In addition to the bad dreams provoked by primal feelings, basic drives and past traumas, it is known that everyday threats and dangers can also trigger the nightmare experience. It may be that when we suffer periods of low-self-esteem, with the increased vulnerability to anxiety and fear this brings, that we are more susceptible to this type of nightmare. This common type of anxiety dream, which can be triggered by the worry of not coping well with life generally, or specific concerns such as failure in a relationship, dismissal from a valued job or redundancy, or the loss of a child. Occasionally nightmares can relate to a low sense of self-esteem generally, with the dreamer feeling they do not measure up to other people, perhaps in terms of looks or achievement. While a period of feeling low will often pass for most people, for those afflicted with depression or an anxiety disorder, these anxiety dreams may be more frequent and become a problem.

A common theme is a mother who dreams her child is dead, murdered, drowned, strangled or otherwise lost to her. See child is dead

As well as reflecting our mental concerns, nightmares can be a sign that we are suffering from serious physical illness. Decoding the dream symbols in your nightmare may indicate the nature of your illness. However, it is worth bearing in mind that general poor mental health may result in a bad night’s sleep or a disturbed sleep pattern.

True Nightmares –

Grace, 40, an accountant says:

 Example: I have this dream frequently. It is about my two young sons. In the dream I am with them, standing near the edge of a balcony or at the edge of a bridge. As we stand together, one of my boys falls over the edge to his death. This usually happens because I have let go of his hand for a moment.

This nightmare is about change and moving on; although-apparently negative, the dream is telling Grace that she should to let go of both her sons as they become independent, a time she will face as early as nursery school. Grace’s nightmare is making her feel the shock of this and helping her move forward emotionally.

Carol, 60, retired says:

 Example: Years ago I lost my first husband at twenty nine. I had the same dream continually of being in a phone box trying to contact him not understanding why he had left me. He died of cancer. Later I remarried and this husband died of a heart attack. Once again the same dream came back so much.

While it may be painful, this dream tackles two important issues. Carol is trying to come to terms not only with the deaths and the feelings both husbands left her with. But she is also struggling to understand why this has happened, particularly twice. Here, the self-regulatory process in dreams attempts to resolve anything that is blocking a reasonably balanced response to life. It tries to find answers to conflicts, no matter how old, and to help us continue psychological growth. However, you should bring conscious attention to the issues raised: in the case of Carol, it is likely that the nightmare repeated because there were feelings about her husband she had not recognized. See dreaming about dead husband or ex

Symbols of nightmare and conflict

Depending upon the nature of your dreams, many dream symbols will have both positive and negative meanings for you. However, the symbols below will often represent an anxiety or conflict:

The Demon or phantom – The Monster – The Black Hole – The Haunted House – The withered or lightning struck tree – A Dark Shadowy figure or animal. See the feature on Nightmares.

What people meet who have  managed to break through their terrifying images and the apparently real images and events of the dream,  is they meet the cause and enter into direct personal insight. In other words the images of the nightmare give way to direct memories of past events that lay the foundation of feelings out of which the nightmare arose. For instance Robert Van de Castle writes that when he has helped people explore nightmares about a ghost, it has always led back to the childhood memory of a parent coming to the bedroom and lifting them or moving them to prevent bed wetting. See Being the Person or Thing; Our Dreaming Mind by Robert Van de Castle.

Such direct experiences also help us understand what happens when we fail to face the images of a nightmare, or in fact any other troubling fears and anxieties. We know from personal experience that they remain to haunt us. They continue to influence the way we deal with life, with opportunity, with relationships. It is this influence in the present arising out of the past that Eastern peoples call karma

Many dreams lead us to feel an intensity of emotion we may seldom if ever feel in waking life. If the emotions felt are frightening or disgusting we call the dream a nightmare.

Scientists find this definition too vague and so use two categories to define different types of anxiety dream. The first definition is ‘REM anxiety dreams’, and the second is ‘night terrors’. The REM anxiety dream is one that occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) activity, in other words during a normal dreaming period. These are reported to occur most frequently during the last part of the sleep cycle – that is, just prior to waking. One usually remembers the imagery and feelings of these dreams clearly. Night terrors occur during the first two hours of sleep, mostly in stage four sleep – See: science sleep and dreams – and the dreamer has either no recall of imagery at all, or it is a single impression such as a physical sensation of heaviness or difficulty in breathing. After waking from such a dream experience, the person feels disoriented for some time afterwards. See: night terrors; the first example in abreaction is an example of a nightmare.

One of the common features of a nightmare is that we are desperately trying to get away from a situation; feel stuck in a terrible condition; or meet fear or disgust in almost overwhelming degree, so that on waking we feel enormous relief it was just a dream. Because of the intensity of a nightmare we will remember it long after other dreams; remember even if we seldom ever recall other dreams. We may even worry about what it means for a long period of time, perhaps even years. Many people, on waking find the feelings, or sometimes even the imagery, continuing for some time. So for instance they may feel so much fear they have to switch all the lights on in the house.

As so many dreams have been investigated in depth – using such varied approaches as hypnosis, exploration of associations and emotional content, and LSD psychotherapy, in which the person can explore usually unconscious memories, imagery and feelings – we can be certain we know what nightmares are. They arise from many causes.

  1. Unconscious memories of intense emotions – such as those arising in a child being left in a hospital without its mother. Many people who have been trapped in an awful situation, whether that is a dreadful marriage, a political or war prisoner, or a life situation one yearned to get out of, frequently dream they are back in the situation unable to get out. 
  2. Intense anxiety produced – but not fully released at the time – by external situations such as involvement in war scenes; sexual assault – this applies to males as well as females, as males are frequently assaulted; medical surgery; being attacked and ones life threatened; involvement in a natural disaster such as flood or fire; car accident, etc. The nightmares of Vietnam veterans has been extensively studied for instance. Their nightmares closely parallel their actual combat experiences. 
  3. Robert Van de Castle reports a slightly different source of nightmares. This has to do with guilt or future threat. He gives the example of Czech refugees who escaped to Switzerland during the Cold War. They managed this by saying they were taking a holiday, that was allowed, but not returning. The penalty for non-return was several years imprisonment. When one hundred of these refugees were interviewed, fifty six percent said they dreamed about being back in what was then their Soviet dominated homeland and unable to escape. Apart from the possibility of guilt, this is the same as 1. 

Sometimes this form of nightmare shows itself as a terror of being discovered as the perpetrator of some awful crime such as a murder. See murder

  1. Childhood fears and trauma such as loss of parent; being lost or abandoned; fear of attack by stranger or parent; anxiety about own internal drives. These fears or trauma may arise from having experienced a difficult birth – See: the account of his nightmare given by Leon under active imagination; being put into hospital or some other form of separation from ones mother; or living continuously in an unloved condition. 
  2. Many nightmares in adults also have a similar source as those listed in number 4, namely fear connected with internal drives such as aggression, sexuality and the process of growth and change – such as a youth meeting the changes of adolescence, loss of sexual characteristics, old age and death. So this is fear of the future and imagined events. 
  3. Serious illness shown in the dream symbols.  
  4. Precognition of fateful events. 
  5. Possibly genetic influence in formation of character. Research has shown there is evidence that ones basic disposition is genetically determined. In a small percentage of people this means they are born with an anxious, shy characters that in our society often leads to depression. Other research, by Ernest Hartmann, determined that a small percentage of people had what Hartmann called ‘thin boundaries’. These people have a life long disposition towards frequent nightmares. It seems likely that the two pieces of research overlap. Perhaps Hartmann was not aware of the genetic research, though he does say there is perhaps a genetic basis for the tendency. But it should be understood that such difficulties are brought about by physical problems and are not the basic character of the person. See: night terrors. 
  6. Threats to self esteem. We may either be faced by, or fear, the loss of something important to us, such as the failure of our relationship, loss of a child, being seen as stupid at work, or not coping with life in a way others approve of, and feeling sexually inadequate. Many professional people I have spoken to report dreams in which they experience themselves involved in some sort of critical situation at work. For instance a regular radio presenters nightmare is they dream the equipment fails, the CD player refuses to work, or they miss their prompt. Sometimes a deep sense of inadequacy haunts a person. This may be in terms of their sexual performance, their physical attractiveness, but may not be based on such obvious factors. In some cases it is rooted in their general but unconscious assessment of themselves measured against others. This may arise out of a family attitude of inferiority, or something like premature birth, where the baby/child feels some steps behind others, or is led to feel so by an anxious parent. 
  7. Recurring nightmares – that is, those that happen again and again, weekly or even more frequently, and have the same basic plot. These are of course the same as ordinary nightmares. Their recurrence however is something to consider. See Recurring.

 Example of 1: I am a detective following clues regarding some sort of crime. They lead me in a large cellar, and within the cellar I come across the entrances of two tunnels. These are nearly the size of underground train tunnels, and are side by side leading away into pitch blackness. I decide to explore the tunnels and start to walk into one. I was overwhelmed by terror, as if the very darkness of the tunnel was a living force of fear that entered and consumed me. I screamed and screamed, writhing in uncontrollable fit like contractions. Nevertheless a part of me was observing what was happening and was amazed, realising I had found something of great importance. Andrew P.

Because Andrew explored this dream with me, I know the darkness was depicting fear he experienced while a 9 year old in hospital. He was given a rectal anaesthetic because he was about to have a nose operation. He fought and begged for the nurses to stop, but to no avail. This led to a very real feeling that humans were terrifyingly dangerous animals who would not respond even if you were on your knees begging. So trauma was the fear in the darkness.

 Example for 2: ‘A THING is marauding around the rather bleak, dark house I am in with a small boy. To avoid it I lock myself in a room with the boy. The THING finds the room and tries to break the door down. I frantically try to hold it closed with my hands and one foot pressed against it, my back against a wall for leverage. It was a terrible struggle and I woke myself by screaming.’ Terry F.

When Terry allowed the sense of fear to arise in him while awake, he felt as he did when a child – the boy in the dream – during the bombing of the second world war. His sense of insecurity dating from that time had emerged when he left a secure job, and had arisen in the images of the nightmare. Understanding his fears he was able to avoid their usual paralysing influence.

For example of 4 see third example in Doors under house and buildings.

 Example of 5: I was alone in a house and asleep in bed. Something materialised or landed on the foot of the bed. It woke me a little and I felt afraid. I had the feeling it was some sort of entity materialising and coming for me in some way. It moved up the bed a little. I felt paralysed, partly by fear but also as if the ‘thing’ was influencing me. This made me more afraid of it. Then it moved up higher, not on my body but on the bed. I was now very afraid and struggling against the paralysing influence. I managed to shout at it – I will destroy you. I will destroy you. As I shouted I pushed at it with my hand. This felt to me as if I were going to will its destruction and use my hand to smash it. I still felt a little uncertain of the outcome but I was very determined to fight it. At this point I woke up or was awakened by my wife. She asked me what I had been dreaming. Apparently I had been pushing her and shouting that I would destroy it. David P.

David explored his dream in depth and describes his insights as follows –

I started by considering the recent nightmare of the ‘thing’ at the foot of my bed. Gradually I began to feel tense throughout my body, with difficulty in breathing. The ‘thing’ seemed at first to be a woman’s vagina. There was a little feeling in this but not much. Then it slowly grew in intensity and I realised the ‘thing’ was death. Recently it is obvious from the mirror that my body is going through another period of rapid ageing. The dream was a dramatic representation of my feelings about this. Death was gradually creeping up on me, gradually overwhelming me and I was fighting it. As the session deepened I saw that in my feelings I felt that death had put its finger on me. The touch of death was like a disease though. Once touched the disease was incurable and gradually took over ones body. I could hardly breathe as I experienced this, and I understood the sort of emotions that might lie beneath asthma attacks. This struggle with death went on for some time. It was not terrible but was felt strongly. I also recognised that my wife Deb, has similar feelings about her ageing, and is communicating to me that her body is dying and unclean, especially her genitals, and this is off-putting. I see that when I shout ‘I will destroy you!’ in a way it is my fear of being destroyed that is behind the emotion.

I began to wonder what to do about the situation. The feeling was that death was claiming me. So I wanted to face the truth about death, whatever it was. I wanted to walk right up to it and look it in the face and know whether death meant a final end. If it did I would rather know. As I approached death like this by imaging walking toward the THING, my feelings went through an amazing transformation. All the tension left me and I could breath easily agaun. I felt good, positive and with a sense of hope about life and death. This was so surprising and sudden I wondered what had produced it. I needed to be aware of how this change had occurred. So I retraced my steps to look at death and try to understand why it had lost its power of fear.

At first I saw that my tension and sense of death being or giving a disease was due to a view I had of it. When we look at the world only through our senses, death is obviously a terminal sickness that claims everyone. Someone said on TV the other day – Life is a sexually transmitted disease that produces a 100% mortality. Seen in this way death is the rotting corpse, the skeleton. The path to it is disease or breakdown. But in looking it in the face I saw another view of it. I saw the dead body, the corpse, the skeleton, as a form left behind by the process of life. When I looked at myself to see what ‘David’ is – I cannot separate myself from the process of life. That process leaves behind shells, bodies, tree trunks, but it goes on creating other forms.

 Example of 6: ‘I dream night after night that a cat is gnawing at my throat’ Male from Landscapes of the Night, Coronet Books.

The dreamer had developing cancer of the throat. These physical illness dreams are not as common as the other classes of nightmare.

 Example of 7: My husband, a pilot in the RAF, had recently lost a friend in an air crash. He woke one morning very troubled – he is usually a very positive person. He told me he had dreamt his friend was flying a black jet, and wanted my husband to fly with him. Although a simple dream my husband could not shake off the dark feelings. Shortly afterwards his own jet went down and he was killed in the crash. Anon.

Understanding the causes of nightmares enable us to deal with them. The things we run from in the nightmare need to be met while we are awake. We can do this by sitting and imagining ourselves back in the dream and facing or meeting what we were frightened of. Terry imagined himself opening the door he was fighting to keep closed. In doing this and remaining quiet he could feel the childhood feelings arising. Once he recognised them for what they were, the terror went out of them. The reason this change can occur is that when the fearful emotions originated, it was at an age, or within a circumstance, during which there were not the concepts, security or viewpoint to meet and deal with the fears. If they cannot be met at the time, they are encapsulated in a way to push them out of consciousness, and surrounded with layers of anxiety or psychosomatic symptoms. As an adult we may have matured to the point where we can now meet these powerful emotions in a transformative way. The new confidence and concepts brought to the old experience are the transformative agents. Of course sufficient ego strength must be developed first in order to do this. We may have learned to meet our emotions and redirect them in a satisfying way. Therefore many people find strengthening dreams occurring first in their exploration of dream content. It is often only later they start meeting nightmares.

A young woman told me she had experienced a recurring nightmare of a piece of cloth touching her face. She would scream and scream and wake her family. One night her brother sat with her and made her meet those feelings depicted by the cloth. When she did so she realised it was her grandmother’s funeral shroud. She cried about the loss of her grandmother, felt her feelings about death, and was never troubled again by the nightmare. The techniques given in processing dreams and Being the Person or Thing will help in meeting such feelings.

What can be learned from these people’s experience, and that arising from clinical work dealing with people such as the Vietnam veterans mentioned, is that even the simple act of imagining ourselves back in the nightmare and facing the frightening thing, will begin the process of changing our relationship with our internal fears. It may be helpful to think of this as walking around a film set examining the parts of the drama, and watching what one experiences, or what memories arise. In this way the monster on the screen is seen to be made of fabricated material and invested with our own emotions. Understanding – the new concept of it – changes our relationship with it. See Eight Step Method to Manage Intense Emotion

Some people manage this transformative confrontation in the dream itself. Charlie, a man in his thirties who suffered a lot of anxiety, told me a dream in which he had been trapped in the basement of his home by a group of men belonging to a Mafia type organisation. They strapped him to a chair and were about to drill his teeth with a large power drill such as one drills metal with. Charlie managed to break free and grabbed the gun of one of the men. He then threw it down much to the astonishment of the men in the dream. When they asked him why he said – still in the dream – ‘All your power is imaginary. This organisation you belong to is all in your mind. I don’t need to be afraid of you.’ The threat then completely vanished and Charlie felt enormous pleasure.

What happened was that Charlie faced his fears and was realising how he is their creator. His own fearful imagination fills the world with threats that are not there. Not that the world is harmless, but one does not need to imagine fears. Thus Charlie related to his own emotions quite differently. Whenever we dream its images are not like real life, because a dream is nothing like outer life where things could hurt you, but is an image like on a cinema screen that even if a gun is pointed at you and fired it can do no damage – except if you run in fear. So all the things that scare you are simply your own fears projected onto the screen of your sleeping mind. See Summing Up

Apart from this in-depth meeting of ones feelings, a very powerful healing factor is to be able to talk over the nightmare and the feelings it engenders with someone else. The person who listens can be a trained counsellor, but does not have to be. The main thing is they need to be able to listen without judgement, and with intelligent but not intrusive questioning. See: peer group work. Many have been helped to move on from seriously disturbing nightmares by discussing them with other sufferers in a group specially formed for this function.

For nightmares such as those dealing with illness or prediction of a future fateful event, a slightly different approach is needed. At first encounter the dreamer may well feel there is little that can be done about these dreams. But experience collected from many people suggests this is not so. Taking the dreams about physical illness, these are often very direct. Perhaps the dreamer looks at an area of their body and sees its sickness; an animal may be gnawing some part of themselves, as in the example; there may be repeated dreams of extreme heat, volcanoes or fire.

Bernard Seigal the American surgeon, always asked his patients what they dreamt. The reason being dreams often diagnosed illness long before he could hope to find it with x-rays or scans. Such dreams were not therefore always to be thought of as messengers of doom, merely as messengers giving information about what is happening in the body and its link with the mind. In writing about his work, Seigal explains many ways people can positively change their physical condition by honouring their own healing potential. Of course work with a sympathetic doctor. Have your condition checked. But do not fail to meet the factors in your dreams. Death is of course eventually inevitable, but as David shows in the example above, we need not meet it in terror.

Regarding the dreams of apparent prophetic doom, even these need to be seen as having the possibility of wonderful messengers warning us, rather than of a certified and final event. A fire alarm does not mean the building has burnt down, it means look out and hurry, otherwise the building might burn down. We have a built in warning system that tells us of all manner of crisis that might arise if we continue in the direction we are taking. This is everyday common sense and all of us meet it in day to day living. For instance if we walk to a busy road we look to see if the lights are right for us to cross, otherwise we might get killed. Dreams are just such warnings. If we deny them a place in our life, they may only be able to break through our resistance to knowing the consequences of our actions at a very late stage.

Acute analysis of the human situation does not portray human life as a pre-destined journey through unalterable events. Movement and stability jostle and change positions constantly. Of course our body and disposition are formed by factors already in place at out birth, such as a genetic heritage and the culture and circumstances we are born into. But mixed with this are the fear or courage we live by, the dullness or creativity we dare to exhibit. We can therefore, by shifting the way we are relating to the world around us and the people and creatures in it, shift what is emerging from the whole mass of interactions that becomes our future.

All dreams are attempts on the part of our being to move toward wholeness and equilibrium. At times this may necessitate disturbance, just as vomiting does when the body discharges poisonous food. Nevertheless, difficult dreams are a way of bringing attention to areas of our experience we may be neglecting to look at, or even powerfully refusing to see. The shock of the dream is therefore more to do with the strength of our repression of the insight it brings. So prophetic dreams give us warning of events enabling us to either avoid what is portrayed, or be ready for it. Unfortunately many people simply bow their heads or react in a fearful way rather than take such dreams as usable information. See Life’s Little Secrets

In older traditions of psychology such as occultism, yoga and Buddhism, nightmares are viewed as the meeting with ones innate tendencies or karma. In occultism a name is given to this meeting. It is called The Guardian of the Threshold. See: occultism and dreams; precognition dreams; nightmares; nightmares abstract; night terrors.

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