Nightmares an indication of anxiety or something else?

Discussion in 'General Parenting' started by Andy, Feb 13, 2009.

  1. Andy

    Andy Active Member

    I have been learning from the thread regarding anxiety contributing to night terrors. Last year, difficult child had some serious nightmares - I don't remember if they reached night terror stage but I do remember that they did get intense and scared him. He was in the depth of his anxiety.

    My question is: Is an increase in nightmares a sign of anxiety increasing or something else? How do you know when a nightmare is just a nightmare or connected to a health issue?

    difficult child has been doing very well. He has overcome so much from last year's experiences with deep anxiety. There is a lot going on this Spring - School Musical, class trip, trip to NYC with his aunt and uncle, 6th grade graduation, facing this Summer outside of school, and thinking about a new school next Fall (a much larger school). He seems to be handling these pressures very well.

    difficult child just came up to me tonight about another nightmare he has had recently. I would say he has had about 3 nightmares he has told me about in the last month. They have the same undertone as last year's nightmares. Usually involving him hurting people. For example, his latest one is that the Grim Reaper was trying to get him and our puppy to plant bombs. He knew it was wrong and didn't want to so he was hiding. Last year he struggled with "his body telling him to do harmful things." At first to himself but then included hurting me and others.

    Are his increasing nightmares telling me something? I will report it to therapist next Friday. I encouraged difficult child to write down his nightmares so he can remember the details to talk to therapist about.

    Do these self harming and harming others thoughts point to something besides anxiety?

    Also, he is 12 years old. For some reason, I thought nightmares were common at different stages of growth. Anyone have input on that view?
  2. Jena

    Jena New Member

    hi Andy difficult child had nightmares yet never what your describing. id def say report it to the doctor. at what point last year did his issues heighten, what mos was it??
  3. Andy

    Andy Active Member

    I think most of his nightmares last year were from Sept 2007 through December 2007. The very worst were October leading up to Halloween. They got so bad that he truly believed that Satan was out to get him that Halloween night.

    He was hospitalized the last two weeks in Oct 2007. He had to face midnight on Halloween without me which must have been very hard.

    Once he made it past Halloween and started working on his coping skills, the nightmares decreased and eventually disappeared. This Halloween (2008) did not bring back memories for him and in fact he created a grave yard theme in the fun of the holiday spirit.

    He also is feeling "weird" again - like last year. I am thinking I may increase his therapist appts again for this Spring. He is down to once per month, maybe he needs to go back to every other week or even once per week?

    He states he mostly feels "weird" during the musical practice. He has a very small part in the musical itself but has the lead role in the sticks performance (choreographed movements using sticks). The other kids had to learn their parts before difficult child could really start his practice. He needs to know where the others are moving to learn where he moves. He has not stated anything about this decrease in practice before the show date being frustrating. He did say that one girl will not obey directions but didn't tie it into any frustrations of him learning his part.

    I think I will ask that he pay attention to the actual time and start documenting clearer.

    He is due for a neurological appointment again. I will check my calendar to make sure one has been set.
  4. Marguerite

    Marguerite Active Member

    It's possible that the nightmares could be connected to a change in his mental state, but it's a very complex issue. Vivid dreams (including nightmares) are basically your brain trying to sort out more information than it usually has to deal with. We remember our dreams more when we're more wakeful. This can happen if the dream is making us concentrate more, if the dream is disturbing our sleep in other ways (as in nightmares) or if something else is disturbing our sleep (all sorts of reasons, including neighbours making noise).

    Our dreams are affected by sensory input as we sleep, also. Plus they're fuelled by the amount of backlog our brain has to get through. If we've had a really busy and challenging time over the previous day(s), then our dreams will be more vivid and coloured by recent events. They are our brain's response in trying to catalogue it all.

    The images we dream, are symbols which mean something to us. ASometimes the relevance is just because it's topical, but there are some symbols which have a fairly universal meaning. Death, for example, doesn't mean death necessarily, it usually means change. When we dream of a house, especially if in the dream we sense it is where we live, then the house we are dreaming of represents yourself, your own mind. So if you dream you are in a messy, untidy house and can't find anything, it is the dream telling you NOT that you need to tidy your room, but that your mind is a whirl of confused thoughts that are stopping you making any progress in your life.

    Of course this will be aggravated if your own thoughts are confused, or highly variable, or in any other way influenced by your mental health.

    Your son dreamed that the Grim Reaper was trying to make him and his dog do something bad. The Grim Reaper could have been connected to Halloween symbolism, or it could have been his subconscious using the proximity to Halloween as a reminder to consider where he is in his life at the moment, in terms of how he is dealing with change, or personal responsibilities. His puppy was involved - "man's best friend". He wanted to keep his dog safe form doing the wrong thing also, so he was feeling a sense of responsibility to a younger, more vulnerable individual. The puppy could even represent himself when younger, sort of the more vulnerable child within. He didn't want to do bad things (which would hurt people) so he hid, to get away from it. Part of the symbolism could involve change (or fear of change, or changes in him making the negative thoughts wose for him, harder to resist) but in his dream, he resisted. In a way, his dream was a rehearsal, a safe way to practice skills of self-discipline.

    Something in his days, at the time of the dream, was stressing him to the point where these thoughts were becoming a bit more prominent, but he was resisting them and reporting them. His brain challenged him and helped him review the information and try to develop better mental strategies for coping.

    Sometimes a nightmare needn't have a bad meaning, sometimes it's just our brain trying to grab us by the neurons and say, "Pay attention! This is important!"

    I find I get more vivid dreams and often more nigtmares, when we're away from home on holidays. The more strange things we see, the more new experiences we have, the more we pack our days full of fun and adventure, the more vivid the dreams/nightmares. If I've been worrying about how tihngs are going at home, those fears can become reality in my nightmares; all that is happening, is my mind is trying to say, "What is the worst that can happen? Face it, so you can practice how you would deal with it. Don't worry, it will be OK."

    If you can, encourage him to tell you about his nightmares (or vivid dreams) as soon as possible after he has them. If he can write it down it is also a useful tool. If as he is telling you, or writing it, a symbol seems to feel familiar, encourage him to try to identify the 'layers' in the symbol, so any further meaning to it can be linked to the dream. It makes a big difference with understanding.

    Example: My final exams in high school (equivalent to college finals) was a very high-level Maths paper. I had to study really hard for it, it was a difficult paper. But it was the last - then we were free! That evening my boyfriend's parents took us out for dinner to a steakhouse. I wasn't used to eating steak and it was the first time I'd ever had a side salad. I enjoyed the night but I had been nervous - these were society people and I was definitely from the wrong side of the tracks (literally, in this case).
    That night I had something in between a nightmare and vivid dream - salad bowls were floating in front of me, in an array grid sometimes 2 x 3, sometimes 3 x 3, sometimes 3 x 3 x 3. There were different ingredients in the salad, they were trying to multiply themselves in matrix form and the resultant salad was dependent on what went in at the beginning of the matrix formation. Bizarre. And I had a really lousy night, because my mind was concentrating really hard to get the right answer.

    No, that dream didn't really mean anything important. It's just that all my hard study, plus period of intense concentration both during the exam and then later my intense concentration at dinner to show good table manners and not seem to be too much of a social failure, overflowed into a dream as my brain tried to catalogue everything. My brain wasn't showing any discriminating intelligence, it was simply cataloguing because I had during the day put in a period of intense mental effort, which usually in life indicates something that was important to the survival of the individual. If I had been a cave man being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger earlier in the day, followed by a fight with my wife, I might have dreamt that night that my wife was a sabre-toothed tiger trying to get into the cave. Who knows?

    Your son's dreams are worth mentioning to the psychiatrist, but don't be surprised if the psychiatrist doesn't think it's very important.

    Oh, one more thing - some medications can have quite an impact on your sleep patterns and on dreams. I was taking moclobemide years ago, and had a rough time with it. It made me depressed and my dreams were not only really vivid, but seemed so real that on waking I had difficulty for a while distinguishing between the memory of the dream, and reality. The images were often very distressing at a very sophisticated level, as if my brain were trying to find the most exquisitely effective ways to torture me. One dream was of my operating meticulously on a rabbit (or some animal) and feelnig unaccoutably sad while I did so, because I had to do my job despite my views on vivisection. The animal had to die at the end of the operation. Then in the dream I stood up and stepped back, and realised it was my own baby daughter.
    That was when I went to the doctor and said, "Take me off those pills."

    I hope I haven't confused you, but this is a complex topic and there are no easy answers. It is so often dependent on the individual's own subconscious.

  5. Andy

    Andy Active Member

    Thank you Marg! Yes, nightmares are complex. I do understand about dreaming as a way of the brain sorting things out. That is how I explain nightmares to difficult child, "You brain is sorting things and grabs weird combinations of items that get mumbled into a dream."

    When the thread was discussed regarding anxiety causing nightmares, I wondered if sometimes nightmares could be an indication of anxiety (or other health issue). My difficult child even though he tells me a lot about what he is struggling with, he also keeps a lot closed up deep inside of himself and when his nightmares started returning with the same theme of self harm or harming others as he had during the darkest days of his anxiety, I began to wonder if that was a sign that something is again brewing?

    I guess I am more nervous about the nightmares following the same theme as in the past. If the nightmares were different (such as being in a plane crash or brush fire based on current news) I don't think they would scare me as much. I am very good at dismissing one or two but when something recurs and it concerns him enough to come to me with, then I start wondering when to act.

    A fear starts up in my heart when I hear my son struggling with thoughts of hurting himself or others. I then think of the kids who do hurt themselves or others and wonder how they may have fought not to and then couldn't stop those feelings. I watched those feelings grow stronger in difficult child and really did believe on several days that he was destined for a life of crime. He really could not control those feelings at times and was deeply afraid that some day he would act on them. I feel blessed that for whatever reason, he felt comfortable in confiding in me and actively seeking help to stop the feelings.

    It is an extremely hard thing to tell your parents or anyone that you feel like harming anyone. The fear of being ignored, scolded or simply told to stop the feelings or judged is too high, best continue on struggling in secret.

    I often wonder when something of this magnitude is revealed how deep it really goes. Is he telling me about his dreams to feel me out as to if he should tell me those thoughts are coming back in waking hours? Is he concerned about those thoughts going further than his dreams? I don't know, time will tell. I think I need to find a way to ask him if this is only nightmare or if he is having thoughts while awake also.

    He is not on medication at this time. He has been off Clonazepam for about 7 - 8 months and off of Fluoxetine for about 2 months. He had a very smooth withdrawal from both. Just a few bumps with the Fluoxetine that were very short lived (less than one day) each step down.
  6. SomewhereOutThere

    SomewhereOutThere Well-Known Member

    I have bipolar and I used to have very graphic, realistic nightmares. It's common in bipolar disorder, especially if they are extremely graphic and gory. But once I woke up I knew they were just dreams, even as a kid. You may want to have him evaluated again by a neuropsychologist. Anxiety doesn't usually stand alone (I have that too). That's normally caused standing with something else that triggers that anxiety. On the right medications, I don't even remember my dreams Has your son just been weaned from his medication or has it been a while? Weaning from an antidepressant PLUS a benzo could cause LOTS of symptoms, including nightmares. On the other hand, the wrong medications can too--the Prozac could have caused them. It's really a dance--getting the medications right--or seeing if the child does better off medications. Again, I'd see a neuropsychologist for an evaluation. Not all kids have a lot of nightmares. It's some sort of red flag. Good luck!
  7. Marguerite

    Marguerite Active Member

    Recurring dreams orrecurring nightmares are a sign that whatewber it is tat is bothering you, is not getting sorted out. So it's either an ongoing problem that is really bothering you, or it's a past issue that you're trapped in a logic loop somehow, not resolving it. Sort of like an old vinyl record with the needle stuck.

    Do vivid dreams/recurring dreams/nightmares indicate a mental health issue unresolved? Possibly. Or it could simply be that life is a challenge and the kid is still grapplnig with a wide range of problems all coming at him at once. And tat is a desription that fits a lot of our difficult children.

    Technically I wasn't a difficult child, but I remember some very nasty recurring nightmares, as well as certain motifs that kept recurring. Over years. Somtimes I'd have the nightmare several times a week, sometimes not for six month. One nightmare I had over a period of ten years or more. As I got older and learned to control my dreams a bit more, I learned to partly over-ride the fear in the dream and to take control back, to finish the dream on a more positive note (kill the monster, instead of it devouring me). I also learned to wake myself up if a dream was getting out of control.

    If a dream is unresolved, it will recur in some form. However, it mightn't recur in anything obviously recognisable, until you go in and analyse what it was about.

    I also meant to say, when I mentioned before about my experience with certain medications making nightmares really graphic and psychologically horrifying, that I reckoned I knew what Stephen King was medicated with!

  8. Andy

    Andy Active Member

    Thank you Midwest Mom - I think that was my real question - Could it be a red flag?

    Thank you Marg - I am also wondering if this is tying back to the issues we had last year. Whatever was truly going on last year could be coming back! And as Midwest Mom stated, anxiety usually doesn't stand alone. It is very unusual that anxiety is the only thing he was diagnosed with? I need to keep an eye on that!
  9. Jena

    Jena New Member


    sorry i responded last night and than i passed out. Pls bare with me my memory is umm horrible. What evaluations has he had in the past?

    I know it's scary and i can only imagine what you must be thinking just try to take a deep breath with this, luckily he is being verbal with you and that is keying you into what's going on with him. That in itself is huge.

    I'd def bump up appointments again as well. You have done an amazing job at teaching him coping skills to utilize during these times, yet he's also a growing boy the biochemical make up changes i'm finding out myself. So, when that happens we often do have to take another approach to how we teach them to handle what's going on with them.

  10. SomewhereOutThere

    SomewhereOutThere Well-Known Member

    No problem. When I was spiraling into depression, I'd have horrible, scary nightmares that abated when I was stable again. For me they really didn't have anything much to do with my life or my subconscious...they were a message to me that I needed to get my medications adjusted...that my biology was talking to me. I did not sleep well when I would have these nightmares either. It was scary to be awake or asleep. I so feel for your little one. In "The Bipolar Child" (and I don't know if he has it or not--just FYI) there is a chapter on the graphic, unusually frightening and gory dreams that bipolars have. Seems that when dreams quit in most people--like BEFORE the head is chopped off--they CONTINUE with the bipolar. They actually dream the whole nine yards with all the gore and blood and often talk about it in real life because it is so vivid. It can't hurt to have another evaluation. Anxiety goes with mood disorders (and autism spectrum disorder too) like Soup and Sandwich--unfortunately. High anxiety often indicates depression, at the very least. Take care!
  11. TerryJ2

    TerryJ2 Well-Known Member

    I just wanted to send hugs and luck.