4 Tips For Understanding Your Nightmares

Almost every night this week, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with some heinous nightmares. One night, my good friend, who’s about to get married, told me the wedding was off because she’d decided to date one of my exes, in another, I was being held at gun point, last night, my house was getting submerged with toxic water. I woke up gasping, with cold sweats.

I think, for many of us, when we have a realistic seeming nightmare — that someone is going to die, that our partner is cheating on us — our first instinct is to think: Is this going to come true? Or, if the nightmare is more out there, we think: Is something really bad is about to happen? 

From the time I spent studying dream analysis in college and grad school, I know that this is false. Well, kind of. Something bad may be about to happen, but only if we ignore our nightmares. I like to think of nightmares as the siren that goes off before the bomb drops on our life. Nightmares are warnings about issues we need to resolve, patterns we need to break or harmful attitudes or beliefs we’re holding on to. Sometimes our fear keeps us from trying to understand the insight our nightmares are trying to give us.

Carl Jung says that every figure in your dream is a part of yourself. The parts of ourselves that we don’t particularly like or are afraid of, Jung referred to as “The Shadow.” When The Shadow shows up in a nightmare, it’s often transmuted into a devil, monster, killer, scary animal or threatening situation. The most important thing you can do is confront The Shadow. It has something to teach you.

But how do you do that exactly? Below, some tips for confronting your nightmares that I find very helpful.

1. Literally confront your nightmare. If I have a nightmare about a person or a current issue in your life,  take action and deal with it as soon as possible. Call your mother the next morning and talk about Christmas. Pay that stack of bills that you’ve been hiding under the bed. Send that email to your ex that you need to send. It sounds simple, but sometimes working up the courage to tackle the things we avoid can be surprisingly difficult. Oh, inertia.

2. Write a new ending to the nightmare. Sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and write down your nightmare. This time, when you get to the part where the water is rising to the point where you’re about to drown and you woke up, write a more positive ending. Ex: I find a piece of driftwood and fashion it into a makeshift boat. I use my arms and paddle like mad. I find an open window and swim out of it to freedom.

3. Contemplate what the scary thing is. If your nightmare is not so obvious, you need to try to figure it out. Look at the whole nightmare and ask yourself what it may be about. What does this scary person/place/or thing remind me of? What do these emotions remind me of? What are they metaphors for? What was the scariest part of this nightmare? This can also be a journal thing. I sometimes like to write a letter to my nightmare:

Dear Toxic Water, 

Why did you come to me in my dream last night?

And then, free write the scary thing answering you back.

Dear Ami,

I came to you because you are avoiding that thing you have to do where you have to have that unpleasant conversation with someone and even though you think waiting is the thing to do, the situation will get more hazardous and contentious as the time passes. Get a life raft and get on it.

4. Ask a friend or therapist. No matter how self-aware we are, we always have blind spots when it comes to our own problems. You may want to run your nightmare by someone who knows you really well. Chances are they’ll have some immediate insight that you didn’t think of. “OMG, that dream is totally about your sister, don’t you see it?” You did not see it, but now you do.