Articles Understanding Nightmares

Modern researchers claim a definite relationship between our mental and emotional problems, our nightmares and state of physical health.

Nightmares manifest in various forms.

I spoke to a lady who at the time was going through a divorce. She shared a dream in which she was being chased by a tornado. As in her case, feeling overwhelmed by difficult circumstances can often trigger nightmares.

I remember during a difficult time in my own life, I dreamed of a set of large tidal waves approaching from the horizon. In the dream I found myself about twenty metres out from the beach. I was sitting on top of a huge rock and holding on, waiting for the inevitable catastrophe. In my dream I was filled with panic and an utter sense of hopelessness. That dream was an accurate description of how I felt with what I was going through in my waking life. Indeed, I felt despair and hopelessness.

I explore this idea further in my book In Your Dreams.

Nightmares seem most likely to surface during times of great anxiety. Perhaps a person feels trapped in their job, marriage, or caught between a rock and a hard place.

On one occasion when I was speaking on the subject of dreams in a high school, a young man approached me with a concern. He told me about a disturbing recurring dream where he would be running around in the nude, trying to find a place to hide. Apparently the dream ceased when he’d moved to another school. In the new situation he discovered the students were friendlier towards him than the old school. Previously he’d felt victimised. Students had bullied him, ostracized and intimidated him. The nude dream was simply a reflection of his feeling vulnerable and humiliated.

Many nightmares originate in fears we might harbour—the fear of failure or a fear of being caught doing something wrong are examples.

A young Catholic lady shared her dream with me. She’d recently slept with her boyfriend, going against her religious upbringing. The following night she dreamed she was falling. Falling from grace would be an appropriate theme in that dream.

There are other fears we might be confronted with, such as the fear of being manipulated and controlled by an authority figure. The authority may be your boss, a parent or school teacher.

I recall speaking to a lady who, for some thirty years, would constantly dream of a dark shadowy figure standing close to her.

I asked her if she had any idea what this might mean. She said the dark figure represented her father who walked out on the family when she was about five years old. She knew that one day she would have to confront him about how she felt towards him. When she was in her mid-thirties she tracked him down. During a lunch meeting she finally came face to face with him. The meeting went well and the lady was able to deal with her grief and confusion that had plagued her for thirty years. From that moment on, the recurring dream ceased.

Sometimes a recurring nightmare will cease simply by confronting certain fears we have in our lives. It is helpful to identify the source of those things threatening your peace of mind. There are a number of questions you can ask yourself: What is it you are afraid of? Do you feel pressured to do something you don’t want to? Is there someone or something you are reluctant to confront? Is there something about yourself that you dislike—something that you have failed to address? Have you experienced a recent trauma?

It is not uncommon for nightmares to happen following a significant loss in your life-the death of a loved one, a loss of job or a relationship break up all register as significant loss.

I remember a lady sharing she dreamed two men digging a grave.

When she spoke to me about her life circumstances at the time of the dream, it turned out she was in her second marriage and feared her current husband would be no different to her first.

Children seem to experience more nightmares than adults. It is likely they are processing more fears as they are growing through new and unfamiliar situations. When children dream of a monster, perhaps they are feeling threatened and insecure around someone.

One mother asked if I might speak with her regarding her son who had been having a recurring dream.

The 11 year old boy regularly dreams he is standing alone while a lion steadily circles him. He feels very uncomfortable in the dream.

After asking a few questions I discovered the lady had recently divorced her husband, a man who had violent tendencies. It was apparent the lion represented the boy’s father as the dream seemed to happen when he was staying at his father’s place.  The uncomfortable feeling was an expression of his anxiety about his father’s volatile nature.

Children can experience intimidations from any number of sources, including school friends, relatives, strangers, neighbours or even teachers. When a nightmare manifests, the key to understanding is to identify the source of insecurity, whether it be a threat, discomfort or fear. Often when the problem is brought into the open, discussed and  if necessary, counselling sought, the nightmare will stop.

For further discussion on this area see the article on ‘Children’s Dreams.