We’ve all woken happy and refreshed from a particularly lovely dream, or scared and sad because of a vivid nightmare. The dreams we have color our days; they get us off to a good start or a bad one.
Nightmares are upsetting or highly disturbing dreams. Everybody has occasional nightmares, and these can in fact be the best dreams to work with as they are emotionally rich, deep, and often carry a message to help us through life.
Dreams want us to heal. And they are prepared to do everything in their power to help us to do so—even plague us with nightmares, if that’s what it takes to get our attention. But what if we keep having nightmares? What does this mean, and how can we change the situation for the better?
There are two key things to remember about nightmares:
- Having the occasional nightmare can be a good thing in the sense that they are often excellent for Mindful Dreaming, illuminating unconscious issues that we need to address and gifting us with deep insights into our lives.
- Having too many nightmares, or suffering from recurring nightmares, is not good because it disrupts our sleep and can cause serious erosion to our happiness, with some people even becoming scared to go to sleep.
Chronic Nightmares Disturb Sleep
Many people who suffer from chronic nightmares don’t recognize how much their nightmares are disturbing their sleep. Sleep is vital for good health, so anything that disturbs it needs to be attended to.
Some people have such awful nightmares that they unconsciously delay their bedtime, doing everything they can to avoid sleep, and after a while they wind up with insomnia. Now they have not one problem, but two!
This introduces a third, major problem: that of being less able to cope with life’s problems because the person is so exhausted. Luckily, there are some easy steps we can take to make sure we have a happier dreamlife and healthy, recuperative sleep.
The Cause of Nightmares
Nightmares are often seen as simply being caused by stress or caused by trauma. But when we look more closely at the way the brain works, we see that recurrent nightmares are also a learned behaviour. This means that, like a broken record, the brain slips into a groove it recognizes, and nightmares occur again and again.
The good news here is that a learned behaviour can be changed. If you have gotten into the bad habit of having nightmares, you can break that habit. It’s a simple thing to do, and decades of research spearheaded by psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Neidhardt and sleep disorder specialist Barry Krakow, MD, have shown it to be extremely powerful.
They discovered that when you change the nightmare story, you have fewer nightmares and better quality of sleep, resulting in a stronger ability to cope with waking life. Changing the nightmare story jolts the brain out of its negative groove and into a new one.
Lucid dreaming is also an effective technique for combatting nightmares and reducing their frequency. One 2003 study by Victor Spoormaker and colleagues gave participants a one-hour session to talk about the possibilities of becoming lucid in nightmares and changing the dream for the better. They were also given lucid dreaming induction techniques.
A follow-up session two months later showed that in all cases, the frequency of nightmares was reduced, and the overall quality of sleep was higher. When we wake up inside a scary dream, we are in a strong position to be able to change the dream, for example by sending love to the frightening dream figure, asking if they have a message for us, or by using lucid “super-powers” to overcome them if this feels necessary.
Our understanding that we are dreaming empowers us to act to change the dream in positive, creative ways, and we are less likely to suffer from nightmares. Even if you are not a frequent lucid dreamer, the healing that is available to the lucid dreamer is available to anyone who practices Mindful Dreaming.
What To Do When Dreams Turn Into Nightmares
Dreams are very happy to talk to us. As soon as you start paying attention to your dreams and begin to write them down, they will become brighter, even more inventive, and respond to your questions. But dreams are not just there for polite chit-chat. Dreams will shout at us in the form of nightmares when there is something our unconscious mind needs us to understand.
Whether we are suppressing hidden parts of ourselves, not giving ourselves enough love and care, or if we are hell-bent on a path of self-destruction, dreams act as a mirror, showing us how we are really feeling. We start to have nightmares. Here are some ways of engaging with nightmares to create a happier dreamlife.
Create A Happier Dreamlife
1. Ask the dream a question. Remind yourself that you can transform this into a learning, healing experience. Take a calming breath and ask the threatening figure or disturbing element of the dream, “What do you want?” or, “Why am I dreaming about this?” “What are you here to teach me?” “Do you have a message for me?” or, “What does this situation symbolize in my life?” The dream scene might spontaneously transform into something else, or you might hear an answer in the form of a disembodied voice.
2. Send peace and love to whatever is upsetting you. Send love, peace, forgiveness, or healing white light to the threatening dream figure or situation. Really feel it in your heart. This usually transforms the dream in an instant. You can try either of the above approaches in a waking dream re-entry.
3. Incubate a healing dream. Ask your dreams to send you a healing dream to help you to release a past trauma, or to break the cycle of nightmares. Write down your request on a piece of paper and put it under your pillow, touching it whenever you wake in the night to remind yourself of your intention. Write down all your dreams, and look out for healing imagery such as vibrant nature, healthy animals, gorgeous landscapes, or highly positive encounters with dream figures.
4. Explore the negative element as “part of myself.” This is a waking technique. Work out which part of the nightmare has the strongest negative emotional charge for you. Is it the leopard prowling through your bedroom? Or the old woman with a death’s-head face? It might be an ominous mountain, or the dizzy sensation you get when you look into a bottomless chasm. Identify the negative emotion in one or two words and then retell the dream from the perspective of that negative part of the dream as if it is a part of yourself. For example, the prowling leopard might become “the cruel, dangerous part of me.” As you retell the dream, you’ll discover what this cruel, dangerous part of you wants and needs, and why.
Try labeling any other negative elements of the dream in the same way, and see how they interact together when you retell the dream story. The results can be illuminating, and people often find that the negative parts of their dream are actually not as negative as they supposed; the leopard may not be cruel and dangerous—you may discover that he feels lost and out of place in your bedroom and wishes he could find his way home. Here, the next step in the dreamplay would be to ask yourself, “Where in my life do I feel lost and out of place?” When we make the bridge to waking life, the dream’s meaning often becomes clear.
5. Embrace the “Shadow.” Nightmares bring us face to face with the creative power of the Shadow archetype. Archetypes are original patterns, mythic characters, or images that emerge from the collective unconscious. The Shadow archetype represents all that we have repressed—the darker side of ourselves. When we choose to be a particular kind of person (for example, sweet-tempered), this automatically implies a choice not to be a certain way (in this case, angry). But this doesn’t mean that these repressed characteristics disappear: they live on in our unconscious. These rejected aspects of the self can surface in nightmares. We might dream of angry people, or of reacting angrily ourselves. Then we wake up and think, “I would never have got so angry in waking life!” This is a clue that the dream is revealing a shadow aspect of the self; something we’re suppressing.
Jung believed that it is important to embrace the Shadow whenever we meet it, in order to have a whole, healthy psyche. He felt that the Shadow is the source of creativity and brings great gifts to the psyche, but we can only receive these gifts by facing the Shadow and accepting it.
Nightmares show us rejected aspects of ourselves that we need to integrate. When we embrace our Shadow, we grow happier and more balanced.
When we pay attention to our nightmares and attempt to act on their message, they begin to change into healing dreams, as happened for Susan. She was plagued by a recurring nightmare of being trapped and became scared to sleep in case it happened again.
Susan’s Dream: Trapped
In my dream I was asleep and then woke up in the middle of the night and felt like I needed to get out of the bedroom urgently, only there was no door. I felt like I was actually awake but I clearly wasn’t. I was really disoriented, didn’t even know which way was up and which way was down. Eventually I woke up and felt very scared and dazed.
Each time the dream repeated itself, it was more intense. Until Clare told me that dreams come to help us and that I should write them down, I never knew that dreams had a purpose. I didn’t know there was a science of dreaming. Once you know there’s a system, you can make sense of it. I wasn’t going to bed scared any more because I knew the dreams were helping me.
I started to keep a dream journal. I also began to address past issues and accept past feelings rather than trying to push them away. The nightmare made me feel trapped, and I wanted to get out but in reality I think that it wasn’t so much wanting to get out as wanting to get in touch with a part of me I’d lost touch with. Soon afterwards, I experienced a shift, where the nightmare spontaneously changed into something wonderful.
I dreamed I was asleep and again I woke up and felt this urgent need to get out of the room, only it wasn’t my room this time. In my dream I got up, expecting not to find a door, but the door was there and it was open and I went outside and was in a beautiful garden.
Susan did three important things to cause the shift in her nightmares. Firstly, she accepted the idea that her dreams come to help her, which made her less scared of going to sleep. Secondly, she started keeping a dream journal, which is a vital way of building a relationship with dreams. Thirdly, she stopped suppressing past feelings and began to address them.
On all three levels, Susan’s new attitude enabled an opening up to her unconscious mind. She began to listen, and was rewarded with a way out of her recurring nightmares (symbolized by the door) and into the growing beauty of her own being, symbolized by the garden in her dream.
©2018 by Clare R. Johnson. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com
Mindful Dreaming: Harness the Power of Lucid Dreaming for Happiness, Health, and Positive Change
by Clare R Johnson
There are many books on dreams, dream interpretation, and lucid dreaming. What makes this one different is that Clare R. Johnson, PhD combines the principles of mindfulness with a fresh approach to lucid dreaming. The end result is a step-by-step guide for understanding dream language, waking up in our dreams, and transforming them to improve our waking lives. (Also available as a Kindle edition.)
About the Author
Clare R. Johnson, PhD, is the leading expert on lucid dreaming. She has a PhD from the University of Leeds on using lucid dreams as a creative tool (the first doctoral work in the world to explore this topic), is a lucid dreamer herself, and is the board director of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. She regularly gives talks and leads workshops about dreaming. Visit her at www.deepluciddreaming.com.