At some point in your life whether as an adult or a kid, you’ve probably had someone tell you that the monsters and scary things in your nightmares aren’t real. But considering that roughly one third of your life is spent in the dreamscape (and if you daydream like me then two thirds), they are actually very real.

In my child and adolescent therapy class last week, we learned how to help kids who are stuck in the same dream night after night make a “nightmare book.” The idea behind this approach is that if you give a child a sense of empowerment and mastery over their terror, it helps them to psychologically and neurologically move past it, an idea supported by leading trauma researcher Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk.

“Shifts in our interior world carry the essence of the organism’s response: the emotional states that are imprinted in the body’s chemical profile, in the viscera, in the contraction of the striated muscles of the face, throat, trunk, and limbs. Traumatized people need to learn that they can befriend their sensations, befriend their inner experiences, and cultivate new action patterns.” (The Body Keeps the Score)

The nightmare book does exactly what Van Der Kolk is describing. It first enters the emotional state that has made an imprint on the child in the form of nightmares by verbalizing, drawing, and narrating the dream. By facing that place head on, the child befriends those sensations, drawing the dream scene by scene. And then the real change happens at the height of the dream, the terrible part where you always wake up at, because the child gets the chance to write an ending. The child, as the expert on their dreamscape and the only one who really knows how that scary thing will get defeated, draws on their problem solving to bring resolve to the dream. In Van Der Kolk’s words, to cultivate a new action pattern, to become “unstuck.”

And the idea of being stuck is reflected in the physical makeup of our brains as well. The most current research in neuroscience points to trauma and terror being stored in the right hemisphere of our brain. This suggests that in order to activate the left hemisphere, which shuts down during traumatic experiences, the right hemisphere needs to be stimulated. A tool like the nightmare book which involves drawing, coloring, and more creative thinking would qualify for right brain stimulation. Leading child psychologist Dr. Eliana Gil says, “Stimulating right hemisphere activity through expressive, nonverbal modalities is thus worthwhile and relevant in our work with traumatized individuals.”

So in class, we all made our own nightmare books, a self-guided experience through our dreams of either past or present. As it is with most things I am asked to do in my counseling program, I was completely unprepared for the emotional weight of this task. The line between learning about therapy and class becoming your personal therapy is blurry, trust me.

It is very rare that we choose to enter our stuck spaces. Whether our real nightmares or our metaphorical ones, the sense of powerlessness that accompanies plunging into these unmoving spaces is terrifying. For many of us, we have blocked our stuck spaces out of our minds, but our bodies have kept the score—perhaps through depression, anxiety, or the more unconscious route of our dreamscape. French psychologist and philosopher Jaques Lacan said that man’s basic position is a will not to know, “a ne rien vouloir savoir.” That we have a will, a passion even, to stay far away from things that bring us pain, especially when we have a record of being powerless in the face of them. Instead of befriending those stuck places and trying to make movement, despair and fear often become companions we are well acquainted with.

For me, I drew a dream I was quite familiar with; a dream I have passionately resisted speaking about, a scene that has replayed night after night for many seasons in my life because it once was real. And when I reached the middle of the book, the part where I am supposed to say, “What happens next? What could I do to get away from the scary thing, to destroy it for good?” I was stuck all over again, except that I wasn’t in the dreamscape. I was in a classroom, sitting at a table with crayons spread out in front of me, gripping the pencil in my hand so tightly that my knuckles were turning white. There I was again, stuck, facing the monster that finds me in my dreams because I have suffocated it in my other spaces, refused to know it.

And then, unlike in my dreamscape, my professor sees me, stuck in the corner with the pencil in my hand and powerless painted on my face. She crouches down, runs her fingers over her bald head and asks me, “What could help?”

“I’m stuck,” I tell her, pointing to the picture of the little girl in my book.

“How will you get unstuck?”

I look at her intensely, shamelessly admitting with my eyes that this class just became a therapy session and, if I weren’t having a moment, I would probably be feeling pretty set up right now (welcome to every day of my program); but I’m waiting for her to speak next because I don’t have an answer. And instead of answering, she is smiling, ever so slightly; hopeful, her eyes are telling me that I know what to do.

And then, I do.

“I’ll yell for help, even though I’m alone. And someone will hear me.”

So I start writing, my professor still crouched down beside me.

“Madeline screams and wakes up all the people in the stores and homes around her,” I scribble the words beside a scene full of smiling people running out to meet me.

“And what does she realize?” my professor asks. “It seems like she realizes they are all willing to help her when they see that she’s in trouble.”

I’m relieved I didn’t have to answer that question because I’ll probably be crying in the bathroom with the rest of my classmates after this already. I just nod and write exactly what she said.

As I leave class and steal glances at other people’s books, I see images of zombies, and burglars, natural disasters and death. One of my classmates says that her childhood nightmares are gone but have turned into exactly what the anxiety she experiences now looks like. One of my classmates has dreams that while she’s sleeping, someone breaks in to hurt her family but she is frozen. Other dreams have images of violators, abusers, and other horrible things. Some are scenes that have happened outside the dreamscape, and others occur only in that realm. And this book won’t singlehandedly make those things be unstuck—those fears, those anxieties, those memories. But that day, we touched those things and they started to move. They started to be a little less stuck.

And I’m thinking about how when we are stuck and despair is a friend that we know all too well, it is so hard to take a single step unless it’s in the other direction. But by the infinite mercy and grace of Christ, we have the Holy Spirit to kneel down beside us, just like my wise and gentle professor, and say, “I can help.”