. I used it several times and it really empowered me. I still use it occasionally now.

I guess it is a form of lucid dreaming because I have to realise it’s a dream in order to use the sand.

Anything is worth a try :slight_smile:

I live in the house that we shared for twenty years. I sleep in the bed we chose together. I guess that might not be helping…