Oh, those bad dreams. The all-too-real nightmares. The ridiculous, but nonetheless disturbing images.
Everything. Is. Gone.
Or, you wander into the bathroom in the middle of the night, and you’re not alone. And I don’t mean a mini Miss Muffet descending from her tuffet, either. We’re talking monsters behind walls, ogres in shadows, hands rising up out of the toilet bowl!
You wonder if it’s something you ate.
Then there are the dreams that jolt you back in time – or forward to some tiny unexplored corner of your mind in which a deep-seated terror holds court: You’re lying in bed and you realize your hubby has left you; you’re lying in bed and realize he hasn’t; maybe you’ve morphed into monstrous vermin, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa.
Where do these dreams originate? What purpose do they serve? And why is it that some stick with us all day long, into the next night, and still cling with remarkable persistence well into the next day?
How Dreams Serve Us
I’ve delved into facts and fictions on dreaming before – gender differences, age differences and other factors. I find it all fascinating, as we continue to learn from research on both dreams and nightmares.
WebMD explains that dreams are “stories and images our mind creates,” but of course, nightmares are something more insidious. They pluck at and from those normally well protected stores of deep-seated fear.
As for why we dream:
Some researchers say dreams have no purpose or meaning and are nonsensical activities of the sleeping brain. Others say dreams are necessary for mental, emotional, and physical health.
What they also seem to agree on:
Studies have shown the importance of dreams to our health and well-being.
When prevented from dreaming, people are subject to increased tension, anxiety, depression, weight gain and more. Moreover, dreams help us process memories and solve problems.
So what about the nightmares?
Some think they help us recognize issues we might otherwise wish to lock away and deny. The Dream Interpretation Dictionary tells us:
Nightmares… are usually caused by some kind of conflict that we’re experiencing in our lives…
These conflicts include childhood memories, fears, PTSD – and for some, nightmares may be the manifestation of precognition. (And yes, I’ve experienced that, though on rare occasions. It is both cool and frightening.)
Worry Dreams, Surreal Dreams
When it comes to unsettling scenarios in our sleeping showstoppers, there’s the usual: That one last exam to take before you can finally complete college; your speech you’ve forgotten as you’re about to take to the podium; your realization that you’re standing naked in the middle of the street, and naturally, everyone is staring.
There is the disturbing symbolism in specific dreams, as interpreted the those with expertise.
For example, nightmares of losing teeth are associated with vulnerability, and typically appear after life events of significant loss. I have personal experience on this score; for years I dreamed my teeth were falling out. This was during and after a 3-year period that saw divorce, layoff, loss of my home and the death of my only remaining parent.
Those particular nightmares took some five years to dissappear.
In short, nightmares are disturbing at the very least, and terrifying at their worst.
Psychology Today explains:
REM is the stage of sleep during which dreams tend to be vivid and have an apparent story line. In the case of nightmares, the story line is one of serious threat to physical integrity, security or survival and is associated with dysphoric mood. Nightmares can be extremely realistic or may involve fantasy aspects or events that are impossible in consensus reality.
As for those dreams in which all rules of the physical world seem to have been dismissed – it’s as though you are welcomed into your own Rabbit Hole, sans Alice – they may seem to make a certain kind of sense, or you may feel completely disoriented.
I have experienced two nightmares in the past few months that continue to stand out in my memory, and in startling detail. Having jotted down the essence within minutes of waking, I can look back at my notes and literally feel the same creepy sensations as I did then, and I can visualize the scenes in which I found myself at that time.
In one of these nightmares, the action and conversation were so vivid, so tangible, so realistic – and grounded in an everyday scenario – that when I awoke and glanced around, I was convinced that reality was the dream and the dream, reality.
I dozed again and picked up where I left off, and some time later crawled my way back to wakefulness – shaken. Since then, I have been picking through the nightmare’s conversations and images, trying to decipher their possible messages, and none too consoled by the fact that women report nightmares more frequently than men, and of greater intensity.
In the other nightmare?
No need for details. Suffice it to say, I still recollect the fear, and while it was partially a lucid dream, I struggled to extricate myself from a horrific situation.
However intriguing these experiences may be, I could do with fewer of them, and the resulting anxiety.
Many experts tell us that dreaming reveals bits and pieces of our past. While we may shuffle the puzzle pieces in the process, memories may be unlocked – both pleasant and distressing.
As one who has lucid dreams perhaps 10% of the time (that I recall) – dreaming, and fully aware of being in a dream – I understand the power and complexity of this ability to direct the action. This article on Psychology Today explores the notion of our breadth of capacities in lucid dreams, which has me musing on lucid nightmares.
… the dreamer quite clearly has awareness and self-consciousness… The ability to reason and to engage in logical thought is intact. Access to the dreamer’s autobiographical memories is intact. The ability to take on third person perspective is intact so the dreamer can consider, entertain and imagine what another character in the dream is thinking or feeling as well. Indeed whole interactions… can take place just as in waking life.
I find this angle especially interesting – the issue of lucid nightmares – especially having experienced this recently.
In fact, the lucid dreamer
observes a fully realized visual world replete with settings, environments, characters, movements, actions, storyline, plot and “atomsphere” just as occurs in the waking world. Indeed this dream world and the characters in it are so real that they can intensely affect the dreamer’s physiologic reactions even unto death.
A little, yes.
As the other nightmare I mentioned was, at moments, lucid, I will say that it didn’t help me get myself out of a mess except to exit the dream, which required a surprising amount of effort. Let’s just say, I was happy to find myself in bed – lucid and awake.
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