(excerpted from the audio cassette Why That Nightmare?: Understanding Our Worst Dreams)
There is no question about it: nightmares and bad dreams are among the most disturbing of human experiences. Often a bad dream will contain images that haunt you far into the next day, you may even walk around for awhile on automatic pilot, still absorbed by it's frightening imagery. When you have a really bad dream, you can't help but wonder what it really means, what caused it, and whether you should be worried about it. The good news about bad dreams is that they tend to be lurid reflections of perfectly normal life circumstances. If you begin to think of your dreams as a kind of cinematic enactment of your internal feelings and responses to present conditons, you may start to recognize some of the themes and and how they pertain to waking life.
- Some Nightmares Are Very Common: You and your dream are unique, but many people going through certain stressful situations such as divorce, parenthood, promotion or layoff have similar themes in their dreams. By carefully looking at the commonalities among people who have reported nightmares similar to your own, you may get a head start in discovering the meaning behind your troubling imagery, and have a better chance of answering the question: why that nightmare?
- How Nightmares Are Helpful: As unlikely as it sounds, our nightmares are actually some of the most significant and helpful of all our dreams. They make vivid and memorable some important thoughts and feelings that we tend to push aside by day, they articulate the nature of the conflicts we face, and highlight the connection between present challenges and past history. Nightmares can also provide early warnings about the potential for future problems if one continues on the same course. By dramatizing our worst fears they sometimes give us the courage to move forward without the anxiety of "what might happen" since we have already lived through the worst in our dreams.
- The Subconscious Looks For Trouble: The subconscious mind actually looks for trouble. The part of your psyche that formulates the plots of your dreams appears to have several functions, but two of its tendencies are scanning for threat, and improving survival skills. Thus your dreams are often focused upon potential trouble or threat to you, your family, your autonomy, or happiness. This tendency to search for threat like a heat-seeking missile is one reason why two thirds of dreams reported are unpleasant. The mind is addressing what could be problematic for us, primarily focusing on challenges, and emotional unfinished business. This emphasis on unresolved issues is one reason why some are plagued with dreams that have such distressing emotional themes. If you read about some of the "classic nightmares" that are commonly reported, keep in mind that only you can determine if the typical associations to the imagery fit for you.