You wake bathed in sweat with your heart pounding. The dream you were having was vivid and terrifying. You were being chased down a dark alley by a knife-wielding assailant. Or maybe you witnessed the death of a loved one. You might even have been the perpetrator. We all have nightmares occasionally and wonder at their meaning. But do they have any real significance? Or are they just a confused jumble of images?
A nightmare is a vivid and unpleasant dream that usually wakes the dreamer. It is accompanied by disturbing emotions like guilt, sadness, or more often, fear and anxiety. It’s normal for children to have nightmares and about 90 per cent of adults will experience a nightmare at some point in their lives. Only about 5 per cent of us are affected by chronic or recurrent nightmares. And, according to a study by Dr Jennifer Parker from the University of the West of England, women have more nightmares than men. Parker, a dream researcher for 15 years, says this is partly because men and women deal with problems differently. Women tend to take their worries with them when they go to sleep, she says. “Men are better at switching off.” Women are also more likely to dream about emotionally traumatic events, such as the death of a partner or child. Research suggests this could be the brain’s way of rehearsing how it would respond to distressing or disturbing situations.
In her study, Parker found women’s nightmares generally fall into three categories: being chased or threatened; losing a loved one; or confused, bizarre dreams. Dreaming is very important for processing emotional memory. “We process the stuff we haven’t had time to deal with while we’re awake. We tend to have nightmares about the places and people we’re concerned about.”
Parker’s research was inspired by her own recurrent nightmares, which started when she was a child. She would dream she was standing on the shore line as a massive tidal wave rolled out and came towards her. “It was really because I was feeling overwhelmed at the time. The image fitted with the emotion, whereas in our culture we tend to get very fixed on the image,” she says. A one-off nightmare is normal, but recurrent or persistent nightmares could indicate something is wrong. “Nightmares are an alarm call. Our psyche is trying to tell us we need to attend to something.” Not surprisingly, people experience more nightmares during times of upheaval and stress. They are very common during the early stages of grief or at the end of a relationship, for example. “If we’re stressed our sleep changes and our dream life changes.”
Look to the past
Dream analyst and author Jane Teresa Anderson says nightmares can usually be traced back to the events of the past 48 hours. She says when we dream our mind is comparing our recent experiences with events from the past, updating our beliefs about the world and our place in it.
People who go through a lot of change in life tend to have more bizarre or dramatic dreams than people who stay in their comfort zones. “There’s more to process,” Anderson says. And recurrent nightmares can be a sign your world view is no longer working for you. “A nightmare is a wake-up call to readjust the way you look at life. Dreams go very deep. What you’re getting is a window into how your own unique mind processes your life.” Anderson advises keeping a diary to help work out what the dream might mean. Try and remember when the dreams first started and what might have happened in the preceding days. It could be anything from a relationship breakdown to missing out on a promotion at work.
One of Anderson’s clients, Chloe*, was troubled by a recurrent “slow motion” nightmare. In this dream, she was walking down a road when suddenly her legs started to feel heavy and the ground sticky. Her progress slowed. Everyone else was moving except her and she felt a sense of dread. Anderson says the slow-motion dream is common and represents an area of life where the dreamer feels weighed down. It could mean you don’t feel you’ve achieved the goals you wanted at work. In this case, Chloe realised her career goal was something she no longer wanted.
Anderson says it’s possible to change your life by changing your dream. When you’re awake, envisage yourself back in the dream situation. Imagine your legs are really light and you’re jogging instead of walking. Change direction to reflect the position you want to be in. “This has produced miraculous results for people,” she says. “It reverses their unconscious beliefs.”
No one really knows why we have nightmares. But Dr Sarah Blunden, of the University of South Australia’s Centre for Sleep Research, agrees stress is the likeliest cause. Anxiety or a family history of nightmares can make you more prone to waking in fright. Some medications can cause nightmares, as can illness or fever. Recurrent nightmares are also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, where the sufferer repeatedly plays out the distressing event in their dreams. Most nightmares occur during rapid eye movement or REM sleep, which is why we tend to remember them when we wake up. This type of sleep is very light, similar to being in a state of calm wakefulness. The more frightening the dream, the more likely we are to remember it.
Nightmares are a normal part of childhood as children try and make sense of the world around them. Blunden says many children dream about being chased by a monster, usually a dark looming character or person. They wake up terrified. It helps to get the child to understand the monster is only frightening because they believe it to be so. “Nightmares are actually a learned behaviour and you can unlearn it,” she says. “It can be a defence mechanism, a way of working things out.”
Decode your dreams
Blunden says it’s not always important to interpret nightmares correctly to eliminate their effect on your life. In her own recurring nightmare she is playing the lead role in a ballet, although it’s been many years since she danced. It’s the same each time. “I’m in the spotlight and I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. The dream usually crops up when she’s anxious about an upcoming task or event. “If I have a big lecture and I have the dream the night before, that means I’m anxious. I can pre-empt that by doing more preparation or cutting down on my coffee intake.”
Dr Gerard Kennedy, clinical psychologist at Monash Medical Centre’s Paediatric Sleep Disorders Unit, rarely has nightmares, but he remembers a recent one vividly. “I was away for the weekend, staying in a cabin in the country. I had a dream that I was a kid back in my grandparents’ house. A hand came out of the wall and it was trying to grab me. I ran away and tried to get to where my brothers and sisters were in the next room. But the hand kept pulling me back and I was screaming.”
Most of us will only experience dreams like this occasionally, but if nightmares are persistent it’s worth seeking help. To treat recurring nightmares, both Blunden and Kennedy use a technique known as imagery rehearsal therapy. It involves the dreamer rewriting the nightmare to make it less threatening. It’s effective in 90 per cent of people.
The sufferer will visualise the dream like a movie, then write it down. When it gets to a certain point they edit the dream. “They work out some way of escaping or empowering themselves,” Kennedy says. This technique is especially powerful when used with young children, who are more susceptible to suggestion. Usually, the nightmare goes away and sometimes it changes into the dream suggested by the visualisation. “Mentally practising a new dream eliminates the old nightmare,” says Blunden.
Kennedy says it’s important to treat the nightmare as a disorder in its own right, rather than as a symptom of an illness. At a recent carer’s forum, he was approached by Jennifer*, who was worried about her daughter’s recurrent nightmares. Her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, had been assaulted by her carer 15 years earlier and suffered turbulent nightmares ever since. In the dreams her attacker was coming back to get her. Because she lived in a remote area, she was unable to seek the help of a therapist. Kennedy advised her to go out and buy a symbolic item and hide it under her pillow – in this case it was a pink water pistol. Jennifer later told him her daughter had no more nightmares. “It’s your own mind and you can change it,” he says. “It really didn’t take much, just telling the person that the nightmares are yours.”
Dream expert, Jane Teresa Anderson interprets some of the most common nightmares.
- Being chased or hunted
A common anxiety dream which means you’re running away from something you don’t want to face. Recent events will reveal the cause of the anxiety. Deal with nightmares like this by visualising the predatory figure while you’re awake and face it.
- An exam you haven’t studied for
This dream can be an indicator of perfectionist tendencies. Imagine you are in the dream and say: I don’t need to study. I have everything I need, I have wit and creativity and if I don’t get 100 per cent it doesn’t matter.
- Death of a loved one
Characters in dreams are not always who they appear to be. Everybody in a dream is an aspect of you the dreamer. Death represents change. Something in your life is ending to make way for something new. You have to kill off the old belief.