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Nightmares ?
Bad Dreams, or Recurring Dreams ?
Lucky You!

Drawing by Catherine MacIntyre

The above title may seem odd, if not a complete contradiction. Why would anyone suggest that nightmares or anxiety dreams might be helpful? If you're in the half of the population that has experienced an anxiety dream or nightmare within the last month, then this may even be what you're wishing you could get rid of, right? Some people who had nightmares or recurring dreams early on in life even manage to block their dream recall entirely in order to stop being upset by such experiences. This unfortunate view of "bad" dreams as things to avoid is precisely the reason for the above title and for this article. An avoidance or denial approach is much like putting a Band-Aid on a car's blinking oil light because the light seems annoying. Of course, fifty or a hundred miles later, it would be greatly preferable to have understood the warning. Obviously, it's even better not to have the light blinking, but if it does, then it's important to do something about it since it's there for a good reason. One certainly wouldn't be very wise to disable it. Though perhaps not obvious, the simple fact is that most nightmares and almost all recurring dreams are similarly trying to provide an extremely valuable service to the dreamer. If we block them, we are likely missing their immediate benefit; if we remember but ignore them, we may well be missing the vital message that they are trying to bring us about our life.

Almost everyone has experienced one or more dreams that contain anxiety or outright fear. For some, unpleasant dreams or nightmares recur repeatedly; for others, the content may change while the theme remains the same, such as scenes of falling, or of being pursued or attacked, late or unprepared for a presentation or an exam, stuck in slow motion, unable to move or scream, or naked in public, to name a few common themes. This type of experience, when unpleasant, is usually associated with lack of progress by the dreamer to recognize and solve related conflicts in life.

Though it has been scientifically proven that we all dream every night, fear of nightmares or other anxieties or misguided beliefs about dreams and the unconscious can block dream recall. This can usually be overcome by learning about the useful nature of dreams and by recognizing that the majority of nightmares, like a bitter but quite necessary medicine, represent opportunities for personal healing through much-needed emotional release. They are often indirectly warning us about current behavior patterns or psychological imbalances that we need to remedy if we don’t want such unpleasant dreams to repeat, or worsen. Sometimes, such imbalances or patterns resolve themselves as the dream percolates into waking thought and we unknowingly respond and make adjustments in our life. But if we block, deny or ignore such messages from the subconscious for too long, then it usually speaks ‘louder’ to get our attention often by bringing related events, which I call daymares, into our waking hours. These daymares show up as sickness, accidents, relationship difficulties or other unfortunate personal circumstances that force us outright to deal with the issue at hand. Interestingly enough, such events often have repeating themes as well, such as recurring relationship patterns, for example.

Psychologist Ernest Rossi has put forth that one important function of dreaming is integration: the combining of separate psychological structures into a more balanced and comprehensive personality. Renown psychologist Carl Jung observed that portions of our whole personality which we knowingly or unknowingly judge become disowned, and are frequently projected outward in dreams, taking the form of aggressors, devils, monsters, intimidating animals or natural events (e.g. tidal waves), and so on. Jung referred to these symbolic figures as "the shadow". Whether we become aware of such elements of our shadow through nightmares or daymares, re-accepting these judged and disowned portions of ourselves is the message and the awaiting gift.

So, we truly are lucky to have such nightmares, since they provide a natural ‘pressure-release’ therapy for the psyche, and especially since they may even provide what amounts to an early cure if we listen to, make an effort to understand and then act upon the valuable insight that dreams try to bring us. The goal is still to put an end to nightmares and recurring dreams, but by evolving them into more beneficial scenarios, and not by blocking, ignoring or denying them.

Resolving Nightmares

Fortunately, there exist treatments for nightmares that do not involve medication and which have shown to be very effective. Some of the most useful techniques include dream rehearsal, dream lucidity, guided imagery and mainstream therapies such as gestalt, psychosynthesis, focusing, or other such methods.

One approach is lucid dreaming where one recognizes during a dream that one is dreaming, hence gaining a degree of conscious control. This approach is demonstrated by this woman’s dream:

"After many recurring nightmares where I'm pursued by some terrifying figure, I learned of lucid dreaming and had the following dream: 'I'm in a frantic car chase with the pursuer right behind me. Swerving into a parking lot, I bolt out of the car and run with him hot on my heels. Suddenly, the scene seems familiar and I realize that I'm dreaming, though the lot and trees still seem more real than ever. Drawing upon every ounce of courage that I have, I swirl to face my pursuer, repeating to myself that it's only a dream. Still afraid, I scream at him, "You can't hurt me!" He stops, looking surprised. For the first time I see his beautiful, loving eyes. "Hurt You?" he says. "I don't want to hurt you. I've been running after you all this time to tell you that I love you!" With that, he holds out his hands, and as I touch them, he dissolves into me. I awake filled with energy, feeling great for days.' Not only did the nightmare never return, but more importantly, I now find myself much better at facing unpleasant situations at work and in my personal life. Following what I learned in the dream, I'm much better at standing my ground and expressing my feelings when needed and appropriate, whereas before I would usually avoid or run from such situations." (M.R., San Jose, CA)

Rainbow ruler

Suggestions for Common Nightmares and Recurring Dreams

It has been extensively demonstrated that various nightmare and recurring dream themes are quite universal, even cross-culturally, and that such situations can be transformed into positive and even pleasant experiences. The key to such evolution is a change of perspective, often accompanied by a new emotional response to the situation such as taking on an attitude of acceptance, curiosity and exploration to replace the existing reaction of fear or judgment (as in the dream example above). When these types of dream are connected with deep traumatic waking events, such as abuse, war, death, etc. the evolution of the dream into a more positive form may understandably take longer and require more waking attention and focus.

Though there is no unerring rule as to what any given dream might be about, a good rule of thumb is to re-experience the feeling of the dream and find out where this same feeling shows up in our waking life (often alluded to by the setting of the dream, though perhaps figuratively). This is the rule of associative logic - the dream associates to our life, and sometimes to our past, by a specific feeling.

I have no intention of providing an absolute dream dictionary (since dreamers and their experiences relating to specific symbols are so individual) and have no illusions about prescribing instantaneous solutions or cures, however a great number of people have gotten a lot of help and insight by learning about universal nightmare and anxiety dream themes which they are also experiencing. Here are some of the most common themes (with positive outcome examples for each scenario) and suggestions about what the dreamer might look at in waking life:

· chase or attack: The pursuer usually represents a fearful or disliked aspect of our shadow, and hence an exaggerated version of a denied or inhibited portion of our own personality that would benefit us if integrated and appropriately expressed. (ideal outcome: standing our ground, facing and dialoguing with our pursuer, and eventually, acceptance and embrace)

· falling dream: Am I feeling heavy, unsupported, out of control, worried about something? How can I feel freer, lighter? Also: do I need to be more grounded? (ideal outcome: flying or floating freely, landing safely if we choose)

· car out of control: Is life too hectic, out of control? How could I slow down, act more peacefully and "enjoy the ride"? Is there an important choice (i.e. intersection or turn) coming soon in my life where I need to slow down in order to turn safely in the wisest direction (ideal outcome: driving well & within speed limits, walking, bicycling, or rollerblading peacefully, taking more quiet time to clearly contemplate important upcoming choices so that I don't go off track or crash)

· unprepared or late for an exam: Am I feeling unprepared for some upcoming event or deadline, quite possibly at work? Unconfident about my performance? Am I worrying needlessly or do I actually need more preparation in order to feel confident and do a good job? (ideal outcome: feeling assured about oneself, performing well, making sure to schedule wisely in order to peacefully meet a deadline)

· stuck in slow motion, unable to move or make any noise: Where am I feeling stuck in life, like I’m getting nowhere because worry is paralyzing me or slowing me to a stop, perhaps also where I am unable to voice my true feelings? What can I do to change it? (ideal outcome: relaxation and acceptance, and eventually, peaceful, confident action & self-expression)

· embarrassed to be nude or scantily dressed in public, though nobody seems to really notice or mind: Where in life am I feeling unconfident, embarrassed, unskilled? This type of dream is usually pointing out, by the fact that the other characters in the dream don’t really notice, that we are the only one viewing ourself this way, and usually mistakenly so. (ideal outcome: comfortable with oneself as is, confident)

· personal injury, dismemberment: What part of my life—not usually the physical body—have I been neglecting, mistreating, forgetting—i.e. dis-membering as opposed to remembering? (ideal outcome: healing)

· trapped, locked in: Where am I feeling trapped in life? How might I open myself up to a new perspective, and explore new courses of action? (ideal outcome: breaking out, exploring new rooms or places)

· drowning, threatening waves, tsunami (tidal waves) or flooding: Am I blocking, denying or feeling overwhelmed by my emotions? How might I better acknowledge, accept, and feel these feelings — feekings which often include vulnerability? (ideal outcome: swimming, surfing, breathing underwater)

· helpless, abandoned, or crying baby, young daughter/son, monkey, bunny, pet, or small animal: Have I been taking care of my "inner child"? Is there a creative project or relationship that I have forgotten or abandoned that needs my attention? Maybe I need to laugh more, play outdoors, express my creativity, be more spontaneous, or enjoy more personal warmth and intimacy? (ideal outcome: caring for baby or animal, playing, simply having more fun)

Precognitive Dreams, Premonitions & Warning Dreams

Though they are generally symbolic of psychological processes, some dreams and nightmares are intended as guidance or warnings on a very practical level. For example, if you were to dream about the brakes failing on your car, it might help to ponder whether you are figuratively having trouble "slowing yourself down" in your life, however, it would also be very wise to check the actual brakes on your automobile in waking life.

Assuredly, not all precognitve dreams are about dire events, though when they are, such nightmares or anxiety dreams warn of current behavior trends, courses of action, or decisions which may soon become detrimental unless we change them, as exemplified in this dream by Stanford University pioneer sleep researcher Dr. William Dement:

"Some years ago I was a heavy cigarette smoker, up to two packs a day. Then one night I had an exceptionally vivid and realistic dream in which I had inoperable cancer of the lung. I remember as though it were yesterday looking at the ominous shadow in my chest X-ray and realizing that the entire right lung was infiltrated. I experienced the incredible anguish of knowing my life was soon to end, that I would never see my children grow up, and that none of this would ever have happened if I had quit cigarettes when I first learned of their carcinogenic potential. I will never forget the surprise, joy, and exquisite relief of waking up. I felt I was reborn. Needless to say, the experience was sufficient to induce the immediate cessation of my cigarette habit."

Somehow, dreams have access to information above and beyond the physical senses, both in terms of geography and time. Exactly how this is possible is an extremely interesting question, both for the individual who has such experiences, and, in general, for the scientific community—where a solely objective investigative approach often misses a lot of valuable clues about the nature of reality, especially when it comes to the realm of subjective experiences such as dreams. My view is that the state of consciousness from where our dream experiences arise is not the same as the "normal" physical waking state (which varies a great deal also), and so perceptions which come to us from such a state (and similarly with meditation, and even day-dreaming and deep states of creativity) arise from a framework beyond our physical one, and hence come from outside our normal framework of time and space. Therefore, it is actually no great surprise and even somewhat common (especially with dreams) that we can sense, through a faculty other than the five physical senses, information which, within the physical world is either ahead or long past in terms of time, unavailable to us in terms of physical location or geography, or unknown to us though others in our life are aware of such information.

Catholic Bishop Joseph Lanyl dreamed of the assassination of the arch-duke of Austria, François-Ferdinand de Habsbourg. In vain, he tried to reach the arch-duke to warn him of the assassination which occurred June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo — the event that triggered the first world war.

A few days before his assassination, American President Abraham Lincoln, who was very attentive to his dreams, dreamt of his own corpse laid out in a room in the white house. Martin Luther King also seems to have had a precognitive dream about his death a few months before his assassination.

A day before the Titanic's demise, a woman on the infamous ship dreamt of the horrible event that was to occur the next day. She told her husband, who scoffed at her worries and ignored her pleas. However, the dream so affected her that she secretly prepared herself the night before and had all her children sleep in their warm clothes in order to be ready at a moment's notice. During the night, when the ship struck the iceberg, she and her children managed to escape and be rescued. Her husband, sadly, went down with the ship.

That it is possible to know about future events not only courts the disbelief of skeptics, but also often scares people who have such precognitive dreams. Such experiences are actually somewhat common, so people's apprehension is rather unfortunate, because the cultivation of such dreams can really be a beneficial skill, much like a natural talent in music or writing or dance, and can truly become a helpful gift developed both for the benefit of the dreamer and for those around him or her, as shown by this dreamer's premonition:

"I had a dream where my father had blood pouring out of an eye from an accident involving the machine he was working with, and I knew he had lost his eye. Upon awakening, I immediately phoned my parents and asked my father what he was planning that day. He said he was going to work in his workshop with his drill and circular saw. Hearing this, I strongly urged him and eventually got him to promise to wear safety goggles while he was working. Then I spoke to my mother, told her the dream, and convinced her to keep a close eye on Dad. That night, Dad phoned in disbelief to tell me that a piece of wood had flown off the saw right at his eye and shattered the safety glasses. He was very grateful and admitted to me that it was truly a miracle that his eye was untouched." (S.B. Montreal, Qc)

So instead of wishing you sweet dreams, which you’ve heard many times before, I will go one step further, with your greatest fulfillment in mind, and wish you truly pleasant nightmares.

Recurring Dream & Nightmare Resolution Exercise:
Re-scripting a dream

Select a nightmare or upsetting dream which you’ve recently had (especially if it happened this morning!) and either from the recurring dream suggestions above or on your own, re-design a different ending to the dream. Choose something which leaves you feeling empowered, free and confident, and great about the new scenario, instead of the way you felt during or after the actual dream. Before lying down to fall asleep tonight, sit in a comfortable position and relax your body and mind completely for a couple minutes. It may help you to alternately tense and relax different parts of your body, and witness instead of concentrate upon any thoughts which cross your mind. Let it all go until tomorrow. Then, once you’re calm and quiet, mentally visualize or remember the dream you’ve selected for this exercise, running through as though you were watching a video, except at the point where things begin to turn unpleasant, replace the old ending with the new empowering one you created earlier, and imagine it as vividly as you can, "making it up" as you go if you need to. Make it a special point to experience the new feelings of confidence, freedom and empowerment that your new ending gives you. Then give yourself the clear suggestion that not only are these new thought patterns now spreading into your waking life, but also that tonight or some time soon you may have just such a dream, which includes the new, more fulfilling ending. You may even suggest to yourself that you will recognize the dream as a dream, while it’s happening, in which case you can consciously direct it as you feel appropriate towards a more uplifting outcome.


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