How the Drama Triangle in Your Dreams Affects Your Health

(From Dillard, J. Escaping the Drama Triangle in the Three Realms: Waking, Thinking and Dreaming.)

You probably work hard during the day to eat right, exercise, maintain a positive attitude, treat others with respect, not react, and generally be a good person.  You can go to workshops and therapy, go to bed feeling good and still wake up feeling anxious and out of sorts. How come?

Could it be that despite all of your excellent efforts during the day that at night while you sleep you are unconsciously undoing, undercutting, and destroying all that you have fought to create during your waking hours? If you are so sure that this is not the case, how do you know?

Have you ever awakened anxious, irritable, or confused from a deep, dreamless sleep?  Something was going on out of your awareness while you slept that created stress.  Such events not only leave a physiological residue, making it harder for your body to cope with health risks; they leave a mental and emotional residue that colors your perception and affects your responsiveness, your mood, your mental focus, and your creativity.    You don’t have to wake up in a foul mood for this process to be taking place.  It can be very subtle.  Generally, the stress of unhealthy dream experiences undercut your physical, mental, and spiritual development completely out of your awareness. 

What are some of the barriers to awakening out of the Drama Triangle in Dreams? Most people give little pause  to the time that they spend asleep.  Our main concern is that we sleep soundly and awaken refreshed.  For most of us that means deep, dreamless unconsciousness, without restlessness, interruption or awareness.  As long as such a state remains our priority, any activity that prevents unconsciousness is to be eliminated.  As a result, we will sabotage any desire to remember our dreams or heighten our self-awareness while asleep because this will disrupt a basic habit in which we have a deep and long lasting investment.  We are under enough stress  already; don’t we deserve a good night’s sleep?  Unless you are thoroughly convinced that dream recall  and dream lucidity  contribute in a significant way to your overall health and personal development, no amount of fascination and curiosity about dreaming is likely to make a long-term dent in this basic human desire to sink into oblivion every night.

We know that sleep is regenerative and necessary for health.  Do we also know that we must be unconscious for sleep to be healthy?  It seems so. A system of toxin removal from the brain has been discovered, and it is much more effective when the brain is inactive in a state of deep sleep. This has in fact been proposed as the adaptational advantage of deep sleep.  How is this to be reconciled with the increased brain coherence demonstrated by regular meditators? How is it that some of these meditators can remain conscious in theta  (dream) and even delta  (deep) sleep? 

This might best be understood as a polarity between the evolutionary movement toward objectivity, self-awareness and heightened wakefulness, on the one hand, and the involutionary movement toward subjectivity and surrender to an underlying, revitalizing, wellspring of oneness. Within sleep we have the capacity to do both, to move toward lucidity and greater wakefulness in our dreams while surrendering to involutionary subjectivity during deep sleep.1

If health is about being conscious of what limits the ability of life to wake up to itself within and through us as well as how to avoid those limits, then sickness is sleepwalking our way through life, pursuing limited, self-centered agendas that do not reflect the priorities of life. While such self-centered agendas are not only necessary but vital for the advancement of life’s agenda in the physiosphere, that is, for plants and animals and young children, as well as into the early noosphere, into human adolescence,  past that point the self-centered agendas we learn as children impede our further development if their influence is not circumscribed by growth into broader contexts.

This truth applies to the evolutionary polarity of life; the opposite appears to be true for its involutionary phase: greater health comes from surrendering all sense of self before a pervasive regression into a primordial unity. Integral approaches, such as that of Aurobindo and Wilber, as well as IDL, contend that there is a higher order synthesis of these two poles, a space in which we can be self-aware during the involution of deep sleep without interrupting the healing process and, on the other hand, experience healing unity during evolution (for example mystical and near death experiences) without thereby regressing into a state of pre-conscious dissolution. These distinctions are important; otherwise nidra yoga, the yoga of deep sleep wakefulness, is not healthy, nor is mystical awareness, because it is retrogression rather than progression.

Evolution is the figure or focus of life as form while involution is the ground or substrate that form returns to in winter and deep sleep. For non-manifested life, that is, life before birth and after death, when there is no self, involution is the figure or focus of life as formless creativity and luminosity, while evolution is the ground or substrate that unmanifested life returns to in spring and birth. This is not, however, to posit reincarnation in the sense of a returning self-sense. This process occurs in spectacular natural abundance in snowflakes and seeds without the need of any self-sense whatsoever.

Waking up, whether becoming more vigilant while asleep or while awake, expands your awareness of yourself beyond yourself.  What was a proximal self, who you think you are, becomes a distal self, or a role or subset within a broader set or context that now defines who you are. In the evolutionary sense, waking up is about learning how to step outside of who you routinely think that you are and watching yourself go by.  While the dividends for doing so are enormous, drama blocks this process. 

Stepping outside of the Drama Triangle is the difference between being a more conscious participant in life, on the one hand, and, on the other, living a somnambulistic life, a victim  of your own unquestioned habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.   

While there appear to be clear biological and psychological benefits to sleep, there is also a price to pay for going unconscious unnecessarily.  First, your biochemistry controls you.  Consider the basic fight or flight  physiological reaction to stress.  Let’s say you are preparing to give an important speech and you are feeling intense pressure to do a really good job.  You hate public speaking  and you would love to avoid giving the presentation, but you know that you can’t.  You know that you are going to have to put on a brave face and fight your way through it.  You go to sleep feeling anxious about how you are going to do.  How might this affect your ability to give your speech?

Hans Selye, the brilliant Canadian doctor and researcher, was a pioneer in research on the physical consequences of stress  on organisms.  He observed and described what he called the General Adaptation Syndrome, the process by which  organisms adapt to stress, whether it is an illness, a death, a job loss, or an accident.  When you first experience a stress you go into an alarm reaction. A cascade of powerful hormones  is pumped out of your endocrine glands to alert and activate your body to deal with danger.  Your heart speeds up, your breathing becomes faster and more shallow.  Blood flows away from your internal organs and to your skeletal muscles to prepare you to fight or run.  Your pupils constrict.  If the threat does not go away as a result of all these measures, you next go into an adaptive phase in which you conserve your resources for a drawn-out defense against the attack.  When you have a major life stress, such as a public speaking  phobia, you can recognize both the initial alarm reaction and the secondary adaptive phase when your anxiety does not go away. Finally, if the threat remains present, something that happens with physiological stressors like drowning or running from a bear, but not from social threats like public speaking, you enter the exhaustion phase.  At this point new energy is poured into your body in a last-ditch attempt to overcome the challenge; you look like you are rallying when in fact you are making a total expenditure of all your resources in one final effort to turn the tide.  If this does not work, you will die.

We know that adrenaline, norepinephrine, and other stress hormones  collect in the body when the fight or flight  response is activated.  In waking life, we can metabolize them by fighting or running.  However, when you are anticipating a stress like giving a speech, you can’t do either. A similar situation is created very night when you sleep. During your dreams your central nervous system  is paralyzed to keep you from acting out your dreams and thereby hurting yourself.

IDL believes that if you want to stay healthy you need to learn to perceive and respond to stressful dreams as wake-up calls.   Reenacting the Drama Triangle  in one form or another, in dream after dream, can’t be good for your health. You might ask, “How can I be stressed if I am unconscious?”

“How can something affect me that I don’t even remember?”  Here is an analogy.  Every time you eat something it affects you for better or for worse. If it’s toxic it will harm your body whether or not you are aware of its toxicity.  Samples of Beethoven’s hair showed that he went deaf and eventually died due to lead poisoning, probably from the pewter mugs he drank from during his life.

Similarly, dreams and nightmares  that arouse a fight or flight  response in you release powerfully corrosive stress  chemicals into your body –whether or not you  remember any dreams.  When you go to bed worried, your dreams are more likely to be filled with anxiety-causing themes of inadequacy and failure in an attempt to address your fear.  If you take as a genuine threat something that is only a dream experience, your body cannot tell the difference. For instance, if you dream of public speaking  and being embarrassed and humiliated because the audience is laughing at you and walking out, this is your reality. You will respond as if these events happened to you in real life and your body will go into its normal reactions to stress. This may be one reason why psychotherapy is ineffective with many people. They leave the session feeling good, but at night in their dreams they regress into the Drama Triangle  and habitual emotional reactivity and mental delusions, thereby undercutting their progress and increasing the likelihood they will wake up in the morning anxious, depressed, or both.

So how does the Drama Triangle in my dreams undermine my health and peace of mind? Dream threats are typically experienced as real when they are in fact self-created manifestations of the Drama Triangle. While you may dream you are fighting or fleeing, that does nothing to neutralize the powerful hormones that are building up in your tissues as a physiological response to perceived threat.  Because they are not dissipated by running or fighting, these hormones act like battery acid, attacking the weakest link in your body’s defense system. 

Given enough time and enough repeated exposure to these night time assaults on the body, caused by addiction to the Drama Triangle, one person may catch some bug because their immune system is depleted; another person may develop arthritis because their auto-immune system goes haywire.  Another person may develop high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, while yet another may develop insomnia or ulcers.  Still others may show no effect whatsoever. While genetic predisposition partially determines which system is most likely to collapse beneath the onslaught of these biochemicals, the depth of your submersion in the Drama Triangle makes an enormous difference in how deep you immerse yourself in physiological toxins, for how long, and how quickly you recover from it.

Fortunately, normal physical activity helps to metabolize and eliminate toxic stress  chemicals, which is one reason why regular exercise is so important.  If you don’t do something physical to metabolize these powerful stress hormones, over time they can destroy your resistance to disease.  However, most of us assure ourselves that this is not happening to us.  We think about the walking that we do, the exercise that we get, the efforts we make to handle our feelings and responsibilities in ways that don’t allow stress hormones  to build up in us.  Yet we still get sick; our organs break down and we start feeling our age.  While some of this is inevitable, how much of it is due to genes and natural processes of aging and how much of it is the result of unnecessary stress due to immersion in the Drama Triangle not only during our waking relationships, but in our thinking and dreams?

How does IDL reduce the Drama Triangle in dreams? IDL short-circuits this process by re-framing your perception of both waking and dreaming sources of anxiety  and depression, so that they need not work themselves out in your dreams. For example, Lorna dreamed that she was in her apartment, up to her waist in water.  She was not feeling particularly in danger, although she was worried about all the water damage.  The water was, in her dream perception, in the role of Persecutor while she was in the role of victim. Dreams like this tend to reinforce life scripts that say, “The world is a dangerous place, full of overwhelming threats, and I am a powerless victim of those threats.”

While this dream was somewhat stressful, it is more like a typical dream than a full-blown nightmare. It just as easily could have never been remembered. However, even if it had not been recalled, both the physiological stress processes during the dream and the emotional conclusions that Lorna drew during the dream would have occurred, undercutting both her health and her peace of mind. Lorna’s recall of her dream provided her with an opportunity to not only understand the Drama Triangle in the three realms in her life but allowed her to take steps to defuse them to limit future needless physical and psychological damage.

When the Water  was interviewed, it said, “I am all the medications that Lorna is taking for her back pain.  I am tranquilizing her because she is afraid of feeling how bad the pain  may be.  She is being swamped by her fear.  If she doesn’t stop taking us she is not going to get well.  Also, by taking us she does not face up to how her fear keeps her trapped in her apartment.  She is afraid to go out because then something else bad might happen to her.”

This statement by water brings together elements no dream interpreter ever will. You will not read in any guide to dream symbology that water is a symbol for medicine and while it is possible that Lorna would make this association, it is unlikely. How likely is it that any interpreter would associate water not only to medicine but back pain medicine, as well as to fear of pain and how that is associated with her staying trapped in her apartment. Yet in one statement the water makes all of these important and significant connections.

Lorna had been injured in a rear-end collision.  Years previously she had sustained a head injury from a freak accident when a falling tree limb hit her.  Now, as before, she was afraid to go outside.  By listening to the water in her dream Lorna was able to see that her fear was paralyzing her and causing her to take too much pain  medication, which was swamping her with sedation.  The water was no longer perceived as her Persecutor; instead it took the role of Helper, providing her with important and useful information to understand not only how she was her own worst enemy but pointing her toward what she needed to do to stop creating needless fears.

Armed with this information, Lorna told her doctor that she wanted to cut back on the pain meds.  The doctor was upset with her, feeling that she was non-compliant and attempting to doctor herself.  The doctor was responding as he had been taught, to her pain symptoms, rather than recognizing how her pain medication  itself was a defense against a more fundamental problem – her long-term fear. Her doctor, who probably saw himself as a Helper, was in the Role of Rescuer but in fact in the Role of Persecutor in that he was contributing to Lorna’s physiological and psychological dysfunctions. Lorna had to change doctors.  When she finally decreased taking the pain meds she immediately became less groggy and less fearful.  She could now feel her pain, so she could more accurately tell her new doctor where she hurt so he could help her.  Clearly, if Lorna had not listened to a relatively insignificant and typical dream she might have made her recovery longer and much more complicated. 

Her dream and what she did with the recommendations that she derived from it is an example of how IDL works to move people out of the Drama Triangle in the three realms of relationships, thought and dreaming.

Arthur Seligman  has described something very similar to Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome  in his explanation of depression  as learned helplessness.  He explains how cows, when stuck in a bog, will bellow and struggle ferociously to get free.  After a while, if their efforts are to no avail, they will struggle less; they have entered the adaptive phase of Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome.  If they continue to be sucked down into the bog, they will put up one last heroic struggle before drowning.    Seligman  noted that cows that are trapped in bogs and yet do not die learn not to struggle; they stop trying to get out, even if they could.  This is adaptation to the ongoing stress  of Selye’s second stage of his General Adaptation Syndrome and resembles our habituation to chronic immersion in the Drama Triangle in our waking relationships, our thoughts and in our dreams.

(Picture from

Seligman  noted that some of these hopelessly trapped cows that were rescued from bogs by farmers would head right back into the bog again!  Do we not do the same when we return to the Drama Triangle and to our addictions? Could it be possible that we do something similar in our dreams?  Just as we can get addicted to worry, horror movies or creepy detective thrillers, could it be that we get addicted to creating drama-filled dream  vignettes that increase our stress and keep us sick? Repetitive, stressful dreams  and nightmares  appear to point to such a conclusion.

If we want to protect our health it is not enough to think good thoughts, take our vitamins and be politically correct. We need to eliminate the Drama Triangle in the three realms.  We need to learn how to make dreaming as positive an experience as we possibly can.    IDL not only teaches us how to recognize and neutralize drama stress; it amplifies forces in consciousness that actively support health, whether awake or asleep.

What is the most helpful way to view my dreams to move out of the Drama Triangle? View them as wake-up calls.

It is wise to treat both your dreams and your life events as wake-up calls.  When you interview dream characters, particularly Persecutors, such as monsters, attackers, accidents or natural disasters they will generally say that their purpose is to get your attention, to wake you up. You can test this theory for yourself by doing your own interviews, and you are encouraged to do so. Whether dream and waking events are, in reality, wake-up calls, approaching them as if they are moves us out of the Drama Triangle because we are not perceiving experience in terms of persecution, rescuing or victimization.  Instead, both dream and waking experiences are seen as helping when properly listened to in an deep and integral way. Doing so allows you to reframe unpleasant, uncomfortable, painful, confusing or irrelevant dream and life events as teaching experiences that support your further development. 

1 Diagram: Bartow, J. Getting to Know Our Personality, Soul and Spiritual Cycles in Life

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