What Do Nightmares Mean?

June 19, 2013 at 2:40 am


Nightmares are intense and vivid dreams that awaken you with negative feelings such as fear, anxiety, anger or sadness. You may also find yourself with your heart pounding and breathing quite fast… it is definitely a disturbing and even terrifying experience. Dreams, including nightmares, occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) parts of our sleep. Most who experience nightmares will usually remember the content of the dream, which usually relates to significant threats to survival, security, or self-esteem.

Nightmares are more common in childhood and typically reduce over time. However, about four percent of adults experience nightmares on a weekly basis. When it repeats on a regular basis, it may be diagnosed as nightmare disorder.

What do Nightmares Mean?

There are a number of theories about why nightmares happen. Most commonly, nightmares relate to the stressors that occur during our waking life: recent job stress, relationships and as a response to traumatic experiences. Other factors that can cause nightmares include medications (eg: for depression, high blood pressure, sedatives, narcotics, anti-Parkinson’s), restless-leg syndrome, illness/fever and exposure to fearful images/movies.

When it was discovered that REM sleep happens more so during infancy and that it stimulates learning-associated parts of the brain, researchers proposed that dreams relate to learning and normal development. However, from this learning perspective, it is more unclear in its usefulness in adults. Studies have found however that people who are deprived of REM sleep do not retain learned skills as well as those who are allowed to have regular REM sleep. Other researchers think that dreams are simply random interpretations created by the thinking parts of our brain.

Another totally different perspective to nightmares is that they relate to deeper aspects of our subconscious. The prominent psychologist, Carl Jung, understood dreams as being insight into how we see ourselves, through symbolic projections, appearing as aggressive people, monsters, or even natural destructive events like tornadoes or tidal waves. From this perspective, nightmares can be interpreted to relate to parts of ourselves that we may have disowned or judged and suppressed, what Jung refers to as the “shadow” part of ourselves. The nightmare then is a way for our subconscious to reintegrate these unexpressed or disowned parts of our own self. The nightmare actually be giving you valuable insight into how to understand yourself. For example, if you keep having fearful dreams of a stalker, it may relate to the fear you have around an approaching surgery, or your unspoken fear of the ugliness you may perceive yourself to have after a surgery – this nightmare can be interpreted to relate to the underlying fear, weakness, or anger you have at the process or outcome of what is happening in your waking life. Such an interpretation can bring more ease into how you feel about yourself and the nightmare itself, especially since recurring nightmares may hold you back from sleeping altogether. So once you have a nightmare, write down the content of the nightmare (or even all dreams), to help in understanding the message of what is attempting to be expressed or integrated. You may want to consult your psychologist or naturopathic or medical doctor to help in the interpretation of your nightmares.

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