Ask Me: What About Nightmares? Part 1: Why??

One of the most common questions I get about dreams [besides “How Do I Remember Dreams”] is about what most of us call nightmares.

Why do we have nightmares? What is the point? What, even, is a nightmare?


So, let’s start our exploration of “nightmares” by first calling them something different. For me, the image of “nightmare” calls up horror movies and the idea that nightmares can come from somewhere or something else. 

I have this association because the very word “nightmare” carries this definition. The etymology of the word “nightmare” comes from “night” [obviously] and from “mare”. The word “mare” is an old word that at its root means a goblin or incubus or evil spirit. A nightmare, then, is an evil spirit that attacks people at night in their sleep. Specifically, in some roots of the word, by suffocation or by trampling.

It is what many cultures have believed about frightening dreams – that they are caused by evil or angry spirits or ancestors or gods. 

A Nightmare by Giovanni David [Italian, ca. 1775-1780]

Which is why I do not usually call frightening dreams nightmares. Let’s call them scary dreams, for now. 

Let’s also look at some of the “whys” around scary dreams.


Why do we have scary dreams?

A very short possible answer is this – we have scary dreams because we are living with something that is frightening. We may be living with something scary inside of us – like trauma, like a scary memory or even a scary belief – or we may be living with something scary outside of us.

I recently worked with someone who had a very scary dream of a devastating earthquake. Now, for some, the exploration of this kind of dream would be entirely internal with a question like, “Do you feel like the ground underneath you is shifting in some emotional or spiritual way?”

This is, of course, an important line of inquiry in any exploration of this kind of dream. Another important question would be to ask if the dreamer had ever experienced an earthquake, for perhaps the dream refers to a trauma around a real event in her/their/his waking life.


And, we are also living in a time of great climate danger. With massive climate change happening now [not in the future], a dream of an earthquake is not just about an internal state. It can also be reflective of a very real fear of an outer reality.

If the dreamer lives in a place where there is an imminent real threat of earthquakes – like anywhere in “The Ring of Fire” which basically horseshoes around the Pacific Ocean – then the dream may be reflecting a very real fear of the dreamer’s daily life.

Not all scary dreams simply reflect an inner state or fear.

A scary dream may also reflect a frightening situation not just in circumstances like climate change or politics, but in our personal lives. 

For example, if a dreamer is living in a dangerous situation, the dreams will reflect this. A dangerous situation may be obvious – like living without shelter, living in a war zone, living in a dangerous neighborhood.

But a scary situation may not be as obvious. A dreamer may be in a situation that is dangerous but she/they/he are not willing to admit to the danger. A person living with an abusive partner but is in denial about the abuse, a person lost in addiction, a person attracted to unhealthy situations and/or people. 

And, of course, we have scary dreams when we have had scary experiences in our past [recent or from as far back as childhood]. PTSD from war experiences, trauma from being involved in violent experiences [there was another school shooting today], trauma from physical, emotional, sexual abuse. Trauma from immigration experiences, from all the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia. 


Why we have scary dreams does not have a simple answer. I do believe, however, that scary dreams come not to retraumatize us, not to terrorize us. Instead, they come to reflect, challenge us about something we are living or living with in order to bring us to safety and ultimately to healing. The dream itself is not an “incubus” or  “evil spirit” – it simply wants to show us something true.

A scary dream comes to show us a truth about something frightening in our lives. So that we can heal, change, get help. They come to show us how to work with the frightening thing – whether it is in our past or in our present. They come to show us we are not alone and that we can face what we have feared to face.

So we can wake up from a nightmare we may be living without even knowing it.


Just as why we have scary dreams does not have an simple answer, how scary dreams work and how to work with scary dreams also do not have a simple, singular answers. 

Let’s explore some of the “how” of scary dreams in our next article…