Running Scared: It Won't Stop Your Nightmares
I've been having the same dream as long as I can remember.
I'm walking down a busy city street at midday. All of a sudden, the sun disappears and I'm all alone. I can't see anyone, but I know someone's following me. I try to run, but my feet stick to the ground. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. I know he's going to get me. I can feel it. I'm helpless and terrified.
A Distressing Dream
A nightmare is a very distressing or frightening dream that usually forces at least partial awakening. The dreamer may feel any number of disturbing emotions in a nightmare, such as anger, guilt, sadness, or depression, but the most common feelings are fear and anxiety. Nightmare themes vary widely from person to person and from time to time for any one person, but the most common theme is being chased. Adults are commonly chased by an unknown male figure, whereas children are usually being chased by an animal or a fantasy figure.
Nightmares and Night Terrors
Nightmares are very different from night terrors.
- Nightmares tend to occur after several hours of sleep and are rarely accompanied by screaming or moving. The dream is usually elaborate and intense, and the dreamer realizes soon after waking that he's had a dream.
- Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during the first hour or two of sleep and are often accompanied by loud screaming and thrashing about. The sleeper is hard to awaken and usually remembers no more than an overwhelming feeling or a single scene, if anything. Children who have night terrors also have a tendency to sleepwalk and/or wet their beds.
Your Very Own Nightmare
In previous times, nightmares were considered to be signs of devil or demon possession, or a mark of evil. Despite their bad reputation, nightmares are no different from other dreams. In fact, what constitutes a "nightmare" varies from person to person, and from dream to dream.
The meaning of dreams is largely symbolic and contextual, so what's frightening for one person can be harmless—or even funny—for another. "Anything that's scary is considered a nightmare, but it's still [only] a dream," says psychoanalyst Lauren Lawrence, author of several books on dreams, including Dream Keys to the Future.
A Sign of Anxiety
Ernest Hartmann, MD, is author of Dreams and Nightmares: The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams, professor of psychiatry at Tufts University and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts. He says that what's happening chemically and neurologically in the dreamer's body is the same as what occurs during more pleasant dreams. "Nightmares are just long, anxiety-provoking dreams," he says. "Almost everyone has an occasional nightmare."
Lawrence would likely put the number even higher, as anxiety themes represent one of the largest categories of dreams. From cinematic violence with dropping bombs and exploding buildings, to being chased by unseen evil, to showing up at school and being faced with an exam you didn't study for, anxiety nightmares, says Lawrence, are messages from your unconscious regarding some unresolved conflict or trauma in your waking life.
A Chance for Resolution
"To me, all dreams are good. The more ferocious or terrifying a dream is, the better it is because it teaches you something," says Lawrence. She explains that by striving to decode the messages in your nightmare, you can uncover areas in your conscious life that may need attention. Then, by addressing those areas, you can "banish" the nightmare. "The problem is not the dream," she says. "Fix the life problem and the dream won't come back."
Dr. Hartmann has a similar view. He believes that unresolved emotional issues in the conscious life—even dating back to childhood—can result in dreams. In his book, he explains, "If we speak in terms of problem solving, we dream about problems that have not been adequately solved—solved in a total or emotional sense." When an issue is worked out and understood, it ceases to make a major appearance in our nightmares.
Dr. Hartmann tells the stories of three separate women who had recurring nightmares of violence, though their everyday lives were relatively peaceful and normal. After working with the women individually, he discovered that all three had had abortions in their pasts, about which they still had conflicting feelings. After making a link between their unresolved emotions and their current dreams, two of the three experienced a reduction in the recurrence of the violent nightmares.
Ways to Find Meaning
There are several ways people can work out the meaning of their nightmares.
Keeping a Dream Log
Lawrence says the first step is to keep a dream log, where each night's episodes are duly recorded. Keep a notebook and pen next to your bed. In the morning, immediately upon waking, without opening your eyes or moving around, ask yourself what you were just thinking about. By staying as close to your dream state as possible, you'll more easily recall your thoughts. Then write it down for later examination.
Helping Children Understand Dreams
It's a bit more challenging helping children to deal with their nightmares. With appropriate encouragement, many young children are able to discuss their nightmares with their parents or other adults, and will generally not require any other intervention. If a child is suffering from recurrent or very disturbing nightmares, a therapist's expertise may be required. The therapist may have the child draw the nightmare, talk with the frightening characters, or fantasize changes in the nightmare in order to help the child feel safer and less frightened.
Using Dream Analysis Books
Though you can turn to experts for assistance in interpreting your images, the most effective strategy is to work on decoding the symbols yourself. While there are many "dictionaries" that claim to give you the absolute meaning of the symbols in your dreams, these books are of limited use. "Most of those books are nonsense," says Dr. Hartmann. "Your dreams are useful if you're willing to look at them yourself."
Look for books that give suggestions regarding the general themes of dreams, rather than those that claim to be the definitive guide to dream analysis. These books often interpret specific dreams but only as examples; your own meaning for an identical dream would likely differ greatly. "It has to be looked at in that light of [the dreamer] being writer, director, actor and producer," says Lawrence. "Basically, it's all about you."
Lawrence believes that although there are certain universal symbols and themes, dreams and nightmares are extremely personal. "One symbol for you can be emotionally loaded, while for someone else it isn't," she says. You'll need to take actions and objects in your dream in context, rather than at face value, examining what meaning different situations hold, and what kinds of emotions they bring up for you. "It's really a very creative process," she explains.
National Center on Sleep Disorders Research
National Sleep Foundation
The Canadian Sleep Society
Better Sleep Council Canada
Hartmann E. Dreams and Nightmares: The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams. Perseus Books; 1998.
International Association for the Study of Dreams website. Available at: http://www.asdreams.org.
Lawrence L. Dream Keys: Unlocking the Power of Your Unconscious Mind. Dell Publishing; 1999.
Lawrence L. Dream Keys to the Future: Unlocking the Secrets of Your Destiny. Dell Publishing; 2000.
National Sleep Foundation website. Available at: http://www.sleepfoundation.org.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
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