Many dreams lead us to feel an intensity of emotion we may seldom if ever feel in waking life.
If the emotions felt are frightening or disgusting we call the dream a nightmare. One of the common features of a nightmare is that we are desperately trying to get away from the situation; feel stuck in a terrible condition; or on waking feel enormous relief that it was just a dream. Because of the intensity of a nightmare we remember it long after other dreams; even if we seldom ever recall other dreams, even worry about what it means.
As so many dreams have been investigated in depth, using such varied approaches as hypnosis, exploration of associations and emotional content, and LSD psychotherapy, in which the person can explore usually unconscious memories, imagery and feelings, we can be certain we know what nightmares are. They arise from six main causes.
Unconscious memories of intense emotions, such as those arising in a child being left in a hospital without its mother. Example: see second example in dark.
Intense anxiety produced—but not fully released at the time—by external situations such as involvement in war scenes, sexual assault (this applies to males as well as females, as they are frequently assaulted). Example: ‘A THING is marauding around the rather bleak, dark house I am in with a small boy.
To avoid it I lock myself in a room with the boy.
The THING finds the room and tries to break the door down. I frantically try to hold it closed with my hands and one foot pressed against it, my back against a wall for leverage. It was a terrible struggle and I woke myself by screaming’ (Terry F). When Terry allowed the sense of fear to arise in him while awake, he felt as he did when a child—the boy in the dream—during the bombing of the Second World War. His sense of insecurity dating from that time had emerged when he left a secure job, and had arisen in the images of the nightmare. Understanding his fears, he was able to avoid their usual paralysing influence.
Childhood fears, such as loss of parent, being lost or abandoned, fear of attack by stranger or parent, anxiety about own internal drives.
Many nightmares in adults have a similar source, namely fear connected with internal drives such as aggression, sexuality and the process of growth and change, such as encounter with adolescence, loss of sexual characteristics, old age and death. Example: see third example in doors under house, buildings.
Serious illness. Example: ‘I dream night after night that a cat is gnawing at my throat’ (male from Landscapes of the Night).
The dreamer had developing cancer of the throat. These physical illness dreams are not as common as the other classes of nightmare.
Precognition of fateful events. Example: My husband, a pilot in the RAF, had recently lost a friend in an air crash. He woke one morning very troubled—he is usually a very positive person. He told me he had dreamt his friend was flying a black jet, and wanted my husband to fly with him.
Although a simple dream, my husband could not shake off the dark feelings. Shortly afterwards his own jet went down and he was killed in the crash’ (Anon.).
Understanding the causes of nightmares enables us to deal with them.
The things we run from in the nightmare need to be met while we are awake. We can do this by sitting and imagining ourselves back in the dream and facing or meeting what we were frightened of. Terry imagined himself opening the door he was fighting to keep closed. In doing this and remaining quiet he could feel the childhood feelings arising. Once he recognised them for what they were, the terror went out of them.
A young woman told me she had experienced a recurring nightmare of a piece of cloth touching her face. She would scream and scream and wake her family. One night her brother sat with her and made her meet those feelings depicted by the cloth. When she did so she realised it was her grandmother’s funeral shroud. She cried about the loss of her grandmother, felt her feelings about death, and was never troubled again by the nightmare.
The techniques given in dream processing will help in meeting such feelings. Even the simple act of imagining ourselves back in the nightmare and facing the frightening thing will begin the process of changing our relationship with our internal fears.