Nightmares as Signposts

I’m in a house. In this dream, it is my house. It is in a remote location and is apparently, under construction. It is late evening and the sun is setting. I see a movement through the window. I know someone is out there. I hear the door rattle. I freeze and look around for somewhere to hide. I can hear footsteps outside and see a shadow at the window, looking in. I know that they mean to harm me. I don’t know who they are or why they’re there, but I feel fear coursing through my body. My heart is pounding and I crawl to move into the shadows, hoping the locks on the door hold. Then I wake up in a sweat, my heart pounding. 

Nightmares. Everyone has them at some point in their life. Sometimes they fade quickly from our memory, other times they linger throughout the day. Most of us try to forget them as soon as possible. But nightmares can actually be very effective signposts if we don’t ignore them. Like dreams (see Dream Therapy) they use images and symbols to communicate and can be interpreted in similar ways. When it comes to re-occuring nightmares, understanding their meaning is a very effective way to stop them from re-occuring.

I’ve been reading a variety of books on dreams and nightmares, lately, but particularly appreciated the way Jennifer Parker, in her book, Dreams & Nightmares,* defines the various types of nightmares and outlines how to stop them.

Types of Nightmares and How to Stop them…

  • One off, bizarre nightmare – does not re-occur and seems unrelated to anything in life. This nightmare may be pointing poor sleep hygiene or the effects of indigestion. If you often have these types of nightmares, check your sleep hygiene habits.  Also check out your overall stress level these days (What do You Really Need? – A 6 Step Complete Self-Care Assessment Guide
  • Trauma related – the contents of the nightmare repeat experiences of trauma experienced in real life. This type of nightmare is pointing to unresolved trauma which should be address with a mental health professional/ therapist. (For more on trauma check out Same Trauma, Different Outcome – Why some people have a harder time getting “over it.”)
  • Nightmares related to anxieties – this is common when there are life changes, such as, moving away from home, having a child, starting a new job, etc. These nightmares usually express our deepest fears, usually in symbolic ways, but sometimes quite blatantly, like dreaming of parents dying, when moving away from home, dreaming about forgetting a child or baby somewhere, or about forgetting to go to work on the first day of the job, or showing up to school naked. These nightmares are best addressed by acknowledging the fears and anxieties and checking if  we’ve taken reasonable measures to address them. Also, checking our own tendency to catastrophize when it comes to new things. We can challenging those thoughts by considering the probability of these types of outcomes, not simply the possibility of them.

Interpreting nightmares…

There are various ways that dreams and nightmares can be interpreted. Here are some:

  • Consider the idea that when we sleep our dreams and nightmares use symbols in the form of people or objects to represent various parts of ourselves. Symbols should be meaningful to us personally, in that they are not all universal.
  • A Jungian approach to dream and nightmare interpretation would see archetypes, within symbols. In my experience, my dreams tend to hold personal symbols along with some more universal and archetypal symbols. I’ve found dictionaries of mythological figures and of animal characteristics to be helpful, always checking these traits with what seems true to me and my experience.
  • A Gestalt approach to interpreting nightmares is to set up chairs in a room with one chair representing each object or person in the nightmare. Then sit in each chair and have someone interview you as if you were that object or person, asking about intentions, representation and messages that that person or object is trying to bring to you.This could also be done in a journalling context, writing interview questions with your dominant hand and answering as the person or object from your nightmare, with your non-dominant hand.

Apart from interpreting the message that your nightmares might be giving you, and addressing whatever it might be pointing to as being in need of attention, there is another strategy to stopping re-occuring nightmares.

Before going to sleep, rehearse the nightmare in as much detail as possible but change a part of it (often the ending) in order to make the outcome positive in some way. Rehearse this new version as you are going to sleep. It may take a few tries to shift it, but is known to be quite effective for adults and children, alike.

When to get help:

  • As stated earlier, if your nightmares have events and themes related to lived traumatic experience, then it is important to seek help from a mental health profession (counsellor, psychologist, therapist, etc.)
  • If you have recurring nightmares for more than six months, or if you fear going to sleep due to nightmares, you should talk to your doctor or mental health professional about this.
  • Note that Night Terrors are not the same as nightmares – they often occur in children and are related to the sleep cycle, not trauma. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about this.
  • Sleep paralysis is something that can feel like a waking nightmare. I happens when your body does not move successfully through all stages of sleep and into wakefulness, and the result is that you experience a temporary (usually momentary) paralysis upon waking. This can be extremely frightening. People with sleep paralysis often feel like someone else is int he room and is watching or touching them. One theory is that they are actually seeing and feeling themselves but are unable to connect to their own body because they cannot move it and so perceive it as being another person. Sleep paralysis has not been found to be related to trauma. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing this regularly.
  • Frequent nightmares may indicate high levels of stress in your life. You may benefit from talking to a mental health professional about what can be done to reduce your stress overall.

Historically, I have paid much closer attention to my dreams than to my nightmares, which I’ve often wanted to forget as quickly as possible due to fear or shame about their contents. However, I have discovered that, like my waking life, looking closely at the things that cause me fear and shame, has been very effective in helping me to understand areas of my self that require attention and have, surprisingly to me, greatly reduced their intensity and frequency.


For more on sleep and dreaming, see Dream Therapy

and When You Can’t Sleep

2 thoughts on “Nightmares as Signposts

  1. Pingback: Dealing with Intrusive Memories | It's Not Just You

  2. Pingback: Calming Panic | It's Not Just You

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