Before we dive into how to work with scary dreams, let’s look at some of the different kinds of scary dreams that we may experience.
I know – all scary dreams are scary. Yes, yes, they are. But that does not mean that all scary dreams are the same.
Because they are not. Because we have different kinds of fear and fear responses.
At one layer, it does not matter immediately what the exact dream contains because it is important to know that the dreamer is scared in and of the dream. Which is an important place to begin.
And then, the dream speaks to what is so frightening to the dreamer.
Our scary dreams come for many reasons, as we have explored – to show us where we are living in fear, to help us process and heal from scary events, to teach us about fear itself.
Because fear is not something to hope to never have. Fear is normal and often the most appropriate response to something we are facing or that we need to work with. I have fear when I start a new poem; I have fear when I face into my trauma work; I have fear going some place new. Of course, all of these things are scary to me in different ways. And, of course, it is good to let myself be scared.
Fear is only “negative” when it works to shut us down. Or when we shut it down and bury it someplace deep inside.
So, let’s look at different “kinds” of nightmares or scary dreams. As much as I loathe categorization [and I really, really do], sometimes it can be helpful not to create a concrete structure but as a way to give examples. We are not going to explore all the kinds, but some generalities.
[Also, we will explore some of these in more depth in upcoming articles.]
Scary Dreams: The Unknown
One place that often carries fear as an appropriate response [rather than a reaction based on the past] is when we are stepping into the unknown.
Stepping into the unknown can be as simple as starting a new job, moving to a new place, beginning a new phase of our lives. It is a step into something that is utterly new to us where we cannot rely on past experiences as navigation.
When a young person goes to college, that first time in class or moving into the dorm is fraught with fear and probably some excitement. When we decide to move across country or to another country altogether, fear is part of the experience.
The unknown is also part of our spiritual or inner journey. Stepping into a new place may not have any outer world manifestations, but the inner changes are new. This kind of work is also often accompanied by fear.
Dreams may reflect this by having us take a leap off a cliff or by walking away from a known, comfortable setting. Or by showing us that we are not reacting to a situation in a dream as we have reacted in the past.
Scary Dreams: Change
Similar to dreams about taking the leap into the unknown are scary dreams about change. Why is change scary? Change is scary because we are moving out of comfort and into something different.
Change can be different that stepping into the unknown [although, of course, change and the unknown are often intertwined] for when we make a change, it may not be a complete step into unknown territory. In fact, the territory – whether outer world or inner world or both – may be very known to us.
For example, maybe we take on more responsibilities at our work. Maybe we change our schedules to allow more time for creative work or spending time with beloveds. Not out of what is known, but not in the same groove as before.
A dream with a certain kind of natural event may show this in our work. For example, we may dream of an earthquake when we experience big changes in our lives [the very ground under us changing].
When we come to one of our own scary dreams and we bring cultural/familial/religious beliefs we have been taught, it may be difficult to be with the dream in any way besides wanting it to go away.
When we are taught that scary dreams may come from demons or some evil place, when we are taught that scary dreams are some indication that there is something wrong with us [i.e. that we are the demon], when we are taught that scary dreams are just from a bad meal, then the idea of just wanting the dreams to go away is more reinforced.
Look up the word “nightmare” and most of the links that come up will be about how to get rid of them.
Isn’t this how we are taught in Western culture to be with what we do not understand? To wish it away, to try to “cure” our “nightmares”, to put peace or calm or some ideal state of “happiness” as the goal. We are not really taught to go toward what is scary.
We are not really taught to be with what is frightening us. “There, there. It was just a dream!” is what we are taught about scary dreams. To put them aside. To not give weight to our experiences. To not bring curiosity.
The trajectory of a need to “cure nightmares” puts our scary dreams into the same kind of simplistic categories embraced by Jung and other dreamwork teachers, like my old teacher, around issues we face in dreams – like race and like scary dreams. “Scary dreams are bad” is simplistic and a way to not face into something imperative in our inner lives.
It is a way to not be curious, not ask questions.
To bring it to why it matters to us personally is this – when facing a dream in our life [whether from last night or 20 years ago], bringing awarenesses of our own biases around the dream and the contents of the dream can be part of how we can change our trajectory as we move through our life. Bringing awareness to what we are taught about dream and the inherent biases of teachers can be part of how we grow our own autonomy and our curiosity.
Because there are many ways to look at scary dreams – because there are many different kinds of scary dreams. Scary dreams, just like anything else, do not fit into one category [i.e. bad or even good].
When we bring curiosity to what makes something scary for us and what we are frightened of and what we carry from our past that was scary, then we can work with our scary dreams in many different ways. Then they are not “bad” or “good”. Just important and wanting our attention.
Scary Dreams: Being Out of Control
Then there are dreams that speak about places where we feel out of control.
Meaning, dreams that reflect moments – either present or past – where we feel scared or uncomfortable about not being able to control a situation or something in our lives. These kinds of changes may be either lovely or difficult.
For example, we may be experiencing changes in a relationship, part of which is not in our control, but in the hands of the other. Places where we are taking risks.
Or, we may experience fear around not be able to control an outcome. I think, here, of being with something physical in our lives we cannot control – like an illness or injury – in ourselves or with others. Or, we may experience fear around being out of control around larger issues, such as climate change.
What might a dream like this look like? Well, it may manifest as not being the driver of a car that seems to be out of control. Or, something is chasing us that we cannot seem to escape. Or a dream directly about our experience – watching a beloved hurting because of a disease we cannot help with.
Scary Dreams: The Known – Past Experiences/Trauma
Then, of course, we have dreams that speak about experiences from our past, some of which are traumatic events or times.
These dreams may speak to the fear we are already carrying but are not aware we are living from.
When I first dreamt about my childhood trauma, the dreams were working to show me I was still living in response to that trauma. Still living in fear around many issues because of my experiences. Even when I would have not described myself as a frightened person. I was, for a long time.
These dreams can be some of the most difficult for they will often show us where and how we are still living the trauma or even show us where we have trauma that we may not even know is affecting us. Sometimes, these dreams will have us in the situation[s] we experienced and sometimes our dreams will show us what the situation[s] felt like. For example, if we grew up in a highly restrictive environment where who we were was not accepted or even condemned [i.e. being gay and growing up in a religious family where this was considered a bad thing], then we may dream of being in prison or being condemned in some physical way that did not happen in our waking life.
Scary Dreams: Terrifying Images – i.e. war/violence/etc
And then there are dreams that do not seem connected to our lives at all. That present terrifying images that are completely outside of our experiences.
Of course, there is always a connection to our own lives, even in dreams of this scope. But sometimes dreams also want to show us something about the world that we may not have wanted to see or be made aware of.
Next week, we will explore scary dreams around change and stepping into the unknown and how to work with them.