Dream journaling to understand my nightmares

A student describes how reading and writing allowed her to escape a harmful cycle of sleep paralysis and nightmares.

Juliana DiCesare / The Temple News

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had gruesome night terrors that created a lifelong habit of avoiding sleep. One night in August, I had my most frequent recurring nightmare.

As a toddler, I sat in the back of my mom’s car where I could see her hands on the steering wheel. When I blinked she was gone and I’d be stuck in a moving car with no driver. I woke up in a cold sweat, trying to catch my breath. I remembered how my best friend, Olivia, told me to look at my surroundings and name things I can touch whenever I’m anxious. 

I looked at my pile of books, journals and screenplays below my windowsill. I took Olivia’s advice, picked up a book and started to think about the story. I instantly felt calm. 

Focusing on a book’s characters and plotlines allowed me to place myself in fictional situations and scenarios I’m not usually in or will never be in, distracting me from my nightmares.

I realized my passions for reading and writing helped me understand the nightmares I’ve endured throughout my life. By expressing my dreams and feelings in my writing, I was able to overcome the harmful cycle of night terrors because I didn’t have to fear sleeping anymore.     

When I was 12, my teachers taught me that avid reading would improve my writing skills. I wanted to get better at writing because I enjoyed it, but I didn’t realize it would help me understand my nightmares. 

I’ve kept a dream journal since May 2020; once I started writing down my dreams, the connections between my sleeping habits and the eccentricity of my dreams gradually became clear. I learned that when I’m severely fatigued I experience sleep paralysis, and if I don’t meditate, then whatever I experienced throughout the day appears in my dreams. 

When I read my dream journal entries where people would vanish or change their identities, I realized how ridiculous my nightmares were. Reading my journal showed me that I don’t need to fear my nightmares because they are clearly not real. I couldn’t pinpoint any of these patterns between my waking habits and my sleeping patterns until I wrote them out and read them back to myself every day. 

After I started writing down my dreams, I developed the habit of daily journaling. When I woke up from nightmares, I felt compelled to write down what I was feeling. 

When I realized how that calmed me down, I wrote down nearly everything that got an emotional reaction out of me.

I begin each day writing down the dream I had that night. I update my entries throughout the day with things people say to me, events that I want to remember and phrases that I want to use in my writing later. At the end of each month, I reread everything to further my self-understanding. 

The sense of fulfillment I’ve found in getting to know myself reflects the relief that comes with discovering the source of my nightmares. Articulating my thoughts and fears in clear ways can help get rid of their ambiguity in my nightmares.

During the summer of 2021, I took my writing one step further and drafted my first screenplay, “Aluminum,” based on a recurring dream, detailing a couple trying to find work while being high-functioning drug addicts. 

Bringing my dream to life stopped it from being so present in my head because I could see it play out in writing instead of through a subjective narrative stuck in my mind.

Through “Aluminum,” I learned I could express my lived experiences in what I write to see them critically instead of compartmentalizing them. The writing and editing process taught me to have the patience to sit down with my thoughts and give them time to be deciphered and listened to.

My nightmares have become less scary because I can now understand them as thoughts rather than reality. Literature helps me control my disordered sleeping because reading and writing give my thoughts structure. Maybe, an adult life dedicated to storytelling can make up for a childhood lost to its nightmares. 

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