Everyone has nightmares. Being chased and terrorized, falling into a
bottomless abyss, seeing a reflection of ourselves and discovering that
our appearance has altered alarmingly. We may be a witness to a horrible
event like someone we love disappearing or transforming into someone
else or something unrecognizable. We may be in the doctor’s office
absorbing some traumatic diagnosis and prognosis.
Sometimes the nightmare is more about our reaction to the events in the
dream. When we tell someone about it, they laugh, failing to grasp it
gravity and impact upon us, furthering the traumatic impact with
confusion. A rather depressing exemplification of, “You really needed to be there
Upon awakening, soaked in sweat, sometimes screaming out loud, heart
beating fast - so relieved to discover it was a nightmare and not waking
The meaning of the nightmare is as individual as we are, however there
are several common reasons for having nightmares. One is trauma. We
may not allow ourselves to reflect upon a traumatic event because the
effects are still too raw. Our consciousness however must integrate and
file these experiences into our psychic makeup. Our psyche is
compelled to give them context and meaning in an aim to reach a place of
peace and acceptance.
A Fear Has Breached Our Normal Defences
There are many reasons for nightmares; fear of failure, poor health or a
necessary health alert, or feeling victimized. Being bullied generates
nightmares in a victim of any age. Being faced with a difficult choice,
behaving in a manner unfamiliar to our self-concept, abandonment,
loneliness, lack of safety can all trigger the advent of a nightmare.
They do mean that we need to pay more attention to something taking
place in our everyday lives. We are either guilty of ignoring the
threat or of minimizing its impact. During WWI for example, military
psychiatrists noted that when men on the front lines began dreaming of
the horrors of war they needed to be removed from the battle. Somehow
the horror had breached a psychic barrier which often presaged the
onslaught of a crippling mental illness.
Nightmares let us know that a fear of something has breached our normal defences. We ignore it at our peril.
Consider nightmares to be like a psychic scream. Our unconscious mind
has been transmitting warnings on many fronts which we’ve been
determinedly ignoring. In consequence, our unconscious is triggered to
amplify the volume. Our psyche has been left little choice but to
rattle us to attention!
Nightmares May Signal Encroaching Mental Illness
Keeping in mind however, that dreams amplify our waking life experiences
by tenfold, a nightmare may be highlighting a growing neurosis – fear
of something not founded but rather a phobia or neurotic worry. People
who describe themselves as worry warts
tend to be plagued more
frequently with nightmares. Regardless, a nightmare in this case still
demands attention. A growing phobia can be crippling, preventing us
from living a free and healthy life. If a nightmare is alerting us to a
creeping neurosis, that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant.
As children, we’re plagued by nightmares more frequently. Children
experience fear daily yet must prevail. The world they find themselves
inhabiting is vast and those around them so much larger and stronger.
Loving adults can help in providing safety and respite but there are by
necessity, times when they cannot offer the assurance of safety so
Encouraging children to talk through their nightmares and offering them
suggestions about how to imaginatively deal with the monsters, will
facilitate the child to feel empowered and less threatened. The most
beneficial approach to take with a child awakening from a nightmare, is
to guide them to imagine themselves more powerful than the monster – see
themselves grow in strength and stature – as opposed to seeing the
monster shrink. Shrinking monsters is the stuff of magical thinking but
empowering ourselves is a skill well served throughout our lives.
Nightmares are as Pre-Cognitive as Other Dreams
Ignoring or discounting nightmares as only dreams
won’t help in
dealing with them. Like most forgotten dreams, they will simply
return. Besides why waste all that sweat and terror?
Do what you can to interpret the meaning of the symbols, characters,
feeling and action. Imagine what the nightmare is asking you rather
than telling you. Further, imagine a couple of different endings.
Often a nightmare is interrupted by an abrupt awakening triggered by our
increased heart rate and breath; use your imagination to envision what
the ending might have been, especially one where you’re victorious.
A nightmare may even be a warning of something ahead that you need to
know now! Nightmares are as pre-cognitive as other types of dreams.
Use the nightmare as a creative inspiration. Draw, paint or collage the
images. Title your nightmare. The stories of Jekyl and Hyde,
Frankenstein, and Dracula were all inspired by nightmares. When you
describe a nightmare to someone, it is likely they will immediately
identify and empathize with your experience. There is nothing quite
like a sharing a nightmare to bring an uncommon level of intimacy into
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