Frightening Dreams? How to Summarize the Message from Your Unconscious

Frightening Dreams? How to Summarize the Message from Your Unconscious

In the 1990s, I had what seemed like a troubling dream. I dreamed that I had contracted the ebola virus, which, in my waking life, had been receiving a lot of media attention. The frightening and often-fatal virus seemed to have originated in Africa; most people who contracted it died within a matter of hours.

The essential qualities of the illness and the atmosphere in which I dreamed that I had con­tracted it are central to my understanding of the dream. As portrayed in the media, those who contracted ebola typically perished from massive blood loss; their blood vessels deteriorated and burst causing massive hemorrhaging. Apparently, neither doctors nor epidemiologists under­stood how the virus spread, but it seemed to be spreading rapidly.

At first glance, this dream may seem alarming. But the remark­able aspect of the dream was that, in it, I lived. Not only did I survive the virus; I regained my health.

Understanding An Alarming Dream

To understand this dream, I put its story into a few simple sentences to convey what the unconscious was really saying. I first considered that the ebola virus represented a hor­rible death, total vulnerability, and something for which there was no known cure. But the dream showed me that, even if I had to endure terrifying experiences, I could survive them and heal. The basic mes­sage of the dream was this: If I can overcome something as awful as the ebola virus and recover from it, I can manage and recover from the pressures of my waking life.

And this is the essence of summing up the message from your unconscious. In other words, what is your unconscious telling you in the dream? If, for instance, you dream that you are living in a very small and cramped space, what is your unconscious saying related to your current waking life?

Use common sense in your approach and do not overthink the message; do not let your left brain take over. Don’t be too literal and respond by thinking about how large or small your actual house is in waking life. Remember: The dream is not literal.

Dreaming that you live in a claustrophobic space may be the dream’s way of alerting you to the fact that you feel cramped in your life, that you lack the space and time you need. Your house in your dream may represent a relationship, your career, your ideas or ways of thinking, or other “spaces” into which you feel crammed. Your dream simply chose to represent these “spaces” in your life as a house, because, considered symbolically, a house is where most of us live our lives.

Summarizing a message from the unconscious can be awkward at first, but be patient with yourself. Any seeming lack of clarity stems from the fact that these messages are given to you in a new language— the language of symbols, of the right brain, of the unconscious. When you try to understand these messages with your left brain, you tend to take them literally.

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This is why we interpret dreams of disaster simply as warnings of impending threats. But this forecloses the possibilities for insight and guidance that these dreams offer us. Our familiarity with (and tendency to favor) left-brain interpretations can misdirect our efforts.

We try to use literal methods to understand the innately nonliteral messages of the unconscious, when what we should be doing is learning, practicing, and mastering the language of symbols. Remember, in the left brain, 1 + 1 is always and can only ever be 2; in the right brain, 1 + 1 is merely a suggestion for myriad possibilities.

Understanding and embracing these possibilities is the essential lesson of dream interpretation. Each night, your unconscious speaks in your dreams and offers you amazing, useful advice that, if under­stood and acted upon, can and will improve your life—quickly. But these messages cannot be accessed through the logical left brain; to access them, you must learn the language of the symbolic right brain.

If things do not seem to make sense to your waking mind, you can discover the meaning of them by increasing the fluidity with which you move between your conscious and unconscious worlds. This is how you learn to access more effectively the 95 percent of your brain’s functioning that occurs in the unconscious.

Dream Warnings

Because stories are often our best teachers, I will share dreams as a means of explaining how to summarize the message from your subconscious. Dreams that may seem predictive can still be relevant to your current waking life. One remarkable illustration of this is a dream experienced by a physi­cian living in Israel who dreamed that he was out in the desert, wearing a soldier’s uniform and standing with the army.

When he awoke, he first assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that the dream was predic­tive and told his wife that they would be going to war again. What is interesting about this particular dream, however, is that this knowl­edge did not frighten him; he was able to accept it and prepare himself accordingly. Thus the dream was useful not just as a prediction, but as direction for his waking life.

At the time this man experienced his dream, he was deeply unhappy in his marital relationship. In the dream, he saw a desert—an arid landscape without the ability to nourish flowers or trees—and a war—a symbol of conflict. Thus, while the dream was predictive on one level—war, in fact, did come—it was also a symbolic representation of the conflict that he was enduring in his primary relationship, and a warning that the relationship was not nourishing to his soul.

While the occurrence of a war may seem to corroborate his assumption that the dream was predictive, that can only ever be speculation. What is not debatable is that the dream reflected symbolically the actual situations that composed his daily, waking life.

Here’s another example. Recently, my friend’s daughter began repeatedly dreaming that her partner was cheating on her. When she woke up from these dreams, she was practically paralyzed, because she could not accept this possibility emotionally. Her partner was always incredibly supportive and deeply loyal to her.

In waking life, she never doubted his fidelity. But, in fact, the dream had nothing to do with her partner. Rather, it was an anxiety dream in which her partner—who represented the most reliable and dependable figure in her life—failed her, leaving her lonely and vulnerable. Therefore, the useful question becomes: Where in waking life was she feeling unstable, lonely, and vulnerable?

Make no mistake about it: Questions like this can be very difficult to address. Facing a frightening or upsetting dream and, more important, facing the issues the dream represents can be very intimidating when you are awake. That is why it is important to let the dream sit for a while before you begin to interpret it.

Don’t try to work with a frightening dream as soon as you wake up; come back to it later, when you are calm. When you awaken from a scary or upsetting dream, your limbic system has been setting off fireworks. You are in fight-or-flight mode; your heart is racing; your muscles are contracted; anxiety and fear are overwhelming you. You have to calm down before you do the dream-work in order to access the upper regions of your brain. Feeling fear is okay; but moving beyond it is important.

The dream of my friend’s daughter seems to indicate that there is something going on in her waking life that makes her feel threat­ened by instability. In fact, she had recently been fired from a job for repeated tardiness, despite several warnings. She had started a new job, but the dream continued, probably because she was not paying attention to some of the behaviors that had led to her past trauma. These same behaviors, because she continued to ignore them, still persisted as patterns in her waking life. The only way to stop them was to claim responsibility for them.

Finding a new job made her feel better temporarily, but what she really needed to do was to face the qual­ities within herself that needed to be changed so that she could cre­ate different outcomes. Her dream was advising her that it was of the utmost importance to begin working toward prevention immediately. Her recurring dream—a repeated message from her unconscious—was urging her to do something about her behavior so that she would not have to keep repeating stressful, destabilizing experiences.


Nightmares, in and of themselves, can seem like stressful, destabilizing experiences. This is why sometimes, when we wake up from nightmares, we do not want to look too closely at them. We may not even want to go back to sleep, because we are afraid we may slip back into the night­mare. This is because nightmares often deal with some aspect of ourselves or our lives that we resolutely do not wish to confront. You must remem­ber, however, that as long as you do not answer the door, your dreams will just knock louder and more persistently. If you answer, if you receive the message, you can ease the fear of the nightmare returning.

A friend of mine told me of a recurring nightmare from which she awoke sweating, her heart racing, afraid even to get out of bed. In the dream, she had the sensation of leaving her body and soaring through her house. During her journey, she saw frightening shadows and heard demonic, maniacal laughter. She titled the dream “Witchcraft.” What is witchcraft? It is a way of controlling the environment, the body, or sometimes people.

Upon further discus­sion, my friend was able to get to the essence of the message from her unconscious. She feared being controlled by exterior forces—for instance, a troubled economy—but she also felt that she was too con­trolling of others. This was difficult for her to acknowledge, but once she did, she was able to take steps to face her fears (declaring bank­ruptcy, setting a stricter budget), which also helped her to be more comfortable relinquishing some of the control she had been trying to exert over her partner. Sure enough, her stress level decreased and the dream stopped.

In another example, a friend recalled a nightmare she had been having since early childhood. She dreamed she was lying in bed and needed desperately to get to an emergency exit nearby. However, she could not seem to get out of bed, no matter how hard she tried. Every time she tried to get up and go to the door, she felt shoved back down in her bed. She titled the dream “Panic.” And, as it turned out, this simple, one-word title was the key to unlocking its message.

Panic is the experience of being mortally terrified, to the point of losing control over your body and mind. It is fear in its rawest form. Because this dream had continued throughout so much of her life, I asked my friend to describe the current events in her life at the time she began having the dream and then to consider her current state of mind.

Looking back, she recalled feeling afraid all the time. Her father drank heavily and was often violent, so there was constant conflict in her life. As she dug deeper into the symbols in her dream, she came to under­stand that the door represented a way to escape her childhood fears—an “emergency exit,” or a route of egress in the event of catastrophe. For a vulnerable child, the most likely means of escape were probably disas­sociation or death. The fact that she was unable to get to the door, how­ever, was a symbolic way for her unconscious to convey that her soul was keeping her where she was because it was not yet her time to leave.

These dreams, which can seem so frightening, are often relaying important and supportive mes­sages. In the dream described above, the message was this: As much as routes of escape may seem appealing, it is important to survive, to remain connected to life, and to endure. Of course, this is not an easy thing to face.

Maintaining Your Own Sense Of Safety

Memories and fears experienced in childhood are often so vivid that they can affect us well into adulthood. Maintaining your own sense of safety is important, so when you become upset or fearful while addressing a dream, pause and consider what the dream is triggering and counter it with your present experiences, reminding yourself that you are safe right now and will be okay.

For instance, when I noticed my friend’s anxiety, I reminded her and assured her that she was safe now. Then our conversation turned to our intense gratitude for being where we were in our lives at that moment—how wonderful it was to be fifty and not five, and to be safe in our own homes surrounded by love and support, totally empowered in life.

By verbalizing, naming, and facing fears that you encounter in your dreams, you can keep those fears—and those recurring dreams—from returning, because, once you face the fear, the dream will have fulfilled its task.

Copyright 2017 by Doris E. Cohen, Ph.D.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, 
Hampton Roads Publishing Co. 
Dist by Red Wheel Weiser,

Article Source

Dreaming on Both Sides of the Brain: Discover the Secret Language of the Night
by Doris E. Cohen, Ph.D.

Dreaming on Both Sides of the Brain: Discover the Secret Language of the Night by Doris E. Cohen PhD A dream is not just white noise or something that happens to you while you sleep. Dreams are the secret language of your unconscious. Drawing on years of clinical experience and her familiarity with Freud, myth, and sacred writings, Cohen presents a program that results in a life of abundance, texture, and self-awareness.

Click here for more info and/or to order this paperback book and/or download the Kindle edition.

About the Author

Doris E. Cohen, Ph.D.Doris E. Cohen, PhD, has been a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice for more than 30 years, treating thousands of clients. Her approach uses therapy, hypnotherapy, past-life regressions, and dream analysis. A certified healer, metaphysical intuitive, and communicator with Guides and Angels of the Light, Doris has given more than 10,000 medical, spiritual, and relationship readings. She has also conducted numerous workshops and has lectured nationally and internationally.

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