WHY A DREAM TURNS INTO A NIGHTMARE. Most nightmares are simply mirrors of your internal fears and anxieties. Paradoxically, as the following reasons explain, it is those very fears and anxieties that “flip” a dream that is otherwise benign into a nightmare.
Think of a dream as a carriage transporting a needed insight about an important problem; the carriage is merely a vehicle for the helpful message. However, the topic of the dream terrifies you. The topic could be about a failing relationship or a career that is falling apart. Because of your terror, as you watch the carriage approach, the shadows of your fears make the carriage look scary. You do not notice the carriage is driven by your psyche, who approaches as a friend and just wants to help.
One way of coping with an anxiety or fear is to distance yourself from it—to push it away. This is a normal reaction. Yet the very act of distancing yourself from a scary topic that a dream may address is what “transforms” a normal dream image into a scary one. It is like a tasty dish that curdles, and your fear curdles the dream dish.
THERE ARE ONLY FRIGHTENED DREAMERS. Though it is natural to run from what scares you, the very act of doing so is what often creates a nightmare. That is why one way of looking at most nightmares is to say, “There are no scary dreams—only frightened dreamers.” If we could put aside all of our fears, there would be few nightmares or frightening dreams.
WHAT CAUSES NIGHTMARES. Mild to severe stress tends to be the main underlying cause of most frightening dreams.
• Daily Stress. Daily stress that ramps up your feelings is the most common reason behind a nightmare.
• Out-of-Control Fear and Anxiety. Like a wheel spinning out of control, negative emotions can unbalance your perceptions and lead to nightmares.
• Emotional Dissonance. The daily push-pull between competing feelings or choices is called “emotional dissonance.” If making a choice feels so unpalatable and impossible that no choice seems right, the pressure can drive you to the edge. This form of extreme anxiety, related to difficult or impossible choices, often invites nightmares.
• Physical or Mental Imbalance. Conditions like fever or depression can produce bad dreams. When the condition passes, the nightmares may disappear.
• Traumatic Events. Repeated bad dreams can happen after a painful event that leaves you feeling vulnerable, such as losing a loved one or the loss of a home after a natural disaster. As the psyche tries to digest the pain, the mind may replay the event as a nightmare. Such dreams are the psyche’s attempt to digest the painful feelings while you sleep. As a person heals and increases their coping skills, the bad dreams lessen and eventually disappear.
• The Nightmares of Those with an Artistic or Sensitive Temperament. Highly sensitive and creative individuals tune in more deeply to the world’s pain and suffering, and as a result, they often report nightmares. A man at a seminar shared his constant nightmares about war scenes and mangled bodies, even though he lived a normal life and worked as a bus driver. Digging deeper, he began to see that he was tuning in to the daily pain that he saw on the faces of his passengers. Witnessing their distress gave his sensitive heart emotional indigestion, which he experienced as frequent nightmares.
• Traumatic Stress. Those with a medical condition called post-traumatic stress disorder, such as combat veterans or rape victims, can have nightmares that are different in content and structure to regular nightmares. Experiencing extreme forms of trauma can produce nightmares that are more severe and that disrupt sleep cycles, which regular nightmares do not. While researching the nightmares of combat veterans, I created presleep stories as a sleep aid that attempts to restore the normal sleep cycles of combat veterans; details are available at InterpretADream.com.
NIGHTMARES: THREE TYPES
Like other dreams, nightmares can be distinguished by their origin and purpose. The most common nightmares engage your struggle to grow in character and personality. A few bad dreams deal with specific life fears, and fewer still predict actual tragic events.
1: The Most Common Type of Nightmare
A NIGHTMARE THAT UNVEILS A NEGATIVE CHARACTER TRAIT. Facing an unpleasant truth about yourself is never easy. Everyone glosses over shortcomings like anger, acting stupid, or failing at something, and no one wants to face a weakness. As a result, when a dream holds up a mirror about a trait that does not jive with your “I am great” image, your normal reaction is to say, “That can’t be me.” In colloquial terms, such nightmares expose your blind spots, which is an unpleasant experience for everyone.
For example, a man had a nightmare about a raging bull charging through his grocery store and wondered if the dream was a warning that vandals would soon raid his premises. Since most dreams are about you—the dreamer, he came to see that the bull was a metaphor for his short temper when dealing with employees. Seeing himself as an out-of-control bull was not easy, but the image produced the desired effect. The man softened his attitude and as a result, the atmosphere at the grocery store became more relaxed and as a bonus, his sales improved.
When a nightmare acts as a mirror of a not-so-great trait, it invites you to grow into a better version of yourself. After an initial “ouch,” you realize that the dream is an ally, helping you correct what could cause problems down the road.
2: A Scary Dream That You Meet Less Often
FRIGHTENING DREAMS THAT PORTRAY ACTUAL, SPECIFIC FEARS. One of the functions of dreaming is to process your emotions. When a fear gets out of hand, a nightmare that relates to that fear is the equivalent of a pressure cooker’s safety valve that allows the hot steam to escape. In this case, the experience of having the nightmare, in and of itself, becomes an outlet for your exploding feelings.
Acting like an emotional digestion system, fear-processing nightmares let you experience a fear as an external picture that your mind can examine and label. A “see it, name it, and label it” nightmare helps you digest your fear, and as a result, whatever tied you up in knots begins to unravel. Such nightmares handle actual fears, one piece at a time, until they disappear. You may encounter a sequence of nightmares during a time of enormous challenge such as a divorce or the sudden loss of a loved one. Then one day, a morning arrives when you feel a sense of peace. You do not know why you feel better, but you know you have turned a corner. Your dream digestion system—that you experienced as nightmares—has done its work.
Nightmares that deal with true fears come with a bonus. A bad dream that relates to a painful issue can include an insight about how to handle what frightens you. A woman kept dreaming of a terrified young girl who walks to the edge of a murky black pond in the middle of the night. As she is about to fall into the deep black water, she sees a light in the distance and becomes aware that the light can lead her to safety. Upon discussion, those images brought back memories of the dreamer’s terror of being raped as a young girl. The light in the distance made her realize that she could resolve the unexpressed pain that had been festering for years. Thanks to the dream’s metaphor of a distant light as a place of safety, the dreamer became aware that she needed a counselor who could help her confront the emotional leftovers of her childhood trauma.
3: Actual Warnings—A Rare Type of Frightening Dream
FRIGHTENING DREAMS AS TRUE WARNINGS. Most scary dreams are stress-related, a few may tussle with your actual fears, while a miniscule percent can be actual warnings about something dire. Nightmares can warn you about the possibility of a real tragedy that may involve death, serious illness, or a natural disaster—whether in your life, someone around you, or in your community. Or sometimes they are warnings about less serious matters.
LESS URGENT, YET TRUE WARNING DREAMS. Before examining frightening dreams that are dire warnings, let’s take a look at dreams that address issues which are not life threatening, yet still urgent. For example, a dream may give you a heads up about how your words hurtfully impacted another’s feelings that you missed, and as a painful issue, it becomes cloaked in scary images. Or, a dream may point out what will happen if you keep eating three desserts a day; seeing what you look like in a dream, with an extra fifty pounds on you, can be pretty scary. Or, a frightening dream may point out a topic such as an unpleasant relationship, that you have put on hold, which now needs attention. Because these less urgent issues deal with topics that make you anxious, the warning dream can still be experienced as a nightmare. Such not-so-dire warning dreams touch upon intense topics that are not life threatening, but can still intensely shake you up.
DREAM EXAMPLE: A FRIGHTENING DREAM ABOUT A NORMAL ISSUE—MY DAUGHTER IS IN A CAR CRASH. A mother dreamed that her daughter was in a car crash, and from a distance, she watched as her child was taken to the hospital. Afterward, a doctor announced that her daughter was okay. The dream felt so intense that the mother woke up terrified, fearing for her daughter’s safety. The mother brought up her dream at a conference. A conversation brought out how, at the time of the dream, her only daughter announced that she was about to relocate because her new husband had been transferred to a job a thousand miles away. Since mom and daughter had never lived more than a few streets apart, the mother experienced a nightmare that registered her shock and distress at the news. Nothing terrible had happened. The nightmare simply registered the mother’s reaction to the sudden, unexpected news of being separated from her daughter.
A TRUE WARNING NIGHTMARE ABOUT A POTENTIAL TRAGEDY. Though extremely rare, a nightmare can be a warning about an actual tragedy as a type of ESP dream, as in the following example.
DREAM EXAMPLE: A NIGHTMARE AS A TRUE WARNING—MY DAUGHTER IS IN A CAR CRASH. Another mother had several dreams that showed her only teenage daughter getting into a car with friends, then seeing the car in a deadly crash. Each time she had the dream, she debated whether to talk to her daughter about safe driving with her teenage friends but decided against it. Sadly, the repetitive dreams turned out to be an actual warning and she lost her only daughter. Meeting this woman at a seminar, I marveled at the grace with which the mother had resolved to learn about dreams, and to use future warnings for herself and loved ones. That took great courage.
Only the divine hand can know whether a tragedy foreshadowed in a dream can be averted. However, no matter how a predicted event turns out, such actual warning nightmares serve a constructive purpose. On the one hand, they give a dreamer time to build up their strength and cushion the shock of the actual event, if it comes about. On the other hand, according to stories exchanged in dream circles, such warning dreams can, at times, avert the real danger.
True dream warnings about dire events are extremely rare. They have noticeable features like repetition, intense emotions and literal details.
For more examples of nightmares and frightening dreams of every kind, have a look at the e-library of dreams at InterpretADream.com which is searchable by keyword.