Americans Wake Up to Nightmares
Knight Ridder/Tribune -
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Night sweats. Calling out in one's sleep. Waking up with a start.

America's worst nightmare - a massive terrorist attack on our soil - is becoming quite literally that.

"We are entering a national epidemic of nightmares," says clinical psychologist Alan Siegel, editor of Dream Time magazine and former presidentof the Association for the Study of Dreams. "There's really never been anything like this in our history, not after Pearl Harbor and certainly not during the Gulf War."

Like a virus that sneaked into our computers, say the experts, the scenes of destruction, feelings of vulnerability and anxieties over the future spawned by the events of Sept. 11 have entered our psyches and are surfacing in our dreams in an unprecedented manner.

Furthermore, they say, the nightmares may continue for a long time - longer than those produced by any other past national trauma.

"There will be many sleeping problems related to the incidents, no question," says Dr. Michael Friedman, a sleep specialist on staff at Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago and Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center. "We're just starting to see it come through our doors. I'm hearing of some horrendous nightmares."

In the first weeks following the cataclysms in New York and Washington, D.C., a poll by the Pew Research Center showed that one in three Americans have complained that they have had difficulty sleeping through the night as a result of the attacks.

"A huge number of people have been traumatized, directly and indirectly," says Deirdre Barrett, a psychology professor at Harvard Medical Center who supervised counselors at Boston's Logan Airport following the hijackings. Barrett, a specialist in post-traumatic dreaming, says, "Some people may not even realize it yet and, in some cases, it may be six months or a year before (unpleasant dreams) begin emerging."

The experts hasten to add that nightmares - defined as distressing dreams that typically force us to at least partially awake from our sleep - are, in most cases, a natural occurrence for people after traumatic events. Only
prolonged problems with such dreams should require outside help, they note.

"Nightmares are a cardinal symptom of something traumatic in your life," says Siegel. "In this case, we've lost our sense of security and this is something  more traumatic than most Americans have really experienced before."

But, he notes, the bad dreams should be thought of as the brain's natural way of dealing with the conflict, flushing it out through our subconscious while we are sleeping. "Some people tend to think of nightmares as a poison, when, in reality, they are a form of vaccine," he says.

Meanwhile, Robert Bosnak, author of "Little Course in Dreams" and other books on dreaming, is establishing a national "nightmare telephone hotline" for people wishing to find help with their troubled sleep. He expects to have it operating by next week in anticipation of an epidemic.

"There is still a general numbness that Americans are going through and that tends to keep nightmares away, especially since they still see the worst images on TV," Bosnak, a therapist with private practices in New York, said. "I think you can expect to see the numbers of people having nightmares begin to rise about now and hit a peak around Christmas time, lasting maybe until March. This will be especially true for those directly affected by the events."

The Association for the Study of Dreams has established special Internet chat rooms for people to discuss their dreams and has also set up a hotline for callers seeking support. Barrett, who authored the book "Committee of Sleep" and edited a book titled "Trauma and Dreams," was also made available for people's questions on the association's Web site.

Richard Wilkerson has been soliciting dreams online to publish in Electric Dreams, an electronic newsletter. In the first two weeks following the attack, Wilkerson says, he had in excess of 100 submissions.

"The dreams so far seem to reflect the universal concerns of terrorism - concern with destruction, safety and loss," says Wilkerson, who, in a touch of irony, has a brother-in-law who worked at the World Trade Center and survived the Sept. 11 attack.

"But also," he explains, "each (dream) adds a personal twist and the addition of imaginative material, which explore these concerns, give context for new emotions and seek out new solutions and novel relations."

While sleep disorder clinics are starting to report an influx of patients complaining of stressful dreams related to the horrific incidents, school counselors at all levels indicate that, several weeks after Sept. 11, they still see pupils suffering from obvious symptoms of lack of sleep and focus.

"For many students," says Janet Sushinski, a social worker at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., "school, whether they admit it or not, is the center of their universe and now they're having trouble seeing how it fits into things."

"Their sense of safety is threatened," says Richelle Wagar, a counselor at Oak Park-River Forest High School. "Then there is the issue of the draft. I had an 18-year-old talking to me about that. Events have suddenly taken on a different context in his life. This is a very vulnerable age."

The Pew surveys do indicate Americans under age 30 are less likely to follow the tragedy on a continuing basis, while persons over 50 are following it much closer.

And while ADS research shows nightmares, in general, are more common among youngsters 8 years old and younger, Barrett notes kids in that age range also tend to be resilient. She adds that those people who were on the scene Sept. 11 at either the World Trade Center or the Pentagon and survived are likely to have the most disturbing dreams.

No one is immune. She recommends facing the feelings induced by the trauma - talking about it with others - as the best means of coping.

"What people have to keep in mind," she adds, "is that nightmares after something like this are a very, very natural thing."

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