Nightmares, Bad Dreams and Night Terrors
Nightmares are training films for Spiritual warriors
Whenever any dream is remembered, it is an indication that the waking mind has a creative, transformative role to play in the evolution of whatever issue the dream is presenting. For millions of years, the ability to pay immediate and focused attention to nasty, threatening stuff has been a primary survival test. The creatures who pay effective attention to threats tend to survive, and the ones who don’t tend not to survive. In this way, we have been shaped by natural selection to be inherently predisposed to pay attention to ugly, scary, and menacing experiences.
Why nightmares and night terrors are good
As a consequence, when the deep source within (from which all dreams spring, spontaneously and unbidden) has potentially important information to convey to the waking consciousness, it is very likely to dress that material up in the form of a “nightmare,” simply to get our attention.
This leads to one of the most ironic general principles of dream work: the more horrifying and distressing the dream experience, the greater the potential gift of increased understanding and creative energy the dream has to offer.
We usually call such dreams “nightmares.” The generic message of any nightmare is: Wake up. Pay attention. There is a survival issue being brought to your attention here!
Sometimes the “survival issues” raised by nightmares are related to actual physical health. Most often, however, the nightmare is trying to draw attention to questions of emotional and spiritual authenticity in the dreamer’s life
Why we remember nightmares
In my experience, all dreams (and particularly nightmares) come in the service of health and wholeness. This means that no dream, no matter how distressing or menacing, ever came to anyone to say, “Nyah, nyah, you’ve got these problems and you can’t do anything about them!”
The very fact that a dream is remembered in the first place means that the dreamer actually has at his or her disposal all the courage, creativity, strength, and wisdom necessary to respond creatively and transformatively to even the worst “problem” that the dream presents. (If the dreamer were not in possession of all the energies required for positive, creative, transformative response, the dream would simply not be remembered.)
This is true not only at the level of individual, psychospiritual health and wholeness, but at the level of world society, culture, and collective human struggle as well. Ironically, for this reason I take heart every time I have (or hear about) a dream that involves large, planet-wide problems like destruction of the environment, plague, military conflict, or other massive disruption of society.
The fact that we remember such dreams suggests that we are able to respond creatively and effectively to these problems, in the same fashion that dreams addressing seemingly “insoluble” personal problems always indicate our ability to deal with those problems. Nightmares may also provide symbolic suggestions and specific creative inspirations, provided we have the wit and wisdom to pay attention. Historical Nightmares
However, in some cases the specific creative possibilities proposed by the dream are even more challenging than our immediate experience of the problems themselves. Among these challenging dreams are the really terrible nightmares I call “worst case dreams.”
Hindu and Buddhist dream workers have understood for centuries that these worst case dreams are deeply associated with the dreamer’s effective spiritual development. It is interesting to note that John Newton, the composer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” was converted to Christianity and transformed into an ardent antislavery activist by just such a nightmare: He dreamed of seeing “all of Europe consumed in a great raging fire” while he was the captain of a slave ship.
Dreams, nightmares and spiritual development
One reason why such distressing dream experiences regularly come to people who are deeply engaged in their own spiritual development, or those working in the world to relieve the sufferings of others, is that the only place where evil can truly be faced and overcome is within.
This means that people who are sincerely engaged in trying to make the world a better place must face and overcome this order of evil if they are to succeed. The more sincere and effective one’s spiritual development and one’s reconciling work in the world, the more likely it is that one will have worst case dreams of this archetypal order.
In that sense, the worst case dreams are little “training films” for the spiritual warrior. Another way of looking at such dreams is that they are “rescue missions” undertaken by the dreaming psyche in the as-yet-unredeemed depths of the archetypal Shadow and the Inchoate Potential in the collective unconscious.
The magic mirror that never lies
Initially, it always seems as though the most difficult task faced by the dreamer is to look into the “magic mirror that never lies” and take more responsibility for the symbolic reflections of our weaknesses and failures. However, over time, it becomes clear that an even more challenging task is to acknowledge the size and scope of our creative gifts and our ability to transform ourselves and our world.
The worst case dream calls upon the dreamer not only to see and accept the depths of depravity that reside in every human psyche, but even more importantly, to become more conscious of and responsible for our ability to face, overcome, and give transformative, creative, and spiritual expression to those archetypal shadow energies.
What is a nightmare?
A nightmare is a very distressing dream which 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 may vary widely from person to person and from time to time for any one person. Probably the most common theme is being chased. Adults are commonly chased by an unknown male figure whereas children are commonly chased by an animal or some fantasy figure.
Who has nightmares?
Just about everyone has them at one time or another. The majority of children have nightmares between the ages of three or four and seven or eight. These nightmares appear to be a part of normal development, and do not generally signal unusual problems. Nightmares are less common in adults, though studies have shown that they too may have nightmares from time to time. About 5-lO% have nightmares once a month or more frequently.
What causes nightmares?
There are a number of possibilities. Some nightmares can be caused by certain drugs or medications, or by rapid withdrawal from them, or by physical conditions such as illness and fever. The nightmares of early childhood likely reflect the struggle to learn to deal with normal childhood fears and problems.
Many people experience nightmares after they have suffered a traumatic event, such as surgery, the loss of a loved one, an assault or a severe accident. The nightmares of combat veterans fall into this category. The content of these nightmares is typically directly related to the traumatic event and the nightmares often occur over and over.
Other people experience nightmares when they are undergoing stress in their waking lives, such as difficulty or change on the job or with a loved one, moving, pregnancy, financial concerns, etc. Finally, some people experience frequent nightmares that seem unrelated to their waking lives. These people tend to be more creative, sensitive, trusting and emotional than average.
What can be done about nightmares?
It really depends on the source of the nightmare. To rule out drugs, medications or illness as a cause, discussion with a physician is recommended. It is useful to encourage young children to discuss their nightmares with their parents or other adults, but they generally do not need treatment. If a child is suffering from recurrent or very disturbing nightmares, the aid of a therapist 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 help the child feel safer and less frightened .
The nightmares which repeat a traumatic event reflect a normal psychic healing process, and will diminish in frequency and intensity if recovery is progressing. If after several weeks no change is noted, consultation with a therapist is advisable.
Adults’ nightmares offer the same opportunity as other dreams for self-exploration and understanding. With practice, the dreamer can often learn to decode the visual and symbolic language of the dream and to see relationships between the dream and waking life.
The nightmare by nature is distressing, however, and the dreamer may need to reduce the distress before looking more closely at the meaning of the dream. Some techniques for reducing the distress of the nightmare include writing it down, drawing or painting it, talking in fantasy to the characters, imaging a more pleasant ending, or simply reciting it over several times.
The more relaxed the dreamer can be while using these techniques the better. A number of good books are available for learning how to understand dreams. Alternately, the dreamer may wish to ask a therapist for assistance.
Sometimes nightmares are related to intense stress or emotional conflict that is best dealt with in consultation with a therapist. One should not hesitate to consult a therapist when in doubt.
It may be surprising to learn that many people are not really disturbed by their nightmares, even though the experiences themselves are distressing. Research has shown that about half of people who have quite frequent nightmares regard them as fascinating and creative acts of their minds, and either view them as very interesting or dismiss them as “just dreams”. This illustrates the fact that one’s attitude toward nightmares is quite important.
What about nightmares and night terrors?
Night terrors are something quite different. Nightmares tend to occur after several hours of sleep, screaming or moving about is very uncommon, the dream is usually elaborate and intense, and the dreamer realizes soon after wakening that he or she has had a dream.
Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during the first hour or two of sleep, loud screaming and thrashing about are common, the sleeper is hard to awaken and usually remembers no more than an overwhelming feeling or a single scene, if anything.
Nightmares and night terrors arise from different physiological stages of sleep. Children who have night terrors also may have a tendency to sleepwalk and/or urinate in bed. The causes of night terrors are not well understood.
Children usually stop having them by puberty. They may be associated with stress in adults. A consultation with a physician may be useful if the night terrors are frequent or especially disturbing.
What is the technical definition of a nightmare?
Nightmares are frightening dreams that usually awaken the sleeper from REM sleep. Nightmares have sometimes been referred to as dream anxiety attack, terrifying dream or REM nightmare.
Nightmare is the preferred term and has been widely used to describe this condition for many years in the pediatric and adult literature. The reason the other terms have been suggested is to differentiate this phenomenon from sleep terrors (sometimes called stage 4 nightmares) on the assumption that nightmare was an overall lay term that covered the stage 4 as well as the REM sleep event. However, it is preferable to use the term nightmares for the REM phenomena, as they differ radically from sleep terrors.
What are the symptoms of a nightmare?
- At least one episode of sudden awakening from sleep with intense fear, anxiety and feeling of impending harm
- Immediate recall of the frightening dream
- Alertness is full immediately upon waking with little confusion or disorientation
- Return to sleep after the episode is delayed and not rapid
- The episodes occur during the later half of the sleep period
- An abrupt awakening after at least 10 minutes of REM sleep
- Mild tachycardia (rapid heart beat) and tachypnea (rapid breathing) during the episode
- Absence of epileptic activity in association with the disorder
- Other sleep disorders such as sleep terrors and sleepwalking can occur
People who have night terrors are often misdiagnosed. The most common one is a simple nightmare. Any of you who have had a night terror can say they aren’t even close! Another common misdiagnosis (especially among veterans) is PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For this reason I have included a description of the difference between nightmares and night terrors.
Night terrors symptoms
Sudden awakening from sleep, persistent fear or terror that occurs at night, screaming, sweating, confusion, rapid heart rate, inability to explain what happened, usually no recall of “bad dreams” or nightmares, may have a vague sense of frightening images. Many people see spiders, snakes, animals or people in the room, are unable to fully awake, difficult to comfort, with no memory of the event on awakening the next day.
Night terror or nightmare?
Nightmares occur during the dream phase of sleep known as REM sleep. Most people enter the REM stage of sleep sometime after 90 minutes of sleep. The circumstances of the nightmare will frighten the sleeper, who usually will wake up with a vivid memory of a long movie-like dream.
Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during a phase of deep non-REM sleep usually within an hour after the subject goes to bed. This is also known as stage 4. (A link to a sleep stages chart can be found on the navigation bar to the left) During a night terror, which may last anywhere from five to twenty minutes, the person is still asleep, although the sleepers eyes may be open.
When the subject does wake up, they usually have no recollection of the episode other than a sense of fear. This, however, is not always the case. Quite a few people interviewed can remember portions of the night terror, and some remember the whole thing.
Haven’t slept for days? Need help getting rid of your nightmares and bad dreams? Ask a dream interpreter. They will let you know how they can best help you to stop your bad dreams once and for all.