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Night-terrors, nightmares and other sleep problems related to difficulties with emotional processing of painful experiences occur when their mind and body are trying to process and let go of conflicting and painful emotional material. This painful material which during the day we might be able to avoid or which can be manifested through other anxiety or chronic pain problems starts rising to the surface at night when our normal avoidance mechanisms go down.

Sleep problems recap


As we have described in our first post about sleep problems: sleep problems can be caused by many different factors, but roughly speaking the quality of sleep depends on two parallel processes – one is an actual sleep process and another one is how relaxed and feeling safe the body is. The more the body can be relaxed and the longer it can stay relaxed – the deeper the sleep process can be – the better the quality of sleep is and the more healing and recovery can take place during sleep.

When we first fall asleep, our body should be relaxed enough to allow for the process of sleep to occur.  In some cases this state can be a type of fake relaxation experienced as flatness or numbness which happens due to physical exhaustion. In order for the our body to be relaxed enough to sleep the danger signals have to be muted, and as the danger signals get muted our internal defense system is also temporarily going down. As both the danger and the defensive systems go down, our body and brain start working together – at subconscious level – to achieve the best possible regeneration for the whole organism. Now, two things happen during regeneration process: our body is trying to achieve the deepest possible relaxation in the first half of the night, and in the second part of the night our brain and body try to process emotional and psychological material. Emotional and psychological material can be from the near past or it can also include emotionally painful memories from more distant past, which are being stored in our body.

So, if our body is highly anxious and exhausted – you will be waking up in-between your sleep cycles which usually take around 1,5-2 hours each. Normally we do have mini wakings during the night, which if we feel safe enough we do not even register before moving to the next sleep cycle. I assume it is evolutionary smart – to have several sleep cycles – so you can wake up and check whether the environment is safe enough for a human to continue to stay in a highly vulnerable state.

Because in the first few hours of sleep – the recovery is purely physical and our mind really is asleep, it wants to make sure that we are safe to continue to be in a vulnerable state and it only gets that chance between the sleep cycles. That is it why when we experience anxiety – our subconscious mind registers fear or danger and can be reluctant to go back to sleep. I hope this makes sense.


What is a nightmare?

Now, to the actual bad dreams. As we move into a sleep phase our mind and body work together to get rid of the emotional material from the past day or two, so we can start our day fresh both physically and psychologically. Usually the processing of that emotional material occur relatively smooth, we might be aware of having some mild experience of dreaming and some vague memories what is was about, but then we can forget that information, as it is not really important or relevant to us and there are more exciting things in life to focus on.

But if recent experiences trigger more painful and conflicting memories from more distant part, those deeper memories trigger anxiety (alarm bell) or emotional avoidance mechanisms. Dreams usually do not make much sense because the content of the dream is just an attempt of our consciousness to interpret subconscious emotional material, but it makes even less sense when the dreams are anxiety driven (as anxiety is a fear of our actual emotional experience).

So when we are working with bad dreams rather than focus on the content of the dream we focus on the experience or the sense of the dream, and its symbolic information. We then attempt to separate experience of anxiety/fear in the dream and the deeper emotional clues – a process without which understanding of the underlying problem causing a bad dream is impossible.

Imagine that you have had a mildly difficult experience, for example a slight disagreement with your boss. This would be an mildly unpleasant, but not critical experience for many people. But lets imagine that as a child you very punished or rejected when you didn’t like or disagreed with something. Now on on top of the objective unpleasantness, you also have a deep painful memory rising to which your body reacts with fear and an attempt to avoid it. What is happening is that your subconscious is trying to avoid your honest feelings in order to spare you more punishment or rejection, without realising that it no longer is serving it’s function – to protect you, instead becoming a nuisance, which now prevents you from recovering and moving on.

How do you work with this kind of problems?

What we actually looking at together with the client is what is happening inside of their psychology and working towards understanding what is happening below anxiety.

In this particular example, we look at the feelings which got triggered by disagreement with the boss (towards the boss), and then we consciously examine how the body is processing those feelings.

So, if as a child you had a negative experience stating your point of view, in addition to feeling hurt it would also trigger an emotion of anger, and your body most likely would learn that anger is not safe. The problem will be even more serious if an adult also got angry with you for having a different point of view from theirs.

Avoiding and hiding your feelings will also impact your learning about how to experience, make sense of and to express your frustration or anger to someone without getting fearful or going into survival mode. Of course everyone problem is unique, as we are all different and living different lives, and this is just a simplified example of what could go wrong.

In our work we attempt at achieving emotional freedom for all of our clients, relentlessly working through the fears and barriers as they rise.

Please send us your comments or questions, and we will do our best to answer them.

Question: I am ok during the day and it is only at night that I have this problem. Why?

During the day we use a lot of internal avoidance mechanisms which allow us to focus on most important information and to be functioning in our lives the way we have to. If we were to consciously feel all of our feelings – we simply would not achieve much. So, many of those mechanisms allow us to be most efficient in our professional and personal lives, but some of those mechanisms sometimes can block some personally important information knowing which only possible through experiencing our feelings.

As we mentioned earlier, while we are asleep our body wants to let go of all the tension and to heal, and as a results the walls of those defensive mechanisms go down allowing us to regenerate. When the wall of avoidance goes down our body wants to release all of the emotions its been holding on to in order to have a fresh start a new day and what happens next we have just described above.

Valeria Zoteyeva, Health Psychologist,
Certificate in Sleep psychology by Australian Psychological Society (c) 2019

This post is an intellectual property of the Melbourne Health Psychology Centre.

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