Nightmares affect our sleep quality. Can an effective interpretation of their meaning resolve underlying issues and promote a better rest?

“Dreams: our most personal letter from and to ourselves” Carl G. Jung

Nightmares are recurrent and repetitive dreams. They can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and create intense feelings of fear and angst. At times, a person can be woken up because of those overwhelming sensations, which continue after the dream is over. Nightmares are categorized as a sleep disorder -parasomnia- often occurring during the stage of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM), involving unwelcome experiences which can occur while one is falling asleep, during sleep, or when one is waking up.

The brain is always awakened, sending messages, and going through phases of sleep and dream scripts. There seems to be evidence, at least according to some theories, that nightmares could be connected to stressful and unresolved life events, eliciting -somehow- the same anguish and fear one feels during waking life and giving some sort of a hint about current events triggering them.

In his interpretations of dreams, Sigmund Freud provides several clues to unmask and de-construct their meanings. The Freudian dream theory is far more complex than believing dreams are unfulfilled wishes responding to sexual impulses; Freud himself showed reticence to see it reduced to that equation, claiming that unfulfilled wishes are more an ego impulse than a desire of something to happen. Like dreams, Freud’s guidelines are not meant to be understood literally or outside their psychoanalytical context. Instead, dreams thrive at the representation and symbolic levels. And, there are always traces of childhood that materialize in dreams.

It is said that dreams are not meant to be interpreted by the dreamer yet, during the process of self-interpretation, meanings seem to come easier. Perhaps, intuitively, one tends to believe meaning is intrinsically attached to the narrative of the dreamer’s discourse, through the process of self-talk, during that semi lucid state right after the nightmare, or when we talk to others about it, recreating its withstanding emotions. Largely, we do have the tendency to give order to the dream material, to establish relations and turn them into something intelligible; underneath we want to believe they do have meaning. After all, those intense imageries and sensations should imply something.

Generalizations about dreams usually provide inaccurate and unrefined purports, like Zodiac signs or stereotypes. However, Freud does talk about some typical dreams which are plausible to have a generalised interpretation. Among those, there are the “geworfen,” dreams about being thrown out, which could be interpreted as being rejected. A paralysis sensation could represent a weakened will power, eliciting anguish and being plunged into water could refer to fantasies of the intra uterus life, such as permanence in the maternal bosom. However, these dreams, must be interpreted within their singularity and context. A Jungian analysis would also admit the presence of universal archetypes and opposites, or alter egos, all exemplarily operating as a resolution to individuation to compensate imbalance, posing characters and events of the dream as a representation of some part of the self.

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Although Freud seems to determinedly refuse to a literal analysis of dreams, he accepts the fact that many are constructed with a coherence very similar to the structure of rational processes. Such seemingly coherent and translucent dreams, appear to be logical and correct as they portray a feasible situation. They have a beginning, a middle, an end, and seem to be the result of the most profound elaboration of certain psychic forces, analog to conscious cognitive functions. Yet, he commends to disregard their apparent coherence and look for underlying symbolic meanings.

In a different vein, Adam Adler would include issues of overcompensation to some sort of inferiority complex to the analysis of dreams. Thomas French, on his part, would attempt to find a focal conflict in the dreamer’s waking life, which can stir up similar problems, mystifyingly eliciting a possible solution to solve real life problems. A Bossian interpretation would question the existence of two different spheres –dream and reality- as they are both parts of the same unity -the self- opposing Freud’s translational nature of dreams. Or, perhaps, we could follow Gendlin’s advice and just welcome dreams and their indecipherable messages, accepting them as part of our existence, more friends than foe.

Undoubtedly, nightmares are a very special kind of dream because of their extreme nature. It is their toxic repetition and strength what hints us about their need to be interpreted, as if they were crying for attention. They are encrypted metaphors, yearning for elucidation. They appear to exist within the feelings they elicit and work as a mirror, a snapshot of life, reflecting emotions and events in allegorical representations. They seem to urge us to resolve things in our lives, as a ransom to be paid for their retreat. Nightmares’ content may seem catastrophic and bizarre, yet they are real because they disrupt our sleep. Listen to them; decipher the message hence kill the messenger.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Planeta-De Agostini. Buenos Aires, 1992.

Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Vintage Book Edition. New York, 1965.

Jung, Carl. Dell Publishing. 1968.

Van de Castle, Robert L. Our Dreaming Mind. Ballantine Books. New York, 1995.