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Can You Make Donald Trump Resign From Your Nightmares?

We can’t banish Trump from the real world. But we may be able to rid him from our dreams.

Illustration by Katie Tandy

The terrifying specter of a president unhinged to reason or morality has consumed our collective days; one would hope there’d be respite, at least, come nightfall.

We should be able to dream about a life without Trump.

And yet, so often, Trump remains in our subconsciousness as we slumber, waiting to terrorize again. Before the election, people were already dreaming of Trump — and since he assumed office, he has taken ever-more prominence in our nightly narratives.

Politicians making appearances in dreams is, of course, nothing new. In an interview with The Daily Beast, dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley reported an uptick in dreams about politicians like Ross Perot, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton during their respective runs for office, calling their dream appearances “metaphors for a feeling or a relationship in your life.”

But Trump dreams seem to be particularly common, and chilling; people have documented Trump torturing them in front of a group of white people, stiffing them on a date, and chasing them through a Walmart in their nightmares.

We should be able to dream about a life without Trump.

As Dr. Sue Kolod told Vice, the continued presence of our commander in chief has made it hard to know where the lines between the conscious and subconscious even exist anymore. “One of the things I’ve heard more recently than I can ever remember is a patient saying, ‘I feel like I’m in a nightmare, and I can’t wake up.”

So why are we dreaming of Trump? It’s hard to know for sure, but there are plenty of theories that can help answer that question.

Dreams happen most vividly, but not exclusively, during REM sleep, when our brains are almost as active as they are during wakefulness, but our bodies are usually in a state of temporary paralysis called atonia. But while the when of dreaming is clear, the what, how, and why are subject to fierce debate.

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In the 19th century, dreams were often thought of as a “delirium.” Russian physician Marie de Manacéïne, however, theorized that dreams are a way to exercise the parts of the brain unused by our conscious selves. In 1899, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams first published his theory of dreams as wish-fulfillment and symbolism full of sexual hangups. Carl Jung, initially a supporter of Freudian dream interpretation, later argued that dreams are a function of the imagination, a way to explore universal archetypes; he also said that while dreams do not need to be interpreted to perform their function, they exist to unite the conscious and unconscious mind.

Today, many argue that the purpose of dreams is to process memories and emotions — perhaps a subconscious imperative for Trump nightmares. “Dreams are many times a relief of fear, anxiety, or depression,” says Dr. Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based therapist and dream expert. “If you are distressed by Trump, then know that your psyche is attempting to release those unpleasant feelings at night because it cannot do so fully enough by day.”

‘Dreams are many times a relief of fear, anxiety, or depression.’

Some argue that the presence of Trump is not just about the man himself, but about a cultural awakening to the fucked-up power dynamics that have existed since long before his election. Racism, classism, sexism, and other systems of privilege are nothing new, but they are still painful to confront viscerally — so instead, we may confront them in our dreams.

Cathy Pagano, a Jungian psychologist, astrologer, and soul coach, told me that Trump can also reflect our own fears about ourselves:

“When we dream of Trump, he symbolizes our collective Shadow: the parts of our American patriarchal psyche which has been ruling us for a while now. He represents the truth of what our leaders are really doing in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the boardrooms of all our corporations. He represents the hypocrisy, lies, and deceit that power holds onto.

The Shadow is the part of our psyche we don’t want to recognize, but which we ‘see’ in others. So if I dream of Trump, he symbolizes that part of me that I don’t like or want others to see. He might symbolize the bully, or the misogynist, or the racist, or the childish, entitled, delusional part of myself.”

Personally, my dreams are more confusing than heavy with symbolism. I do not suffer from frequent nightmares that re-enact trauma, or if I do, I don’t usually have them in my last REM cycle. When I recall my dreams, I recognize the nouns in them, but the narratives bear little meaning to my life.

The same has been true of Trump’s appearances in my dreams. Unlike in real life, he is not evil, but a benign-if-annoying figure, usually part of a troupe helping me look for something I don’t understand. His malice in waking life gets jumbled into well-meaning clumsiness — distinct from his usual bigoted, megalomaniacal, narcissistic incompetence.

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It could be worse: If you search “trump dream last night” on Twitter, you’ll see many accounts of people dreaming of being fired or experiencing violence at his hands. And it could be better: Some people dream of his impeachment, or that he was never elected at all, or that they screamed at him and flicked him off.

I wish I was giving Trump the bird in my dreams, but I’m not. Instead, he only appears in those frustrating dreams where I have to figure out some kind of shape-shifting puzzle. But even if Trump is not, in my subconscious, the monster he is in reality, I still don’t want him disturbing my sleep.

Some people dream of Trump’s impeachment, or that he was never elected at all, or that they screamed at him and flicked him off.

Happily for me and others looking to banish Trump from their sleep state, there are some strategies for mitigating nightmares. One heralded approach to addressing traumatic dreams is a cognitive behavioral therapy method called “image rehearsal therapy” (IRT). The sleeper writes down or recalls the dream for 10 or 20 minutes during their waking hour, but they change some key part of the narrative so that it is now positive. “IRT acts to inhibit the original nightmare, providing a cognitive shift that empirically refutes the original premise of the nightmare,” writes the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

The University of California, Santa Cruz School of Oneirology proposes that while dreams may help us make memories and have significant cultural purpose, there is no symbolic connection between our dreams and our life. If we like our dreams, there’s no harm in looking to them for inspiration and guidance, but if they’re upsetting, we should forget them as soon as we wake up instead.

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According to Pagano, if you dream you’re involved with Trump, the best thing is to work on your Shadow — which, she says, “isn’t so bad once you recognize it and work with it. Recognize your own part in what makes your life chaotic or selfish or frustrated and make some changes. This is the best option since you actually change your life.”

Pagano also emphasizes self-care as a way to productively address disturbing dreams. “The patriarchy wants us to ignore our feelings and repress our instincts and intuitions. You are a specific person, with specific needs and talents. If you get too caught up in the outer world’s chaos, and you don’t give yourself enough self-care and explore your own depths so you ‘know yourself,’ your mental health will certainly suffer.”

‘The patriarchy wants us to ignore our feelings and repress our instincts and intuitions.’

To successfully engage in self-care, you may want to recede from constant engagement with the news. Since I pitched this essay back in February, my political dreams have receded a great deal — they’re still creepy, but Trump is in them less. The change, I think, comes from my being less fixated on the constant low buzz of political minutiae. I don’t want to suggest that this is the way out for everyone — as a white cis woman with family resources, my livelihood is not as much under siege as it is for others. But personally, I can’t keep up with the fuckery anymore. So I’ve stopped reading obsessively of every actor and their place in this hell world.

According to Dr. Irwin, this approach is sound:

“Ceasing watching the news right before can help greatly. Stay informed, but do so a few hours before sleep. Allow your mind to decompress with funny, light entertainment, [but] nothing distressing, because your subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between real or imagined danger.”

While taking some time off from Twitter can be helpful, what can be even more conducive to reducing distressing dreams is actual productive political action. “Dreams are informing you of your feelings about a situation. Taking action to do damage control is ideal in turning powerlessness into power,” says Dr. Irwin. “The answer may be in taking some sort of action to make a difference in any way that you can — calling your state’s senators and representatives, joining protests, [or] helping get petitions signed.”

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For the first few months of Trump’s presidency, I couldn’t sleep through the night. I woke up almost every night from confusing dreams or dire thoughts. Now when I awake, I try take care of myself and call my senators instead of getting pointlessly angry about Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Russia or whatever Mary Shelley-esque health care bill is on the horizon at the moment. Instead of refreshing Twitter when I’m mad right before bed, I seek out a local protest and take a little time to relax. I’ve stopped passively taking in the terror of his reign, and starting actively getting to work, and I’m dreaming a little better for it.

No one can deny Trump’s prominent space in our reality, but letting go of trying to keep up with every speck of spittle from his lips has relaxed some of my mental energy. I’m not trying to keep up as much anymore, and I learned long ago not to hold onto my dreams — even if he’s in them.

Donald Trump cannot be banished from my dreams anymore than he can be evicted from the White House, but I can refuse to let him ruin my sleep, my health, my life.

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