My dreams of torture and abuse haunt me all day

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Sofia has such terrible nightmares she's frightened of going to sleep. She dreams of child abuse, tortured animals, and the images linger with her all day. What can she do?

I RECENTLY dreamed that I was lying with no clothes on in my hall, fixing a phone socket in the middle of the night. The light was on, then suddenly went out, but as I could see a light upstairs I thought it was just the ground floor circuit that had fused.

How wrong I was. The light got bigger and bigger until I made out an intruder coming down the stairs with a flashlight coming to rape me. I leaped for the front door - and woke in an uncomfortable heap by my bed in a sea of lamps, broken bedside tables, books, painkillers, glasses of water ... feeling absolutely terrified.

How does one deal with dreams like mine and Sofia's? One method would be to spring up and get control of them by writing them down. Another would be to say to ourselves very firmly: "That was a dream. This is reality."

Yet another would be to try the interpretative approach - was my dream trying to tell me something? Was it a fear of being intruded upon? Was the rapist part of myself that I didn't like, or was it someone else trying to invade my space?

Some people believe that dreams are a way for the brain to reorganise our thoughts, like computers, which is why they are usually so apparently meaningless. But my dreams are like complicated novels with beginnings, middles and ends. Sometimes there are subplots.

Are dreams the result of physical activity in the eyelid? No. Rapid eye movement, which was thought be linked to dreaming, is, it seems, no more than the eyelid flicking quickly to give our eyes an extra wash of fluid since the eyes, unblinking throughout the night, tend to get dried out.

When my son suffered from night terrors when he was young he would come downstairs, ashen-faced, sweating and groaning, having dreamed some terrible dream, like having to roll the world back on its axis or we'd all be blown up. Big stuff. I would get him out of it, then he'd go back into the dream groaning and shivering. Sometimes I would have to slap his face to get him back to normal.

A sleep specialist said it was something to do with his waking up too quickly and missing out a stage of sleep. He gave him tranquillisers to take when the terrors were most likely to haunt him, and they never came back.

And another method I've been told is to rewrite the ending of the nightmare. A man approaches with a red-hot branding iron, about to put out your eyes. You wake up in terror. Now awake, finish the dream. Sometimes the man will just wave the branding iron around and do nothing and finally slink away. Usually it is the fear of harm that makes the dream so awful, not harm itself.

We all tend to dream more when we are in new places and new beds, though no one knows why. Perhaps Sofia should try sticking to a night-time routine and going to bed at the same time each night, accompanied by a soothing milky drink, and try to keep the temperature in her room even throughout the night.

Only if these simple methods don't work should she resort to drugs. But she should remember that her teeming imagination may sometimes lead to more interesting and charming dreams than nightmares.

I dreamed recently that a poppy fell in love with me, and I am still touched and moved by the feelings of its soft, red petals on my cheek, dotty as that may sound.

What Readers Say

Be firm with yourself

SOFIA could try telling herself firmly before she drops off that she is not going to dream about certain unpleasant or horrifying scenarios, thus wiping them from her unconscious - at least for a night. I always do this after reading or seeing anything potentially nightmarish and have never known it to fail.

Laura Fransella

London N8

Switch off the heating

WHEN I have nightmares they are invariably associated with being too warm when I am asleep. Sofia should try substituting blankets for her duvet, and turning off the heating. In the summer leave a window open and use a hospital-type cotton blanket.

Also, avoid watching alarming documentaries late in the evening. I remember once when abroad seeing a televised public health advertisement about accidents in the home and having nightmares all that hot night about scalded babies.

Brenda Beary

London NW3

Try mental arithmetic

A WHILE ago I suffered from the same problem as your reader, in that I would have recurrent dreams of a violent nature. Often I would dream that I had hit my wife while sleeping. I solved the problem by doing mental arithmetic at bedtime in the belief that this would tire my brain out. As a consequence my dreams featured solving mathematical problems, often very complicated ones - although I have never checked them out with a calculator.

T N Reynolds

Tring, Herts

I was frightened of myself

FOR years I had a nightmares about being pursued by a black creature, who travelled as fast as the wind. It would come up behind me, and I would run and run: the fear was strong within me. It reminded me somehow of my grandmother, a fearsome figure from my childhood.

When I got into therapy, I found that it was my own destructiveness, my own nastiness, which I had never looked at or dealt with. As soon as I admitted it was my own, the picture changed and I never had the nightmare again.

John Rowan

London E4

Tire yourself out before bed

IF THE dreams are with you during the day and are more intense than reality, I would say you have too much thinking space and could do with something more taxing to occupy your brain, so change what you do. You may well find your problems are but small.

You can always learn something totally new, or do more of what you really enjoy doing. Take part in a drama or music group so that you make friends and have things to learn. Are you tired when you go to bed? If you are not physically tired you need to take up a sport or find something really laborious; thrashing a tennis ball about for a couple of hours on a Friday night can get the weekend off to a good start. One thing's for sure, you have the cure.

Valerie Clarke

Bury St Edmunds

Next Week's Dilemma

I AM a single parent and my daughter of 12 and a half was recently spotted at school by someone in one of the big modelling agencies who handles quite a lot of famous people. My daughter, who has very distinctive looks, was asked if she'd be interested in working for them. She's mad keen, but what should I do? I feel uneasy but can't really think of any good reasons not to say yes.

Yours sincerely, Marcia.

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