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  • Writer's pictureGuylaine Richer de Lafleche

Nightmares: Finding the Light in the Dark

Up and down, good and evil, night and day — every yin has its yang and the dream world is no different. When we close our eyes the things that are uncertain in our lives can haunt and overwhelm our minds at night, making it hard to find the light in the dark.

Although nightmares are unpleasant at the time, they come to share with us important messages about our health and well-being. Determining what your nightmares are trying to tell you depends on what type of nightmare you are having.

What Are Nightmares?

Nightmares are frightening dreams with intense imagery and emotion that can cause stress and anxiety. Everyone can have nightmares, but there can be several factors that play a role in the severity of our experience.

Sometimes it’s nightmares that lead people to research their dreams, other times, the overwhelming fear and anxiety of a nightmare forces people to push their dreams further away. So much so, that their nightmares can recur for a lifetime if they’re not worked through.

The intensity of a nightmare can range anywhere from a “bad dream” to sleep paralysis, as shown in figure 1. Please note, this presentation is a brief overview to help you understand where your nightmares may stem from. The information gathered is based on my own experience and the knowledge I’ve gained working as a Dreamwork Professional. This is not a timeline of events but rather a scale to demonstrate the intensity of different types of nightmares. This scale will differ for each individual.

Types of Nightmares

Generally, nightmares are our mind's way of metaphorically showing us our dominant emotional concerns. The most common type of nightmares are dreams that contain fearful imagery and emotions that leave you feeling disturbed or anxious upon waking. I refer to these nightmares as “bad dreams,” as shown in figure 2. Bad dreams are often a result of our everyday experiences, such as stress, watching a scary movie, or eating a late-night snack. People with non-threatening occupations and who are often in the spotlight, such as a teacher, actor or actress, or public speaker, may experience bad dreams more frequently.

Another factor that contributes to bad dreams is in the boundaries of our minds, as shown in figure 3, a concept that was developed by psychoanalyst Earnest Hartmann who studied the characteristics of his patients who suffered nightmares. Hartmann's concept is complex, but in short, he discovered people with thinner boundaries are proven to have significantly more vivid, emotional, and disturbingly bizarre dreams that feel more nightmarish. If you’d like to learn more about the boundaries of your mind, I suggest reading Earnest Hartmann’s ‘Dreams and Nightmares: The Origin and Meaning of Dreams’ — an excellent source for nightmares, and personally one of my favourite books!

I refer to a nightmare as an energetic dream that contains imagery and emotion frightening enough that you wake from a deep sleep, often covered in sweat, with an increased heart rate and shortness of breath. These types of nightmares can be a result of major life transitions, such as death, divorce, surgery, and pregnancy, as shown in figure 4. During pregnancy, both men and women can experience nightmares reflecting insecurities and even self-doubt about their future roles as parents. People who have life-threatening occupations such as firefighters or pilots, and who suffer from extreme pressure and sleep deprivation, may experience an influx of nightmares as well.

Bad dreams and nightmares are often referred to as wake-up calls. They’re our psyche's way of getting our immediate attention. In other words, they are “everyday dreams” with the volume turned up — the more we ignore them, the louder they will become.

Chronic nightmares are dreams that stem from psychological-stresses, as shown in figure 5. Chronic nightmares become so heavy and repetitive that they interfere with your daily life and sleep schedule. People who experience chronic nightmares are usually those who suffer from trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. In some cases, medication, substance abuse, and persistent loss of sleep can be contributing factors as well.

Another form of a nightmare that I haven’t mentioned on my chart is "night terrors.” Night terrors are most commonly experienced in children, although adults can experience them as well. Night terrors typically result in intense screaming and flailing of the body, with wide-eyes and dilated pupils, while the dreamer is still asleep. Although this can be a very terrifying experience to witness, the dreamer usually has no recollection of it happening and occasional night terrors shouldn’t warrant concern. It is highly common for children to experience nightmares and night terrors, as a result of their minds processing the world.

Ways to Deal with Nightmares

Although it can be difficult to work through your nightmares, they hold very meaningful messages that simply shouldn’t be ignored.

A technique known as Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is commonly used to overcome nightmares. The goal of IRT is to reimagine a new and comfortable way for your dream to end. This technique is especially great for children who may enjoy drawing or painting their dream, and for people with chronic nightmares under the guidance of a psychologist, therapist, and/or dreamwork professional.

Sleep hygiene is a key element in having good quality sleep and dreams, and can potentially help with your nightmares in the long run. Be sure to change your bed sheets often and keep a consistent sleep schedule if possible. Practice stress and anxiety-reducing activities such as light yoga and meditation before bed to help relax your mind and body before you go to sleep.

It’s good practice to ground yourself upon waking, especially after a nightmare. Place your feet on the floor and imagine roots growing from them, deep into the ground. Take a few deep breaths and observe your surroundings.


In most cases, nightmares aren't precognitive, however, they can be a friendly reminder to stay present in your surroundings. Seeking the guidance of a psychologist, therapist and/or a dreamwork professional (depending on your experience, a combination of all three), could help to tame your nightmares and make the things that overwhelm you at night just a little less haunting — eventually, you may even find yourself asking for more!


Are you ready to find the light in the dark? Book your one-on-one dreamwork session here

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