Friday, March 31, 2023

One More Dream…..


One More Dream…

The purpose of this post is an illustration of a strategy I use to improve my sleep.  I am currently an old man and have had sleep problems since I was a toddler. I had night terrors at an early age and still remember the hallucinations.  I wrote about them in a previous post.  Night terrors as a kid generally predicts sleep problems and risk for psychiatric difficulty as an adult. I also inherited obstructive sleep apnea and that contributes to poor sleep quality. For most of my career, I practiced in a high stress environment and with my personality factors that also lead to significant sleep disruption in situations where there was no clear solution to the problems I was trying to treat. A good example would be catatonic patients who were not eating, drinking, or responding to treatment. I would find myself laying in bed at night and reviewing the current treatment plan and that person’s medical status – sometimes for hours. Since retiring 2 years ago that type of nocturnal stress is gone – but your life is never completely stress free.

When I do fall asleep – I generally like dreaming. I tend to dream about medical centers and anxiety provoking situations. A common dream is being in residency and realizing that I just stopped going to biochemistry class as a first-year medical student. I never took the exams or confirmed whether I got a grade or not. Instead, I find myself near the end of residency and wondering if I am going to graduate.  I am not sure if there is a black mark against my name or not. At the same time, I am engaged with many doctors – doing what we did in residency training. I wake up somewhat anxious until I realize it is just a repetitive dream. I am always amazed at the content of the dream in terms of the architecture and landscape – all manufactured from incidental memory. None of the institutions in my dreams exist in real life. The same is true of most of the people in my dreams, but occasionally there is a friend, family member, or celebrity.

I try to practice the lucid dreaming that I discovered in childhood. If I am stressed or anxious in a dream, especially to the point of bodily sensations like feeling flushed, like my heart is pounding, or shortness of breath I try to wake myself up by rehearsing what to do ahead of time.  Those bodily sensations can be associated with strenuous activity in the dream like skating or biking – but not always.  I have tried a lot of the relaxation and CBT techniques for falling asleep but did not find them very effective. I also have not used any medications for sleep.  My primary care MD gave me 3 zolpidem tablets once.  They were moderately effective but he did not prescribe any more.  I take medication that is toxic and has drug interactions so I did not try other options that might affect cardiac conduction.

What I did come up with was a technique that I call “One more dream.”  Before I get into the details – let me emphasize that this is not an instruction manual or guide for people to use this technique.  It has not been shown to be effective in clinical trials and doubt it will ever be studied. This is just a technique that I personally have found to be effective and it is not medical advice for anyone else.  And like everything on this blog I am not promoting it to make money.  The discussion is strictly educational – nothing more.

Here is an outline of the basics beyond the typical sleep hygiene measures:

1: Recall the somatic sensations just before you fall asleep:  These sensations vary widely from person to person.  In my case, I get a feeling that I am sinking and I start to lose sensation in my arms and hands – they start to feel very light. I am also aware of any stiffness in the chest and abdominal wall.  I will typically do a few breathing exercises to get rid of that stiffness.  I actively try to recall that sequence of events and the actual feeling.  I have had several instances of general anesthesia in the past 5 years and recalling that state can also be helpful. 

2:  Recreate 'sleep reverie' transition state (usually just waiting for it is enough):  Sleep reverie is the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep. There is typically a period where conscious thoughts start to run together.  If you are good at mental imagery – an image might start out with a person walking down a stairway and change in an instant to a different person engaged in a different activity.  Noticing when this occurs is typically associated with transitional images. It is also a sign that sleep is rapidly approaching.  Focusing on those instances is helpful. 

3:  The conscious goal is one more dream:  I typically try to focus on an image of something that I want to dream about but having that dream is extremely rare. These images often dissolve in the sleep reverie stage. It is also a time to rehearse endings to problematic dreams. A common theme for me is strenuous physical activity. I am overexerting myself in a dream and wake up to rapid heartbeat, palpitations, rapid breathing, and sweating. If I can recognize that in a dream – my usual rehearsed ending is to wake up and start over.   

Those are the basic steps and the mile high view. They are not completely original since there are elements of lucid dreaming and dream/imagery rehearsal – both of which have been studied, tested and used clinically (1). In clinical practice I have had good results advising people about sleep hygiene; the pharmacology of caffeine, alcohol, and addictive drugs; whether their dreams were interpretable; and how to stop unpleasant dreams or nightmares using dream rehearsal. The decision to use these techniques generally depends on the amount of autonomic arousal the person is experiencing.  For example, people with high levels of anxiety all day long who experience associated nightmares and nocturnal arousal including panic attacks, rapid heartbeat, palpitations, sweating, and ongoing sleep deprivation are much more likely to need pharmacotherapy in addition to the above measures.  Standard insomnia therapies may be useful, but more specific therapy targeting heightened adrenergic output is more likely to work, especially in the case of post traumatic nightmares.

The biology of sleep transitions remains at the theoretical stage at this point with several interesting classical and newer hypotheses (2,3).  While the hypotheses are interesting and becoming more sophisticated it is also apparent that pluralistic interventions are effective including the measures described in this post.  In other words, astute clinicians have been able to design self-help, structured, and psychotherapeutic interventions that can reduce or eliminate both primary and trauma-based nightmares and improve sleep quality and general health.  Like many other interventions in psychiatry - they work irrespective of whether a biological mechanism of action is known or not. They also do not depend on a prescribed medication or medical test. They are dependent on a skilled sleep assessment and training in these techniques.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Yücel, D. E., van Emmerik, A. A. P., Souama, C., & Lancee, J. (2020). Comparative efficacy of imagery rehearsal therapy and prazosin in the treatment of trauma-related nightmares in adults: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 50,

2:  Saper CB, Fuller PM, Pedersen NP, Lu J, Scammell TE. Sleep state switching. Neuron. 2010 Dec 22;68(6):1023-42. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.11.032. PMID: 21172606; PMCID: PMC3026325.

3:  Osorio-Forero A, Cardis R, Vantomme G, Guillaume-Gentil A, Katsioudi G, Devenoges C, Fernandez LMJ, Lüthi A. Noradrenergic circuit control of non-REM sleep substates. Curr Biol. 2021 Nov 22;31(22):5009-5023.e7. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.09.041. Epub 2021 Oct 13. PMID: 34648731.



  1. This is a very interesting post. I've had initial insomnia since I was a kid. Over the last decade, I've noticed a gradual tendency to get up a couple of times a night to urinate. I always take at least an hour to go back to sleep. I just found out there's a World Sleep Day. It was on March 17th, so I missed it. I don't know exactly how you observe it. I'm pretty sure it's not a holiday, allowing you a chance to take a nap.

    1. That reminds me to mention the importance of figuring out if a person has primary insomnia dating back to childhood. When I switched to outpatient practice for the last 10 years - that was one of the key observations I made. I was seeing more and more people who had longstanding insomnia - even before they developed a psychiatric disorder. I started to diagnose both and as expected - the insomnia those folks had was more difficult to treat and treating the primary psychiatric disorder did not have as much impact on the insomnia.

      I was unaware of World Sleep Day - but will look for it next year.

  2. Interesting article. Due to my past work practices-my sleep was very irregular, mostly due to switching back and forth from night to day schedules. Also, I did have one repetitive dream. Since retirement, it appears that the dream has also vanished..