Precious Sleep: Getting Past Those Haunting Dreams

Annette Shaff/Shutterstock

Annette Shaff/Shutterstock

Sarah (not her real name) was an insomniac.

When trying to close her eyes and relax each night, a freight train was rushing by in her mind, each car filled with ideas, fears, anxieties; ideas, fears, anxieties; ideas, fears, anxieties. Instead of bringing relief, sleeping pills and alcohol had only pulled her into an added problem with addiction.

When I first met Sarah, she was looking for a drug-free treatment to give her peace of mind and body.  I am a neurotherapist, so I recommended Alpha Theta training, a type of neurofeedback.

Neurofeedback is biofeedback for the brain. Sensors, also called electrodes by some, are applied to the scalp. These relay EEG (electro-encephalograph) information to the client. They provide a real-time stream of data telling the brain how it’s doing. Protocols are designed to reward the brain for increasing certain types of waves and decreasing others.

Biodfeedback is based on the same principle used in training dolphins at Sea World or getting us to remember our password at the ATM. Correct behavior gets us the prize.

Deep States

I love doing Alpha Theta training. It encourages an increase in two types of slower brain waves in the top, back of the head—alpha and theta. It is also referred to as “deep states training” and is typically done with “eyes closed,” to teach the brain how to relax with the eyes closed. That positively influences our life when our eyes are open too. I have found it useful for people who have sleep disorders and anxiety. It has also been shown to help people recover from drug and alcohol addiction and post-traumatic stress:  a perfect recipe for Sarah’s dilemma.

Many people have heard of alpha waves; these accompany the peaceful states we get from doing yoga. Theta brain waves are slower than alpha and dominate when we feel like we are in “la la” land – unfocused, pre-sleep, preconscious. For example, when you are in the CVS drug store and find yourself thinking about a dream you had last night and at the same time have no clue of why you came into the store, theta waves are likely dominant.

Theta waves are thought to contain dreams or memories that have not yet been processed. Increasing theta will increase deep relaxation. Also, under the right conditions it can help surface memories the brain hasn’t previously digested, such as trauma. Consider when you go through something really awful like an accident or a robbery. You can’t quite organize what is happening or remember everything that did happen. Those are memories too difficult for the brain to process at that moment. In a crisis, it is more focused on mobilizing and sustaining our emergency resources to stay alive by fighting or getting out of Dodge real fast.

Many of my patients with restless sleep have haunting images or sensations that pop up during the night. REM, or rapid eye movement sleep is thought to be important for consolidating information into memory. Consider the effect of a good night’s sleep on learning. It helps. The brain consolidates the memory for us during the night. Haunting images or sensations can be the brain’s way of trying to digest or process material that isn’t getting digested.

Alpha Theta training helps the trainee surface traumatic images sometimes without our conscious awareness. Or we may recognize the scenarios that surface, like the robbery or accident, without being  ”in” the scene, or certainly with more emotional distance.

Talking through thoughts and feelings related to those memories and putting them on a shelf to look at from afar may be the ticket to a peaceful night’s sleep.

Alpha Theta training is also used to help people who have not experienced trauma to achieve deeper relaxation, especially those who feel they are not ready to meditate.

From our training, in Sarah’s case, sweet slumber, diminished anxiety, and clean living prevailed. 

Diane Wilson, LCPC, BCN