There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming. – Soren Kierkegaard
Murder, monsters, vampires, endless falling, death, destitution, failing…all of these things, and others, can be nightly visitors while we sleep, inhibiting our knowledge of reality and plunging us into a dark sea of fear and sadness. What could be the purpose or intent of such heart-pounding dream dramas?
The majority of nightmares intend to shock us in order to get our attention-shock therapy from what I like to think of as our essential nature, the real you. For instance, I once had a dream of a lion stalking me, intent on killing and eating me, which totally terrified me in the dream. For me, that dream represented a wild cat, something instinctive, natural, powerful, and completely authentic that wanted to get me. A nightmare in this category intentionally drags us into its dark den in order to wake us up. Such dreams create valuable terror, shock and panic the True Self often uses as a last resort, trying to save our genuine life, to liberate us from self-destructive patterns or behaviors.
When we are hypercritical and judgmental of ourselves, we are likely to have recurring nightmares of running for our life, being chased by someone or something, typically wielding a weapon or knife. That tongue-like, razor-sharp knife blade or the bullet in the brain often symbolizes the many ways we kill ourselves and our creative potential with negative self-criticisms.
Here’s another example: A stockbroker in his mid forties told me about a very disturbing recurring nightmare. In each dream he would see his own face, but he was always shocked at how old he was, “ninety-something, barely able to move,” he described. He would wake up in a panic, afraid he had some terrible aging disease. I asked him to imagine being that old man in his dream and to tell me what his life (as the old man) was like. “My life is over. There’s nothing left for me to do,” he explained. I then asked him to think about his waking life right now and tell me what comes up when he thinks of that statement by that old man. “My God-I’m always getting all these creative ideas but I constantly tell myself that I’m too old to start something new,” he replied. His “nightmare” intended to wake him up, to stop him from living his life as though he were almost dead, as if he were too old and too feeble to do anything anymore. This dream dramatically changed his life and began the process of freeing the transformative power of his creative spirit. Of course, that nightmare stopped recurring, as is often the case when we finally “get” a recurring dream’s message.
Although not as common, another category of nightmares are the direct result of serious trauma in our waking life. These dreams are usually quite literal and detailed, replicating an actual event we have experienced. For example, I recently met a young woman who was in an apartment building two blocks away from the World Trade Center buildings when terrorists attacked on September 11th. She watched in horror from her apartment window as the buildings collapsed. She saw people jumping from windows, others hurled out from the explosions and fire. She began having recurring nightmares of being trapped in the wreckage of one of the planes that had smashed into the towers.
Her dream was showing her that she was caught in the “trauma,” the emotional “wreckage” of the event. Her “normal” life had crashed; the event had indeed wrecked her emotionally. She was an “emotional wreck.” It is therapeutic to interpret all nightmares regardless of their origin. In many cases, just understanding the nightmare takes the sting out of it; it loses some of its intensity. In many cases, our dreams are showing us that we are not fully appreciating the depth of how much something has hurt us.
In circumstances of severe trauma: accidents, witnessing death and war, earthquakes, natural disasters, it is appropriate and often necessary to intervene, especially for recurring nightmares. One method that has proven to be effective is what one researcher calls “Imagery Rehearsal Therapy.” Dr. Barry Krakow, medical director of the Sleep and Human Health Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has developed a technique to change the images in nightmares. “Our dreams,” he explains, “start out as replays of traumas after a traumatic event.” But, according to Krakow, when nightmares continue over a long period of time, they become destructive. “The nightmares somehow take on a life of their own. They become a broken record, a habit, a learned behavior,” says Krakow. Over time the nightmares actually retraumatize individuals.
Krakow’s method involves rewriting the nightmare and replacing disturbing images with comforting images. The re-scripted dream is then rehearsed over and over throughout the day and before sleep. Research indicates that about 90 percent of the time Imagery Rehearsal will either end the nightmare or modify it dramatically.
Burr Eichelman, “Hypnotic Change in Combat Dreams of Two Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” American Journal of Psychiatry 142:113). Frederick S. Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Highland, New York: Gestalt Journal, 1992)