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Processing traumatic memories in dreams

Dr Joan Haliburn

Dreams are singularly subjective mental experiences that can help one understand unconscious mental processes, experience feelings, memories, wishes, fantasies, confl icts, impulses and defenses, as well as images of self and other. They provide a psychological space wherein complex, unbearable affects, otherwise dissociated or disavowed, are allowed to be experienced, maintaining thereby a mind/body homeostasis. Integrating affect into everyday experience is essential for healthy emotional life, and in psychotherapy, integrating affects, even contradictory ones into the patient’s life story becomes an essential goal.

To integrate affect, whether in the awake state or in dreams, is the ability to deal with varying intensities of ideas, confl icts and diffi culties, without having to resort to defense mechanisms, and without loss of self. This paper will deal with traumatic memories being recalled in dream states and repeated almost entirely as if they were happening in the present, with an ‘as if’ quality or a ‘me and a not-me quality’ that places additional demands on both patient and therapist. When unbearable affect states are split off, psychological equilibrium is threatened, to the point where the therapeutic relationship can sometimes feel a threat to the patient who is precariously holding on to his sense of reality – as in the case of 19 year old Mitch. Dreams became a major part of our sessions, and it was through working with his dreams that we were able to process the traumatic experiences that hitherto could not be talked about for fear of fragmentation.

ANZAP- Australia & New Zealand Association of Psychotherapy
22nd Annual Conference : Conversation on Dreaming
Recorded: 2-5 September 2010. Sydney, Australia.

Joan Haliburn
Joan Haliburn
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Dr Joan Haliburn

Dr Joan Haliburn is a child, adolescent and family psychiatrist and trained psychotherapist in private practice at Drummoyne, NSW. She is a senior clinical lecturer, University of Sydney, on faculty at the Complex Trauma Unit, which is a service, training and research facility in trauma, dissociation and personality disorders, Western Sydney Health at Westmead and Cumberland Hospitals. She is a former President and Director of Training, ANZAP. She has published and presented papers and workshops nationally and internationally. Her recent publications are Pathological Attachment as Adaptation, in The Psychology of Trauma, Nova Science Publishers, New York and two chapters in ‘Borderline Personality Disorder and the Conversational Model – A clinician’s Manual’ by Russell Meares, Norton Books. She is an International Fellow, American Psychiatry Association, a member of ISSTD, ISSPD and IACAPAP.

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