Bill’s mom and dad are on an aeroplane. He is watching them from below. Suddenly, Bill is in a room looking up through a glass roof at the aircraft flying overhead when he realises, with growing helplessness, fear and sadness, that the plane is crashing into the roof. He looks up and sees glass falling toward him. At the same instant, an intense, bright fireball is rushing towards him. He is petrified.
He tries to scream, but no sound escapes his lips. He can distinctly hear glass breaking, the sound of the aircraft’s engines and the screams of passengers. He becomes aware of an unfamiliar voice. At that point, he wakes up, feeling sad and shaken.
Bill had been having this nightmare, or a variation of it, recurrently for five months. It’s easy to identify with Bill. Many people experience recurrent nightmares and struggle to understand the reason behind it.
Simulation or symptom?
Antti Revonsuo, professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Skôvde in Sweden and director in the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Turku in Finland, argues that nightmares allow the dreamer to face threat or attack by rehearsing potentially life-threatening situations in a safe environment.
His “threat simulation” theory is supported by the fact that, during dreams and nightmares, we are in a state of paralysis that prevents us from getting up and acting out of our nightmares. So the environment simulated by our minds provides the perfectly safe environment for stretching our experiences to include those that are threatening but nonetheless may be useful for survival. His ideas are based on the well-established research finding that two thirds of all the dreams we remember are unpleasant.
American dream worker Jeremy Taylor suggests that “all dreams coming in the service of health and wholeness”. If we see nightmares in this light, nightmares are like psychological alarm calls that tell us when something is wrong and even more specifically that we need to pay attention to it during waking.
Often, people will say that the feeling they experienced during a nightmare is the most extreme form of fear, sadness, confusion, or any other feeling that they have ever experienced. Nightmares are often formed when we don’t listen to what our nightmares and dreams are trying to tell us, and they may become more and more unpleasant to attract our attention.
When Bill narrated his nightmare to me, I asked him the three most outstanding aspects of his nightmare. They were his parents’ death, his feelings of helplessness and fear, and the fireball. I asked him the message he thought the nightmare contained. “Starting university is a new way of life, which I am afraid of; usually I would turn to my parents but I’m on my own here, trying to be an adult,” he said. I suggested that he was rehearsing, in a safe place [i.e. during dreaming] his grief about leaving home and moving away from family.
To him, this felt like death—it was, in fact, ‘psychological’ death of his previous way of life. It was also the beginning of his journey into adulthood and independent living. I suggested that he act upon the dream, honour it even, by going home to visit his folks. The nightmare stopped as soon as he consciously realised his need to see his family and he acknowledged his fear of his current situation and the enforced distance between him and his parents with whom he associated ‘safety.’
Who gets nightmares?
On an average, most people experience one or two nightmares every year. Others experience them to a lesser or greater extent. How frequently you experience a nightmare depends on your personality characteristics such as a tendency to be introverted and to worry more about stressful issues. It is also associated with creativity.
People with higher stress levels are more likely to have nightmares. Research findings indicate the women aged over 30 are most likely to suffer nightmares. But as women—and men—get older, the frequency of nightmares decreases. Typically, nightmare sufferers will be: female, aged over 30, and somewhat anxious.
Having nightmares more frequently owing to changes in external life events rather than personality traits suggests that they may also alert us to emotional concerns that we need to address. Therefore, nightmares are a common and ‘normal’ part of dream life. Stresses in waking life may cause these intense and unpleasant experiences. As the number of adverse life events increases, so does nightmare frequency.
In a study conducted at the University of the West of England in 2008, 311 people completed a nightmare survey asking what they felt had caused an increase in their experience of nightmares. The events that increased the frequency of nightmares according to respondents include death of a family member or partner, exams, argument or break up with ‘significant other’, changes in job or income, moving house, chemotherapy or medication, family problems, arguments with friends, bad mood the previous day and getting married.
Being aware of how current life events affect us helps us to prepare and even expect a change in the quality of our dream or nightmare experiences. I would also like to suggest that nightmares, like any other dream, can be used to promote psychological wellbeing. If we pay active attention to them, they can lead to some remarkable insight into our state of mind.