Trying to get a good night’s sleep has been a nightmare for many Israelis since Oct. 7

Research by psychologist shows that dreaming has changed due to heightened anxiety, but there are ways to gain control over scary scenarios playing out in our heads as we sleep

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A young Israeli man sleeping in his bed, December 1, 2014. (Maxim Dinshtein/Flash90)
Illustrative: A young Israeli man sleeping in his bed, December 1, 2014. (Maxim Dinshtein/Flash90)

Recent months have been a nightmare for many Israelis, and not only metaphorically. New research indicates that a quarter of us are experiencing dreams so scary and vivid that they are waking us up in the middle of the night.

Dr. Udi Bonshtein, chief psychologist at Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, has been delving into wartime dreams and has found that while they can be disturbing, they can also be a way for us to overcome our fears and anxiety.

Nearly a decade ago, Bonshtein began surveying 700 Israelis about their dreams for his 2020 book “Cholem Maleh” (Full Dreamer). The book deals in large part with how the human brain is conscious of itself even when a person is asleep and dreaming. Bonshtein found a correlation between this consciousness, which is called lucid dreaming, and a person’s interest in or tendency toward being aware of their psychological makeup and state.

“I did the research and wrote the book in ‘normal times,’ before COVID and before October 7,” Bonshtein told The Times of Israel.

“I wanted to do a comparison to dreams during the current war, using the same tools,” he said.

In recent months, Bonshtein, collaborating with his daughter Or, an undergraduate psychology student, surveyed 160 new people aged 16 to 70. They used the same three comprehensive questionnaires about dreams and other psychological subjects that Bonshtein used in his initial study.

The questionnaire respondents were “average” people affected by everything the country has experienced since October 7.

“These are not people with post-traumatic distress disorder diagnoses, who by definition have nightmares,” Bonshtein said.

“The 160 we surveyed are the general population, who are experiencing fear, uncertainty and helplessness. They feel that there is no one to rely on — not the government, not the army,” he said.

Dr. Udi Bonshtein, chief psychologist at the Galilee Medical Center. (Courtesy of Galilee Medical Center)

He has completed collecting and evaluating the new data and is in the process of writing papers based on it. He said his publisher would like him to write a new book, rather than adding a couple of updated chapters to a new edition of his 2020 book.

Bonshtein explained that he was less interested in the content of the respondents’ dreams — which he hears about from people as a therapist — and more in the process of dreaming. He wanted to see if something had changed.

“However, we did have an open-ended question where people could share a dream with us. We got about 60 responses to this question and some dealt with the war. But this dream content was really just the ‘spice’ and not the main attraction, so to speak,” Bonshtein said.

As one might intuit, more people reported waking up from nightmares at least once a month. Bonshtein said 30 percent of the respondents had these nightmares, which is 15% higher than in his prewar study.

“I expected this because we see that people are sleeping less well and are more affected than usual by what is going on in the environment,” he said.

The data also showed that sensory memory was more prevalent in these scary wartime dreams. People reported hearing loud sirens, explosions, and screams while dreaming.

“There seems to be more of a blurring between the lines between dreaming and wakeful reality. Usually, there is a difference and people are aware of it. Dreams are usually more mixed up, mysterious, and full of symbols,” Bonshtein said.

People attending a demonstration calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since the October 7 attack take cover as warning sirens sound of an incoming rocket attack in Tel Aviv, October 28, 2023, (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“We call this inability to distinguish between what is real and what is a dream — either when dreaming or when awake — paramnesia. This mixing of reality and fantasy is happening more now, and especially with those reporting nightmares,” he said.

Despite so many responses reporting upsetting dreams, Bonshtein was buoyed by the fact that a significant number of people, including those with nightmares, said they were able to cope by employing autosuggestion.

In some cases, this means a person waking up during a dream but then successfully choosing to go back to sleep and perhaps have a better dream. In others, it means being able to decide what to dream about before going to sleep and actually dreaming about that.

“It’s all about having control. The first step is to be able to wake yourself up from a bad dream. The next and better level is to achieve a lucid dream, where you can change the direction of a dream while you are asleep,” Bonshtein said.

Illustrative image of a sleeping woman. (AndreyPopov; iStock by Getty Images)

“For instance, if you are dreaming of a terror attack, you can imagine you are like Superman and can fly above the terrorists. Or you have a weapon and can respond to the attack. Or you can hide and save yourself and others, or maybe find a route to flee,” he suggested.

According to Bonshtein, achieving lucid dreams as quickly as possible is optimal as it helps psychologically in terms of coping with difficulties and challenges not only while dreaming, but also while awake.

Getting there isn’t as hard as it may seem. Bonshtein said that many people are inherently able to achieve lucid dreams through self-encouragement and autosuggestion.

If that doesn’t work, there are resources such as Bonshtein’s 2020 book (Hebrew only), as well as other printed guides and videos on YouTube.

“And right now with so many people experiencing trauma, there is professional help available if you need it,” Bonshtein said.

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