Dreams are Ten a Penny but Flashbacks are Free

Well where do I start on this little subject? Something I once again have no formal qualification in but experience every night. Something that can be pleasurable but also intolerable – very rarely are they neutral. I am sure there are many experts out there who can provide more qualified discussion on this topic but, once again, I will provide my interpretation, experience and understanding.

The broad concept of dreams seems to be those subconscious events and imaginings that occur in our heads – sometimes these are completely at the creation of the subconscious without the need for any stimulus. Other times they are the subconscious bringing forward its own interpretation of previous experiences. Yet other times it could be the brain searching for a way forward or a solution to a problem it thinks it has. But sometimes it can even be imagining the future in a way the conscious mind has requested (eg daydreams about how you will spend the lottery winnings).

I class ‘normal’ dreams as those positive images and experiences you have in your mind when asleep. Dreaming about watching the nice white sheep playing in a green field with a stream flowing gently to the right – a happy couple on a sunny day sitting having a picnic and a young girl sitting on a swing under an apple tree. A peaceful and tranquil experience coming from the brain and probably not anything you have really experienced but is an image your brain has of peace and tranquility.

These pleasurable dreams may also place you in the place of one of the couple so you experience the feelings of one of the individuals rather than just watching the event like it is a movie. You feel the happiness, the pain, the stress, love and other feelings of the person you have become in the dream – in some cases this even includes sexual feelings and a physical response to any intimacy in the dream. An example of the brain making the body believe that the dream is real.

These ‘normal’ dreams are nice, they seem to help me to relax and to wake up refreshed and ready for the new day.

These are the bad dreams everyone experiences once in a while. For some reason the brain decides to go on a trip into a bad place without any stimulus from the conscious mind. The dreams of monsters and strange creatures chasing us, attacking us or our loved ones – maybe hanging over a cliff waiting for help as we get weaker and find it hard to hold on, maybe stuck in a bad place awaiting a disaster.

A recurring nightmare I used to have as a kid/teenager was a single stick in a desolate location (maybe it was a small black line on a large white piece of paper). It is just there doing its thing (being peaceful and quiet by itself) when suddenly a massive dark and stormy entity rolls in from the left hand side of the dream and engulfs it – there is nothing it can do except be consumed. I never did find out what happened to the stick, it just kind of disappeared into the maelstrom. I used to have this dream every time I started to get unwell but it stopped in my late teens.

I am sure there are many interpretations that could be provided for the dream – a developing child waiting to be consumed by the world, an individual with no planned future seeking guidance from others, an attempt to remain a free sprit despite the pressures of society – who knows what it was.

Most of the time though we forget the dreams once we wake up. We remember we had a nice dream or a nightmare but we don’t remember the content or anything specific. Maybe the feelings we remember form the dreams are what sets the standard for the our days – will it be a good day or will it be a bad day?

With the erotic dreams there is, of course, some evidence of what we dreamed about so the positive memory can stay with us for awhile after waking up but sometimes we are hit with a negative dream (nightmare) so vivid that even when we wake up it seems the dream continues – the fear and terror stays. We then lie in bed with our heads under the covers afraid to look out because the demon might still be in the room – the feeling has spread from our subconscious to our conscious minds. Even when we brave putting our hands out from under the covers and turn on the light the fear remains. We get up, possibly still shaking and sweating and search the house to make sure things are okay – maybe a cup of tea to settle the nerves then eventually head back to bed and hope the dream doesn’t come back.

And then sometimes we have such an enjoyable and positive dream we don’t want it to end. So even when we wake up (usually for a wee) we try to stay awake and maintain the dream as we shuffle off to the toilet and back. Sometimes it works and the dream continues but, by morning, when we wake up, it is forgotten.

Generally, I find that the details of both of these ‘extreme’ dreams are quickly forgotten as the day progresses and I am just left remembering it was a good or a bad dream.

Then of course, those of us who have experienced bad things can also experience Flashbacks. Now I am not sure that these actually qualify as dreams because they are memories, but they can manifest themselves as dreams as well as the vivid memories while awake.

There are a number of different points of view on why we have flashbacks: reliving the experience, wanting to change the outcome, trying to work out what I did wrong, what would have happened if… and lots of other possible reasons.

My personal experience has been that initially there is a period of reliving the event because it was so mind affecting. This reliving is the brain trying to process the extreme nastiness of the visual images, trying to understand what happened, how, why, etc. This processing is important as it allows us to understand (or try to understand) what happened – it is important to do this so the brain can then try to file it away. To be honest, this processing is best done with the assistance of trained mental health providers because will involve a lot of unpleasant times in your head for awhile – even at home or at work. But it is important to get it out of your head, to share it and then have the chance to file it away and move on.

Even when it is filed away, it will occasionally resurface – the memory will come back. But by this time you will know how to manage it – you will be able to remember it, reprocess it and put it back in the file. Yes you will still feel the emotions you did previously but you will understand and be able to keep in control yourself.

One of the key things I used to overcome the bad memories is accepting a few things:

If you made a bad decision causing the event
Hindsight, while sometimes a good thing, can also be very bad for us. Self blame is easy to do in hindsight because you can see the results of your actions and can see where the wrong decision was made in the overall context. You need to remember that at the time of the event, you were undergoing a stressful situation, you probably had lots of information coming in to you from many different directions and you were being rushed to make a decision. At the time any decision was made with all the information available to you at the time – there were things you may not have know that have come to light since but, at the time you used the information that was available. You aren’t psychic so the decision you made was the correct one at the time in the context known to you.

If you made a mistake causing the event
The guilt from this can be destroying and there is no taking away from the fact that a mistake was made and something bad happened. However, you need to think why you made the mistake – unless it was a blatant act of tom foolery then think about what experience and training you had leading up to the event, was it adequate, did it prepare you for the position you were placed in or did you just end up there by a stroke of fate. If you think everything was adequate and you made an error then you need to remember that, despite what society is trying to make us believe, mistakes (and accidents) do happen – we are all human and we are not infallible.

On the other hand, if it was an act of tom foolery that caused the event it is a much more difficult thing to get over. In such a situation it is really, really important to get to a mental health professional and work it through. Just by talking it out with the experts, your guilt can be managed and you can more quickly come to terms with everything and move on with your life. While it is something that will be with you forever, the experience will shape you and could possibly move you forward in life where you can help others overcome issues they might be experiencing.

If it was an event you witnessed
You cannot do much about offsetting blame or responsibility for his. As they say, you cannot unsee anything, so the only way forward is to work through the experience with trained counsellors and learn to accept what has happened and what you saw and then allow the brain to process it and file it away. This is not an easy task and will take a lot of time but is well worth the effort. On a personal note though, I have found that adjusting my own mindset regarding the event helps to make things a little easier to manage.

It really comes down to accepting that there is nothing you can do to change the past, all you can do is affect your own future. We all have our baggage and overheads, we know they are there, we just need to put them away as best we can and make a choice – do I go forward with a positive attitude or do I stay still in self pity and fear. I know which one I have chosen…

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