It happened to you again. You fell asleep seeking restorative sleep only to be jolted awake by a nightmare. Now must get your bearings, mindfully slow your breathing and mop up your sweat. What is the purpose of a nightmare you might mutter as you try to get yourself back asleep? Nightmares often fall into two groups. A trauma related nightmare is your psyche’s way of healing from profound pain. A generalized nightmare is your mind’s way of processing an unpleasant stimulus, typically from a movie, show, image or thought you encountered recently.
Psychologists categorize nightmares as a ‘terrifying dream.’ It is common for children to have generalized nightmares and then outgrow them. Adults that endure repeated nightmares should investigate the symbolism in these dreams to best understand the underlying traits that make these dreams ‘terrifying.’ Read some of our common core traits below and see how you can address them in personal and professional settings to get you the quality rest you deserve.
- Anxiety: Most frequently nightmares are brought on when you feel unsure of your worth or place in the world. Work with a therapist and meditation to tap into Inner Wisdom to help you accept yourself as you are and to create meaningful steps to help you attain the life you desire.
- Lucid Dreams: Nightmares can often feel more intense and vibrant than a regular dream. Because of the disturbing nature it can rouse from a deep slumber, causing you to remember it in greater detail. Use the minutes after waking from a dream to journal as much as you remember. When you are ready to face the day read what you wrote to dive into the symbolism and its application on your life. It may just uncover some key life lesson you need to further explore in order to heal or become more enlightened.
If you have a generalized nightmare, it may feel like a fully-engrossing story. There is a clear, yet fantastical narrative. You may feel like a creature is chasing after you, or you lose a body part, or have a supernatural gift. These dreams occur during your REM cycle. When you awake and get your bearings, you most likely feel relieved that you are safe at home. You may either be disturbed or intrigued by the detailed story your mind has woven together for you. Use a dream journal to record these stories and reflect on them during the daytime to gain greater insight into your stress triggers, fears or shadow desires. If you are creative, you can incorporate these dreams into your next story, song, or art piece.
If you are a trauma victim, your nightmares might be far more personal and distressing to you. In your dreams you probably find yourself reliving your real-life horror(s) repeatedly. Even if your traumatic events don’t arise directly in your dream, you powerful feelings and emotions surely will. This means waking from a nightmare is far more complex. You might wake up shouting, sweating, crying or shaking. This means it will take longer for you to reorient to your room. Traumatic nightmare unfortunately can occur at any stage in the sleep cycle, similar to how one may have “flashbacks” during the day.
A successful type of treatment for trauma nightmares is Imagery Rehearsal Therapy. In this process you develop a ‘mastery dream,” which enables the victim to change the dream in a positive way. For example, someone who was robbed at knife-point could finally be able to safely escape their attacker, or perhaps in the dream the knife was rubber and the victim was able to slap it out of the attacker’s hand and watched it bounce off the nearby brick wall. Ultimately, in both case the victim doesn’t get hurt and therefore is no longer a “victim.” By using this practice, a person can be able to discuss their “dream” with a therapist or trusted confidante, without the risk of being triggered and creating powerful steps towards healing.
Tips to Understand Your Nightmare
Example nightmare: Being chased by a person
- Record your nightmare in as much detail possible in a dream journal
- Break down each key section of the dream: “Why was I being chased?” “Who was chasing after me?” “What was I wearing?” “Where was I leaving / going towards?” “What else was around me?” “Can I recognize any of these aspects in my life?”
- Explore the feelings you had in the dream: “How did I feel before/during/after the chase?” “Could I sense the feelings of the person chasing me?” “What in my life gives me the same feelings?”
- If this nightmare is recurring try to identify any similar patterns you have between the nights you have these dreams and the actions of the day prior.
- Weave these insights together to identify key players, stresses and unhealthy behaviors you have during the day to better understand the lessons the dreams are providing you.