Dreams can be a key to understanding the nature of trauma— and that key can help therapists unlock the mysteries of preventing and healing suffering. In my master’s thesis, I present a model of how to integrate Somatic Experiencing® with Carl Jung’s models of dream interpretation. I hope that this work will offer resources for those who work with traumatized patients experiencing nightmares. Though nightmares can occur with other clinical diagnoses, they are a primary symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can be a strong indicator of other forms of unresolved trauma.
According to Jung, founder of the field of analytical psychology, dream work is a gateway into the unconscious, providing opportunities for instinctual repair within the body. A dream describes many inner truths about the dreamer that the conscious mind may not yet recognize or be willing to integrate. When analyzing a dream, the dreamer’s innate relationships with her dream images may supply her conscious mind with a path to previously unrecognizable unconscious material. This material, like alchemical process, promotes transformation.
Jung believed that dreams hold meanings that only the dreamer can decode. Meaningful realization is achieved through personal exploration of emergent affect (emotion) and metaphors in relationship to the images themselves. In 1934 Jung wrote: “I avoided all theoretical points of view and simply helped the patients to understand the dream images by themselves, without application of rules and theories.” He developed a technique called active imagination in which a patient interacts in a semi-conscious state with her dream image. She is encouraged to relate to the image by speaking with it, or simply imagining it anew, in order to develop a relationship with the Self. Jung felt that this relationship was a gateway between the conscious and the unconscious, and could build a bridge between internal opposites, creating wholeness. It is this pursuit of a bridge to internal healing that resonates so well with SE™ work.
Jung also postulated that dream images are archetypal, or, as Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson puts it: “Pre-existing ‘first patterns’ that form the basic blueprint for the major dynamic components of the human personality.” An example of an archetype would be “The Warrior” who might be represented through real or fictional characters, like King Arthur, Muhammad Ali, Gilgamesh, or Spider-Man. Through working with active imagination and archetypes, nightmares can offer an entry into deeply dissociated aspects of the emerging self. Such emergent images need recognition, relationship, and integration— and this is where SE Practitioners can step in.
How Do We Work with Dreams and SE?
In Somatic Experiencing, practitioners have a unique and effective set of skills with which to transform and integrate terrifying images and split aspects of the Self. Like Jung, I like to think of every figure in a dream— whether a character or an object— as representing a part of the dreamer. All these figures, even when represented by the “real” person, are intrapsychic aspects of the Self. For example, a man dreams of his co-worker named Betty who annoys him. She may represent an aspect of his Self that he could call “The Annoyer.” Rather than working with what he thinks about the real person, Betty, archetypal dream work would focus on how he relates to his inner Annoyer. From an SE perspective The Annoyer could also represent an aspect of an unintegrated fight response.
Instinctual energies can be lost during the impact of trauma. Nightmares may be an opportunity to explore unclaimed archetypal energies that need recognition in the psyche. For example, if a woman who has been abused cannot face her own inner “Violent Perpetrator,” how can she reclaim her own healthy aggression, which she can then choose to use for good?
When figures arise in the dream, I might ask the dreamer: “When you remember the image of your mother right now what does she represent to you in the dream? What meanings do you make? What feeling sense do you have of the figure? What are you drawn to? What distresses you? What aspects of yourself feel like (or different than) the qualities you have found in the image of The Mother? What sensations do you experience in your body now as you see Motherness?” As we explore a dream-figure like this, we may follow other elements of sensation, affect, or behavior— especially as insight arises. In particular, we emphasize attention to both cognitive and body-based information that feels novel.
Dreams, Even Nightmares, Are a Gift
Jung contends that dreams are a gift from the unconscious. They are not static. When we remember the figures from our dreams we begin to interact with different aspects of ourselves. We can speak to parts of the dream and relate to them. We can add resources of our choice and watch how the parts or people in our dream respond to the changes that our conscious mind makes. As we add in new images we have an opportunity to track shifts in the body.
We also add in the opportunity to connect to defensive or survival responses. We may identify initially with the one running in the dream, but we are also the one chasing. We can be the frozen one, but we can also bring in images of repair or support. This can allow the body to move through deep states of shock and overwhelm without the need for autobiographical content. The shifts in the autonomic nervous system and neurophysiology are just as impactful.
Nightmares may serve a client as a compensatory mechanism, calling for the Self to recognize and not deny the traumatic experience. The dreamer begins to reclaim that which the conscious mind rebukes. Attention to the instinctual needs that are being expressed through the dream, blended with Somatic Experiencing, can lead to long term healing, integration, and empowerment.
This is the first of two entries adapted from Dr. Abi Blakeslee’s master’s thesis in counseling and depth psychology for Pacifica Graduate Institute, “Healing Trauma: A Neurobiological and Somatic Approach to Treating Nightmares.” In the next installment, Dr. Blakeslee will provide a case study, delving deeper within the process of Jungian dream work via SE.
Dr. Abi Blakeslee, CMT, MFT, PhD is a licensed marriage and family therapist and holds a doctorate in clinical and somatic psychology. In her previous entry for Beyond Trauma, she shared the story of how she came to lead trainings in Somatic Experiencing.