Scary dreams have so much energy! Even the most terrifying nightmares carry creative, healing, and spiritual gifts. When we unwrap our disturbing dreams and nightmares, we understand how these gifts can empower us in our waking life.
Many people report anxiety dreams or dreams with distressing content. Nightmares have been on the rise since the outbreak of the pandemic, but the most common themes remain the same as always: that we are trapped, chased or attacked by shadowy men or aggressive animals, or we find ourselves in the midst of an apocalyptic disaster.
Let's have a look at why such nightmares come, and how we can work with them to discover any personal meaning they may have for ourselves and our life situation. Only the dreamer can know for sure what their own dream or nightmare signifies for them personally, and the best way to find out is by doing dreamwork to unwrap the deeper meaning.
Have you ever had distressing dreams of fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, or other natural disasters?
During the pandemic, many people report dreams of giant bugs taking over the planet. Other common disaster nightmares are scenes of warzones or other man-made disasters such as shipwrecks or plane crashes.
Some natural disaster dreams may reflect our relationship to our planet, our reaction to current news events, and our fears about the future, but more often this type of nightmare flags up emotional upheaval, helplessness, and terror in the face of unwanted changes. When such dreams arise, it can mean that we are feeling overwhelmed during an extremely challenging time. Drowning in dreams often seems linked to feeling overwhelmed by emotions or a life situation.
If you have this kind of nightmare, see if you can build a bridge between the core emotion in the dream and something you are currently dealing with in your life. Ask yourself: "When did I last experience that sense of 'I'll never make it!' in my life?" Or: "When did I last feel so desperate?" Often it will be possible to connect this feeling to something in our life: "Oh, right—I've been feeling like I'll never make the deadline for this project and it's making me feel totally panicked and desperate."
One woman had recurring nightmares about earthquakes while she was going through a divorce. Although she felt she was coping with her situation, when she worked with her nightmares, she was able to connect her feelings of terror and instability to her suppressed fears of what would happen to her once the divorce was finalised. She realised she needed to create a life-saving plan of action for her post-divorce life.
Dreams are mirrors. They show us how we are really feeling, and remind us to act to change our lives for the better, by enlisting help, creating a plan, or changing unhelpful behaviours so that we can move forward with joy instead of fear.
Scary Animals and Frightening Beasts
Have you ever had nightmares involving animals who bite or chase you, or mythological beasts whose power paralyses you with fear?
When dream animals want to get our attention, they might attack us, pin us down, roar in our faces, scratch, bite, or pursue us. They might even rip us to pieces and kill us. But this doesn't mean that they are negative energies—in fact, dream animals are fascinating to work with. Their instinctive, wild energy can reveal our conflicts and the shadowy aspects of ourselves or other people in our lives. They may also have a shamanic significance, linking us to the spirit world.
A nightmarish animal or beast is trying to wake us up to something that needs addressing within us, or in our life. Nightmares come to propel us towards psychological wholeness. We can get to the heart of an animal nightmare and discover any message it may have for us by asking some key questions: "Which qualities does this animal embody for me?" "How does it feel to go through life in this animal's skin?"
Vividly imagine yourself as that animal, seeing the world through its eyes, feeling its energy move through you, speaking with its voice. What does it want or need? What is it afraid of? What wisdom does it offer?
This kind of imaginative dreamwork is based on Gestalt therapy, developed by Fritz Perls in the early 1950s. It's a wonderful way of connecting deeply with the energy of a nightmare figure, and can be done alone if it feels right, or with a friend or therapist present if there is a lot of fear or difficult emotions such as disgust or guilt. Some nightmares should not be worked on alone, so do check in with yourself before you engage on these deeper levels with threatening nightmare figures.
A woman who dreamed a dragon was swooping at her while she stood alone on a high pinnacle realised the dragon symbolised her husband, an aggressive and domineering man who was also having an affair. She understood how unsafe he made her feel on every level, and how threatening this situation was to her wellbeing. The nightmare showed her a vivid picture of how alone and threatened she felt, and helped her to understand that something had to change fast.
Have you had terrifying dreams of being trapped in a burning building, or in a crashing airplane? People often report nightmares of being stuck in terrible situations, screaming for help but nobody comes to their rescue.
Such nightmares are often linked to feelings of helplessness, a lack of emotional support, and a belief in one's inability to change a situation.
If you have a nightmare like this, ask yourself: "Where in my life do I feel trapped and powerless, as if there's no way out?" Or ask: "Where do I need to take action in my life?" And, crucially: "Who can I turn to for help in my life?"
One woman had recurring nightmares of being trapped in a doorless, windowless room. She easily linked the feelings of helplessness and panic to her current psychological crisis. During a therapy session, she mentally re-entered the nightmare feeling safe and supported. She was able to imagine herself finding a window, through which she escaped into a beautiful flowering courtyard.
This felt symbolic to her. She realised that she did have choices in her life and could seek a more nourishing, hopeful space for herself. Once she had resolved the dream story in this way, the nightmares didn't return.
When we do empowering imaginative work with a nightmare, equipping our dreaming self with resources such as a sense of safety, a strong ally, or magical powers, we can often break the cycle of bad dreams.
Our dreaming mind wants us to be whole and healthy. All dreams come to help us—if they can't get our attention in any other way, they create shocking scenarios to make us sit up and listen to what's going on within us.
We need to listen to our dreams and nightmares, because they speak to us right from our own heart and soul and have wonderful gifts of insight and wisdom to share with us.
My new book, The Art of Transforming Nightmares, aims to empower dreamers by giving them practical tools to resolve nightmares and other disturbing sleep experiences in healing ways.
Clare R. Johnson, PhD, is the board director and past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. A lucid dreamer since the age of three, she later became the first person in the world to write a PhD ...