You are running down a dark alley with someone chasing you. You find a shed to hide in only to find moments later the door slowly opening. As you are about to face the chaser you awaken in a fright.
Bad dreams or nightmares are a universal human experience. Twenty-five percent of children aged 5 -12 report having bad dreams at least once a week. Nightmare rates climb through adolescence and peak in young adulthood. These findings, along with increased rates of bad dreams after traumatizing events, suggest a relationship between dreams and the emotional state of the dreamer.
Dream images contextualize emotions. For example, dreams of a ferocious lion approaching or a burning house in which no one can escape represent the feeling of fear or terror. Studies reveal that about three-quarters of the emotions described in all dreams are negative such as fear, sadness or frustration. It is these uncomfortable and often intense feelings that cause dreams to be considered bad or disturbing.
But what exactly are we afraid or upset about? Recall that certain qualities of our self that we undervalue or deem bad are repressed into our unconscious as shadow material. However, these qualities are needed for us to become whole, more balanced and to feel alive and creative. Our true self or psyche shows us these hidden aspects of our self during dreams. These qualities often take the form of aggressors, monsters, intimidating animals, natural disasters and people whom we dislike. Our ‘I’ or Ego who is observing the dream does not like these qualities and thus, feels uncomfortable or even terrified by these images.
Our dreams are gifts from the unconscious, from our soul. They show us parts of our self that need to be explored, accepted or down-played in order for personal growth to occur. We humbly ask our self, “What am I running from or too afraid to face? What part of me is behaving like the thug, the ex-spouse, the rising tidal wave, or the rotting corpse?” These shadowy traits can range from greed to creativity, from jealousy to reclaiming our instincts and realistic perceptions.
Death or the threat of death is a very common theme in nightmares. Looking at death symbolically, associations such as dying, discontinuation, life and death, and burying something no longer needed can be seen. You can then start to ask, “What part of my psyche is no longer needed? What currently held attitude, belief or behaviour is old, ready for death or needs to be buried?”
Sometimes the soul whispers, and sometimes it requires a bona fide shout in the form of a disturbing dream to get our attention, to get us to look at the way we have been relating with our self and with others. As we begin to befriend and take ownership of once repressed qualities, we better accept and value all of who we and others are.