Gay Men and Sleep: Coping with Nightmares

young man unable sleep because of stress of problemsHave you been bothered by having nightmares or bad dreams?  Today I wanted to write about gay men and sleep, and coping with nightmares.  This comes up frequently either with clients in my office, or when I do online counseling or coaching for gay men all over the country, or the world.  Yesterday in my private practice office (where I have specialized in therapy for gay men in Los Angeles for 24 years), a client related a story of having a nightmare the night before. Then, last night, I had one myself. It got me thinking that I should write about this, because nightmares are troubling and can affect your quality of life by affecting the quality of your sleep, and the work I do is a lot about helping gay men with quality of life issues of all kinds. For my client, I educated him about what is generally known about the nature of nightmares, even if perhaps different schools of psychology will have different interpretations and opinions about their role, function, and purpose.

To me, both what I believe and what I’ve been taught, is that nightmares (also known as “bad dreams” or “night terrors”) are a tool that we can use to understand what is going on with us emotionally. Sigmund Freud, the “father” of psychotherapy, called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious”. I believe he called it “royal” because dreams are so valuable to us in helping us understand ourselves in more depth, beyond what our conscious mind can access. What happens to us when we are asleep is raw and accessible, unhindered by the noise of everyday conscious living. Dreams are a way for our unconscious mind to “tell” us what’s really going on with us emotionally on a deeper level.

I teach about the neurobiology of psychology and therapy in a course in the graduate MSW (Master of Social Work) program at USC, a course on clinical practice and psychotherapy techniques. In that class, students learn how the right side of the brain stores random memories, images, feelings, and impulses, like a “collage” of experience. It’s the left brain that sorts all of those into a coherent narrative (story) and helps us form more structured memories, and helps us form language to express our feelings about our memories and experiences. The experience of “processing” information between the two hemispheres of the brain is what’s called “horizontal integration”, and when you talk to your therapist, there is a lot of this going on in your brain! That’s why talking about what you saw and experienced in your dreams is important in making sense of it all. In therapy, discussing dreams can be a way to access perhaps unconscious fears and feelings, and this can help develop insight into what is bothering you on a deeper level, and what to do about it.

Here are some other tips for how to handle your dreams:

  1. Write them down when you wake up! In those very earliest moments of your day, just waking up, it’s much easier to recall details than it would be later in the day, even after morning coffee! Keep your iPad or even just pen/paper near your bed and write down your dreams, all you can remember: the setting, who was there, what happened, and especially your feelings in the dream. If you have a therapist, you can bring this in and discuss what it might mean.
  2. Relax very consciously before bedtime. Do some meditation while awake, and use the affirmation of “my dreams are relaxing and safe.”
  3. Talk about your dreams. Nightmares are often a sign that you have not consciously “processed” (talked about in a meaningful, emotional way) some kind of traumatic experience in your past. Combat veterans, abuse survivors, accident survivors, victims of crime, and survivors of natural disasters all could have symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and nightmares or even waking intrusive thoughts and images can be PTSD symptoms. This is a way that your unconscious mind is “tapping you on the shoulder” and saying, hey, hey, deal with me here! In therapy, when you gently recall your traumatic experiences in a structure way, with the safety and guidance of your therapist, you can access the implicit memories stored in your right brain and formulate them with your left brain, leaving you with a feeling of release or “catharsis” so that your unconscious mind doesn’t burden you as much with nightmares or the waking flashbacks. Writing (journaling) and talking about your dreams helps to dissipate their impact.
  4. Balance your food, exercise, and stress management. These life skills are key to all kinds of healthy things, including the quality of your sleep. Consider sleeping with a night light or even with the lights on for extra feelings of security. A noise-making device (available at Brookstone or Amazon) can give soothing sound (like waves, rain, or crickets) as you fall asleep, or use a clock-radio or stereo device that will play soft music on a timer for you to fall asleep. Movie soundtracks with classical music can be good for this, or flute/harp music.  Classic “sleep hygiene” habits like warm milk or caffeine-free tea before bed, or even a hot bath/shower, can help you relax.  Avoiding stressful images like from the nightly news or upsetting stories on Facebook before going to sleep can also help you relax before bedtime.
  5. Thank your unconscious mind for the dream. Really, even if it’s a nightmare. Consciously thank your unconscious mind for trying to help you sort out what you have been through. Your unconscious mind is not trying to hurt you by “sending” you a nightmare, it’s just reminding you that you have been through something difficult and to make your peace, it needs to be talked about in the clear light of day.
  6. Accept the gay content of your dreams. Gay men can have “culturally specific” nightmares or dreams, that can involve funny gay icons like Cher or Barbra Streisand doing odd things. There is a cultural aspect to dreams and the images they take the form of. Gay men might have dreams about the anxiety of coming out, or starting a new relationship. If gay men were shamed or bullied in their youth, sometimes these feelings can come back in dreams if our sense of self is threatened or if we are anxious. It can be said that all gay men are survivors of the trauma of growing up surrounded by forms, mild or severe, of homophobia and heterosexism. Processing dreams with a gay-affirmative therapist can help you build your self-esteem and self-confidence specifically as a gay man. This can also help your sexual functioning in how to have sex without guilt or shame.

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Nightmares can be frightening not only for their content and the feelings of fear or anxiety they produce, but also because they can carry over into the next day when you have important work to do or responsibilities to keep. Having therapy for the nightmares and, if necessary, other PTSD symptoms, can help liberate you from the unconscious need to process what you went through (in a trauma), or even your milder anxieties if you are not a trauma survivor. Sometimes just anticipatory anxiety about performance (making a sales presentation, giving a speech, going on a first date, or having a performance review at work) can cause enough anxiety to have a nightmare. Dreams can also have a “clairvoyant” quality, revealing that someone close to you is being dishonest and you’re picking up on unconscious clues about it. The value of dreams/nightmares is that they contain content that is valuable for understanding yourself. When you understand yourself, it can help guide what decisions you need to make, or actions you need to take, on your own behalf. Your sense of confidence, self-esteem, and satisfaction with the direction of your life can improve. “Talk therapy” can help facilitate this, and the therapist can give you other techniques and exercises that help you find relief.  If you need help with this, call/text me at 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or send me a message through the pop-up box here on the website, and we can arrange an appointment in my office in Los Angeles (West Hollywood) or via webcam or phone, with coaching services anywhere in the U.S. or the world.

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