A Guide to Dream Interpretation

Nightmares and Shadows in dreams

A discussion of our darker side


I had a nightmare last night, you know one of those where the narrative takes you right up to the most awful part of the horror and then…you wake up. Whew, thank goodness!


Well, not really. Usually I try to get back to sleep so as to resolve the outcome, to finish the story so to speak. In that way I have some control over the outcome, or get more information on the meaning of the dream.


If you were to consider the point where you wake up as the climax of a story then perhaps asking yourself “what happens next?" Or  "How might the story end?” might be a good technique for exploring the nightmare further.


Now I don’t mean for someone who is dreaming a reenactment of a literal horror that has happened in your waking life (such as for those who are suffering from PTSD), stay away from those nightmares, they may need more professional guidance*. I’m talking about those that are symbolic of something going on inside you, or that you are reacting to in your daily life, something psychically broader. You might ask yourself, “Does this dream remind me of something in my waking life?”


Nightmares can be a normal dream occurrence after a trauma, but most of the time it is material that you’ve kept hidden (e.g. threats to your self-esteem, loss of something, or someone important, or trouble coping with certain stresses, unconscious memories stimulated by some recent event, or scary emotions that you have avoided) and the unconscious mind, in the service of your health and well-being, is trying to bring them to consciousness so that you can deal with them appropriately. They literally demand attention.


I think that many of us with the standard unfinished nightmare event want to be able to master them, it’s probably why we like such authors as Stephen King, remember Carrie? Finishing the nightmare in a psychically satisfying manner is much better than ignoring it, because if you do …it’ll be baaack!


Now we’re not talking “night terrors” here, in those there’s no plot just a lot of scary chaos**. On the other hand nightmares have a plot, and often a fairly complicated one. You go from balance, or equilibrium, to extreme out of balance then wake up. When you awaken, then the climax dominates the story and this can truncate the meaning and leave you stuck. If you were to treat the nightmare as a narrative, you would then want the story to return to equilibrium i.e. resolution. Basically I’m talking about the process of transformation, the psychic alchemical process of turning something base into something of value.


The kind of intervention to which I’m referring has the advantage of giving you some feedback i.e. if the nightmare has reoccurred and then after intervention disappears you’ve been successful, if not, try something else.




*Those suffering from PTSD might use these nightmares as part of a treatment intervention. These nightmares may also be the mind’s way of treating the psychic injury, however,  one can get stuck in a constantly reoccurring nightmare that reintroduces the horror of the event over and over again. This kind of nightmare needs treatment with a professional trained to work with them.


** As an adult and if you get a lot of these night terrors where you are thrashing about in bed you may want to share this with your physician.



 Nightmares and Shadows in the dark

Again I had a visit from one of my shadows last night. He was menacing and swarthy and trying hard to enter the locked car I was in through the cracks around the windows and doors. I was paralyzed with fear and unable to defend myself.


When I awoke I had thought that I had a 'handle' on these dark denizens of my psyche, but when I looked closer I saw that I am continuing to create dichotomies and conflicts all around me. I am continuing to see things as good, or bad, black, or white, right, or wrong–every time I judge the world, or myself, to be wrong, or to blame any part of it for its folly I am conjuring the



I saw fear in the dream, I see fear in the world, the fear is in me, the world is in me. I share the inner and outer conflict between what is safe and what is unsafe. I also share the struggle between fear and love. I have great difficulty loving what I fear and cannot add enough outer safety to protect me from the unsafe. My inner world mirrors the outer world where love and the experience of security is at a premium due to fear and my propensity to create dichotomies and to separate myself from the essence of what I am.


I’m not alone of course, you all know what I’m talking about–you may not use a word as strong as “fear”, but “worry”, “anxiety”, “concern”, nervousness”, and “discomfort” will fit just as well.


Trying to feel safe is not in being able to keep the doors locked against the shadow. Building up our armies, carrying guns on our hips, squirreled away in our closets and night stands, nor building walls around our borders will help us to feel safe, or even to be safe. The problem is not “out there”; it is and always has been in here (point at your head).



I don’t feel safe when I don’t remember who I am, who I really am at my core–the source of my being. At the source, or soul level, nothing is threatened from the external world. Fear and its partners e.g. anxiety, need an external focus i.e. past, or current, trauma, memories, and the experience of the unknown (and everything is unknown). Change is of the external world, it is not an aspect of the soul.


Sometimes I wonder if I belong in this world and this thought always leads me toward uneasiness, a feeling of aloneness and insecurity. I never feel this when I feel loved. When I experience love I feel secure, connected, and part of everything.


Some will say that we need to trust in God’s love. I wish I could, but there’s enough grief and tragedy around me that I’m not always sure of the steadfastness of this love. I’ve tried to intellectually believe that all is well because God is with me, or to emotionally embrace the concept, but both are faulty because they are open to doubt. No, I think that love has to reside somewhere inside of me–some place that is immutable, unchanging and independent of circumstances. Love is always there, though it is not always experienced because we throw up fears that mask it.


“If I love myself I love you. If I love you I love myself.”




I always love my wife, but sometimes don’t experience it because I am defending some part of myself, or fearing some action on her part that I’ve misinterpreted as an unloving action. Why is this? Frequently I am on the alert for betrayal. Betrayal is both a waking and sleeping world shadow that often betrays me, the real me, and the loved and loving me. It’s my fearful, untrusting, externally focused self that shuts me off from my core self.


So what does it take to experience and manifest the real me? I think that it may be the absence of fear, or at the very least the absence of not acting in a fearful way. And how might this play out in my response to the waking world?



“Love is the cure,
for your pain will keep giving birth to more pain 
until your eyes constantly exhale love
 as effortlessly as your body yields its scent.” 


Positive and negative dreams…REM and non-REM


I’ve talked about REM sleep and dreams before, ad nauseam. But research has shown that we don’t just dream during REM, we also dream during non-REM (with its four stages leading up to (and from) REM with non-REM out performing REM by over 2.5:1). And it turns out that there’s a qualitative difference between the types of dreams!

Nightmares are also experienced during REM and are affected by a dysfunctional sleep cycle in that people with depression and/or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) tend to have a lot of them. There’s a movement afoot in the Psychiatric field to find pharmacological ways of diminishing nightmares in those with chronic depression and PTSD. But nightmares are similar to ancestral dreams and may very well be rehearsals in the struggle to survive. They may be the brain’s way of aiding an individual to confront their fears and tensions head-on. During REM sleep the Amygdala (located deep within the medial temporal lobes of our brain) that deals with unpleasant emotions, aggression, and fear and modulates REM sleep, may be responsible for  the negative vibes. Along that note, it’s interesting that people with depression jump into REM quickly by bypassing the non-REM stages–the positive stages. A dysfunctional Amygdala is also implicated. This rapid entering into REM and depletion of overall non-REM is a marker for depression and often precede a depressive episode*.Those who are awakened during a non-REM episode report generally positive dreams while those who are awakened from REM report mostly negative. What’s that about?

Drugs may in the short term provide a respite for the insomnia of the depressed that is caused by nightmares, but if used over the long term what may they be doing to the process that nature uses to resolve and deal with fear? Do we really understand the functions of sleep and dreaming well enough to be interfering in this way? Might not it be better to develop a different way of therapeutically dealing with the darkness other than the popping of a pill to suppress it?

Perhaps in some of us it takes the form of chronic depression, or chronically unresolved fears, especially those fears that seem to be unattached to any stimulus, what psychologists call “Free-floating.” There may also be a cultural consequence that shows up in our attitude toward death (and medicine) and our overwhelming need, born of fear, to suppress the negative behaviors in others. Why does the U.S. always seem to be at war with someone? Why does capitalism require continuous growth and happiness? This may be an avoidance of the negative, but can lead to bubbles that pop, an unsustainable depletion of resources, and unstable societies. With the focus on the avoidance of the negative we seem to be constantly running from it. It's like a bully that we've inadvertantly given power to.REM dreams tend to be dark and sometimes unpleasant and the Western culture tends to avoid these emotions in that it is believed that it’s best to leave them alone. But what is the consequence of this avoidance over time? What is the consequence of suppressing the natural negative? 

Both REM and non-REM have what appear to be important, perhaps even vital, functions to our survival and learning. It turns out that non-REM is our internal trainer–it mirrors past experience in a time-compressed manner. It literally is helping you in the present to relate to the future from the past. The REM dream, however, expands time and takes you into the future in order to practice it and to test various scenarios. This may explain why some dreams seem to be about what’s happened during your waking life the day before, while others seem more distant, or unrelated to waking life events, perhaps more internal in nature.

Dreams in both forms seem to be nature’s way of preparing us for whatever comes next. Basically it’s an ancient survival tool, the content is different, but the mechanics are pretty much the same.

Dreams seem to reinforce learning, creativity, and survival skills, provide a window to your emotional self, and open a space for life preparation, i.e. practice. They do this by providing a totally different point-of-view to that of our waking life i.e. they are intuitive and visual in contrast to the waking life’s linear and logical. What seem to be intractable problems in one’s waking life can be overcome through the highly creative, free-associating content of dreams.


*Bypassing non-REM sleep also interrupts the body’s 


   cycle that further reinforces the depression.


For more insight into the darker aspects of the human psyche follow this link to the SomniumLibro


Nightmare Treatments

The following are treatments for nightmare disorders (as a result of or not as a result of trauma based PTSD:

Best Practice Guide for the Treatment of Nightmare Disorder in Adults 

Standards of Practice Committee: 

R. Nisha Aurora, M.D.1; Rochelle S. Zak, M.D.2; Sanford H. Auerbach, M.D.3; Kenneth R. Casey, M.D.4; Susmita Chowdhuri, M.D.5; Anoop Karippot, M.D.6; Rama K. Maganti, M.D.7; Kannan Ramar, M.D.8; David A. Kristo, M.D.9; Sabin R. Bista, M.D.10; Carin I. Lamm, M.D.11; Timothy I. Morgenthaler, M.D.8

In the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (JCSM) Vol. 6, No. 4, 2010, pgs 389-401

These are all non-pharmacological therapies used to treat excessive nightmares. The above journal article goes into greater detail.

•Image rehearsal Therapy

•Cognitive Behavior Therapy

•Lucid Dreaming Therapy

•Self-exposure Therapy

•Exposure-relaxation-rescripting Therapy

•Systematic Desensitization

•Sleep Dynamic Therapy