How Dreams Can Heal
Rachel G. Norment, MA, Guest
The word for “dream” in Hebrew is chalom and is derived from the verb meaning “to be made healthy or strong.” In his book Healing Dreams Marc Barasch discusses how his own dreams and those of others led to healing.
In his own case, after he had ignored a series of vivid and mysterious dreams, one jolted him to attention. He tells how in this dream “torturers had hung an iron pot filled with red-hot coals beneath my chin, and I woke up screaming, the odor of searing flesh in my nostrils–I couldn’t ignore them any longer. I was sure that something inside me had gone drastically wrong. Each successive dream had spelled it out more explicitly until, although the word was never uttered, it glared down at me from a neon marquee: cancer.”
Although he immediately went to his doctor, it took persistence after more nightmares before the skeptical doctor ordered a needle biopsy, which revealed a cancerous malignancy of the thyroid gland.
Psychologist, international authority on dreams, and one of the cofounders of the Association for the Study of Dreams Patricia Garfield has written The Healing Power of Dreams. From her own dreams and those of other people, she gives examples and explains how to actively participate in your own healing. Dreams can warn one of oncoming health problems, suggest treatment, and accelerate the healing process.
Garfield describes her experience following a fall in which her wrist was seriously injured. After misdiagnosing the seriousness of the injury, her orthopedist prescribed incorrect treatments. Ten days after the injury she dreamed that her arm was broken, returned to the doctor, and insisted on additional x-rays, which showed a complex fracture requiring surgery and extensive therapy. Garfield goes on to show how “each phase of sickness and returning wellness is traced in our dream imagery.”
According to Garfield, there are seven stages of recovery from physical trauma, and “our dream metaphors about our bodies constantly change throughout the course of recovery.” What follows is my brief summary of her very thorough discussion of how to explore and understand the body metaphors in our dreams.
The first stage is Forewarning Dreams, which seem to predict illness. The ancient Greeks called these “prodromal,” meaning “running before.” Symptoms of illness often show up in our dreams in metaphorical language before we are aware of any in waking life. They are “probably responses of the brain to minute bodily sensations that are magnified and dramatized during sleep.” Marc Barasch’s dreams mentioned above are examples.
Garfield’s dream of her arm being broken is an example of the second stage: Diagnostic Dreams. Her dreammaker seemed to sift through various puzzling symptoms to come up with a diagnosis. If you can train yourself to find danger signs in your dreams, you will be able to seek early treatment, thus speeding recovery.
Stage 3: Crisis Dreams come when we have been seriously injured, have developed a disease, or face surgery. These dreams contain catastrophic images that symbolically show our fear of destruction and perhaps a fear of being surgically cut. Surgery might be depicted “as an invasion by knife or bullet or phallus, by wild animal or warrior.” Other images may show the location and sensations of disturbed body parts. A few hopeful images may appear. We should learn to recognize these positive images. Then various activities, such as drawing these images or using them in visualizations, can help accelerate the recovery process.
Stage 4: Post-Crisis Dreams – During the actual crisis we are likely to sleep poorly and not dream much. Some medicines suppress dreaming. As medication is reduced, the brain may try to compensate for its dream inhibition and restore its normal functioning by experiencing “REM rebound,” a state of terrifying dreams. This stage also includes post-traumatic stress dreams. The intensity of such nightmares and how long they will continue depend upon the degree of bodily damage undergone and the circumstances under which it was inflicted.
In Stage 5: Healing Dreams, as we return to health, new elements begin to appear in our dreams, often images of “new” things (newborn animals or babies, new clothing, new or restored houses) that are metaphors for an evolving new body image. Other images may depict a sense of recovering control over one’s life, regaining energy, and feeling supported and loved. There have been reported cases in which people have been healed within the dream state. They dreamed of the recovery of a damaged body part, then awakened to find it true: a paralysis or migraine headaches had vanished, an arthritic condition had improved.
In Stage 6: Convalescence Dreams, which occur in the latter stage of healing, more normal dreams begin to appear. Dreams portraying accidents or operations become infrequent, and nightmares rare. Dreams of the healing phase are more frequent. One should pay special attention to the “[d]reams that dramatize optimistic thought about a restored body. . . . [D]rawing these images and using them in visualizations help encourage the healing they represent.”
When we have regained our health, we experience Stage 7: Wellness Dreams, dreams with images showing “the dreamer functioning normally and with assurance,” as well as typical topics of the ups and downs of everyday life.
Garfield gives detailed guidance in how to work with one’s dreams through journaling, drawing, and visualization. One does not need to be an artist; simple doodles and rough drawings are beneficial.
When we are able to recognize prodromal and diagnostic dreams, we can seek help earlier than otherwise possible. When we recognize, understand, and take action during the various healing stages shown in our dreams, we can encourage and accelerate the healing process.
We often understand “healing” to mean becoming cured of a physical ailment. But we can be healed (made whole) on an emotional and spiritual level even when we cannot be cured. Our dreams come to us to help us on our journey towards wholeness.
About the Author
Rachel Norment, M.A., is the author of Guided by Dreams: Breast Cancer, Dreams, and Transformation, in which she tells how dreams helped her during her own journey through breast cancer and revealed unconscious indications of her ongoing process of self-understanding and transformation. The book illustrates several different approaches to working with one’s dreams. Certified as a dreamwork facilitator through the Marin Institute for Projective Dream Work, she is a facilitator with the IASD Healing Power of Dreams Project, conducts workshops on dreams and creating mandalas, and facilitates an ongoing dream group in Charlottesville, VA. Her essays have been published in the national journal Dream Network. Additional information about her work with dreams and mandalas and as a watercolorist can be found on her web site, www.expressiveavenues.com. She can be reached at Rachelgn@embarqmail.com.
(This article was first published in January 2006 Echo, a regional monthly paper published in Charlottesville, VA, exploring a variety of spiritual, psychic, and wellness topics.)
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