Have you ever awakened in the middle of the night from a powerful nightmare – heart pounding, sweating, or frozen in place? Nightmares can be so vivid and upsetting that it is hard to get back to sleep. You may lie there with a lingering unease, alert to every sound. Or you may worry that if you go back to sleep, you will end up in the same nightmare again.
Nightmares are no joke. They can be quite disturbing, scary, and stressful. They have a powerful deep-rooted impact that stays with us affecting our emotions, sometimes for hours after we wake up. Nightmares can leave us feeling all sorts of things, like anxious, distraught, vulnerable, awkward, embarrassed, or sad.
What causes nightmares?
Nightmares have various origins. They may be caused by something physical, like what or when you are eating. Having a big meal, eating spicy or sugary foods, or eating close to bedtime can contribute to nightmares. So can certain medications or vitamins (B vitamins are known to stimulate dreaming). Our hormones can also affect our dreams. Women often have more nightmares right before or during their menstrual cycle. And nightmares may be stimulated by the phases of the moon – particularly the full and new moon. Nightmares may even be caused, ironically, by lack of sleep.
Nightmares can be the result of an overactive amygdala. The amygdala is part of the limbic system in our brains, and is related to emotions, memory, and survival instincts. The amygdala is strongly connected to fear and to detecting and responding to threats. Heightened emotions, stress, anxiety, depression, and anger can all cause nightmares. Nightmares can also be a symptom of PTSD or trauma.
Nightmares come in many forms. They may contain a scary or troubling situation – such as some kind of violence, being chased or pursued by a person or animal, a natural disaster (like a tidal wave or earthquake), or not being able to stand up for ourselves and fight back when we need to. In some dreams, we may be trying to save others from a troubling situation. Or we may be the perpetrator of someone else. Sometimes nightmares involve weird things about our bodies – like teeth or hair falling out, specific injuries, or being unable to find a bathroom or some privacy when we need it. And common stress dreams include being lost, late, exposed, or unprepared.
How do dreams work?
Dreams are an important part of life. They are psychologically meaningful and some believe they serve an evolutionary function. They bring us insight, help us to process emotions, and show us things from our subconscious. They may even help us work through traumatic events. But why do some of them have to be so intense or frightening?
Nightmares are distressing and intense as a way to get our attention and let us know that something serious is going on. Perhaps there is a situation in your life that is affecting you more than you realized. Maybe there is something you feel anxious about or that feels unresolved. There could be an emotion coming to the surface – often a ‘shadow’ emotion like shame, guilt, fear, jealousy, sadness, anger, and so on. Or maybe a memory is resurfacing to be healed or acknowledged. Some people believe nightmares carry urgent messages for us that need to be addressed right away.
Nightmares conjure up our shadow – the things we are afraid and the things we are hiding from ourselves. The shadow, in psychological terms, is the part of our subconscious that contains everything we want to distance from ourselves and our identity – our emotions, fears, desires, and even parts of our personality we don’t want to own. When we have a nightmare, we are confronted with our shadow. And although it is upsetting, it also indicates we are growing and learning to integrate more of ourselves into our conscious reality. It may be a bumpy ride, but our nightmares are getting us closer to wholeness.
Nightmares may include death, destruction, or harm of some kind. It is said that this is a metaphor for a part of us dying, or losing power, so that a new part of us can emerge. During times of change, dreams about a devastating event, a natural disaster, or the end of the world are common. Even dreams about aliens can signify a new consciousness emerging or a new source of support coming into our lives.
Nightmares, or nightmare themes, often recur. Some dream psychologists believe that dreams will repeat their messages until we understand and integrate them. Dreams often occur in a series, with the message evolving, even if we don’t realize they are connected. This is why a dream journal can be helpful. You start to see the patterns and messages more clearly. And when you understand what these mean, you can get valuable information and guidance from your dreams and nightmares.
An example of a common recurring nightmare theme is the ‘Dark Man’. When I was in my 20’s, I had recurring dreams about a dark figure breaking into my home. The dreams would start as a spooky feeling, and then I would realize someone was in the house. I was always terrified to find him there. And then I would try to run and escape. While the details would vary, the theme of this dream was always the same. When I was studying dreams in graduate school, I came upon a book that talked about this exact dream. It was Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She said that every woman has this type of dream – what she calls the ‘Dark Man’ dream – and that it is part of our personal development. That blew my mind. The dream often represents a big change or a new level of maturity in our lives. And the inner conflicts we feel at these transitional stages.
A scary figure in our dreams may also represent a part of ourselves that wants to be integrated. It feels threatening because it is separate from our conscious identity, and we don’t know it or feel comfortable with it yet. If we can turn and face the frightening monster, animal, or person – we will often see that it is not as scary as we thought. And they are actually bringing something valuable to us in terms of authenticity and wholeness.
Dreams are signposts of transformation. I had a powerful nightmare at a significant time in my life, and I still remember it after many years. I was in a house that was on fire. I was up on the top floor and knew that the fire was coming. I thought at first that I couldn’t die because I had heard somewhere that we can’t die in our dreams. Then I realized I was going to die. When the fire finally took me, there was a moment of nothingness, silence. And then, in a flash, I arrived in a new world. Reborn. This dream signified letting go of my old self and trusting that a new self was emerging that would be even better, more alive. This was a huge marker of inner transformation.
So, nightmares may create an intense and upsetting experience for us in the dark of night. But they can also bring insight, emotional release, and new beginnings.