Being chased by monsters, standing naked before a crowd or frozen in fear unable to scream. We all have nightmares — but what do they say about us?
Aristotle believed they could predict illnesses, while psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung popularised dream interpretation as an important source of self-knowledge.
Interestingly, a recent study found that bad dreams vary wildly according to where you live, with demons stalking the nightmares of the Spanish, and Germans waking in horror after dreams about driving.
What do nightmares say about us? Aristotle believed they could predict illnesses, while psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung popularised dream interpretation as an important source of self-knowledge
Meanwhile, nightmares about bees are exclusive to the British.
Many therapists believe the content of our nightmares is linked to unmet needs, frustrations, and anxieties.
‘Dreams and nightmares are subconscious metaphorical messages to help us navigate life better,’ says Dipti Tait, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist specialising in sleep.
‘It’s important to pay attention to our dreams and nightmares, especially the recurring ones, because these messages contain clues for the brain to work out our problems and figure out solutions.’
Here, we help you to interpret what your nightmares really mean . . .
A recent study found that that bad dreams vary wildly according to where you live. Nightmares about bees are exclusive to the British
I’M ALWAYS BEING CHASED
Being pursued is among the most common bad dreams, and often indicates you feel under threat and are desperate to escape from something in your waking life yet feel unable to do so. The dreamscape is responding to the anxiety coursing round your nervous system, says Dipti Tait.
‘Something in your life is imbalanced and you’re on high alert. Perhaps there is an element of denial around the situation. This can also mean that you are feeling out of control in a relationship, that there is a difficult balance of power, or that something from your past has reappeared into your present.’
To stop it, tackle the nightmare head on, says clinical and cognitive hypnotherapist Sarah Bick, who works with the subconscious mind.
‘Just stop running and let whatever chases you come to you. Turn and face it without resistance [in the dream].’
When you wake, try and work out what you were running from. ‘If a person, are you running from a part of yourself? If a beast, are you running from your instinct or true nature?’
‘It’s important to pay attention to our dreams and nightmares, especially the recurring ones, because these messages contain clues for the brain to work out our problems and figure out solutions,’ says Dipti Tait, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist specialising in sleep
GETTING LOST AND PANICKING
Dreaming of being lost often involves a sense of directionless panic, indicating you don’t know where your life is headed. Such dreams can even be linked to grief.
‘Perhaps you are feeling a loss of purpose or identity,’ suggests Dipti. ‘You’ve arrived at a junction or crossroads in your life and are unsure which path to take.
‘You feel as if there is no one around to help you. There may have been a significant change or loss in your life, perhaps a death, as this sense of feeling lost is linked to deep grieving.’
However, dreaming that you are lost is not always a negative thing — it could mean that you are learning new things, such as when starting a new job.
If you are suffering nightmares like this, talk to a friend, mentor or therapist, says Dipti. ‘Feeling lost is a signal that your brain cannot see the choices available and often this dream means that we need some external guidance to get back on track.’
CAUGHT UP IN A NATURAL DISASTER
Whether it’s a tsunami, earthquake or forest fire, the mental imagery of being caught up in a natural disaster is often symbolic of ‘psychic or interpersonal turmoil’ and a lack of control.
‘New parents report these types of dreams — worrying about something bigger than them and not being able to protect and care for their children adequately,’ says Dipti.
Energy healer and trauma expert Britta Hochkeppel believes the type of natural event in your nightmare relates directly to suppressed emotions that need to be expressed.
Water is representative of tears or fear, fire of frustration or anger, a storm of a sense of being overwhelmed or confusion. ‘Your brain is trying to make you aware that you need to express and let go to recreate inner peace,’ she says.
In order to feel less vulnerable, you must ‘minimise the brain catastrophising’ and focus on the present moment, looking for small, practical things you can do rather than letting anxiety take hold.
WHEN MY LOVED ONES DIE
Dreaming about your loved ones dying is not an ominous omen of their upcoming passing, but it may symbolise change.
‘Something in your life or in your psyche does not serve you any more and there is a need for change,’ says Anna Sergent, a psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist based in North London.
‘It could also mean the end of something. Perhaps it is time to get out of the relationship or job?
Dreaming about your loved ones dying is not an ominous omen of their upcoming passing, but it may symbolise change
‘It could mean that your life is going through a transformation and perhaps you are afraid of the change. It could be useful to look at the qualities or your associations with the person that dies in your dream and how it relates to your present life.’
Dipti agrees, noting how change and grief are symbolically linked. ‘Grief doesn’t have to be related to death. It is the brain’s way of processing any sort of sudden loss or significant change.
But it could also be a sign you are afraid of abandonment — or that there is too much co-dependency in a relationship in your life. ‘It’s a good idea to work out how to address any imbalance of dependence and independence in a relationship you have.’
I FEEL LIKE I CANNOT MOVE
Being rendered immobile by fear — or in a situation where you’re trapped, such as being stuck in sinking sand or drowning — are very common.
‘It may symbolise stagnation, ineffectiveness, or being frozen in some sort of situation in life,’ says Anna. ‘Dreaming about being unable to move may symbolise that we should not force a particular situation but stay still, observe, and reflect.’ However, this may also be a phenomenon that’s not quite a dream but an experience known as sleep paralysis — ‘where our body sleeps and our mind seems to be awake,’ says Anna.
Sleep paralysis can also manifest as a visitation by a ‘demon’ sitting on your chest pinning you down, such as in the 1781 painting The Nightmare by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli. The first recording of this kind of nightmare dates back to 2,400 BC.
I CAN’T SPEAK OR SCREAM
Being unable to cry out in a dream is another form of sleep paralysis — but it could also be a sign that you have lost confidence and are suffering from impostor syndrome in your waking life, says Dipti. ‘You feel as if you have no voice or credibility. No one is listening to you. You are feeling shut down and dismissed, rendering you mute.’
Being unable to cry out in a dream is another form of sleep paralysis — but it could also be a sign that you have lost confidence and are suffering from impostor syndrome in your waking life
If left to fester, she warns the deep, unexpressed emotions will eventually ‘build up into an angry explosion’ — and you must find a way to communicate what you need to say clearly and calmly before that happens.
MY CAR IS OUT OF CONTROL
‘You may experience dreams about out-of-control driving even if you do not drive,’ says Anna. ‘It symbolises feelings of lack of control, trying to master something but not succeeding — or it could also symbolise that you took on too much in your life and that you are going through burn-out.
A car crash may also symbolise that you are unsure about the future — and fear that some of your choices may appear disastrous.
‘Perhaps your life has swerved off in a direction you were not expecting,’ adds Dipti. ‘It is important that you know that this message is helping you get back in the driving seat of your life and telling you not to be swayed by other people trying to pull you off track.’
A car crash may also symbolise that you are unsure about the future — and fear that some of your choices may appear disastrous
I AM ATTACKING SOMEONE ELSE
Dreams in which you attack someone else usually symbolise helplessness, rage and lack of resources.
‘This is your subconscious mind helping you to maintain your guard and keep yourself out of danger,’ says Dipti. ‘Perhaps you feel as if your territory has been compromised, or your personal or professional space has been violated somehow, and this is a message for you to figure out how to assert yourself without fear.’
‘It may mean that you feel frustrated about your own life or a trait of your personality or habits that you do not accept — perhaps who you are attacking could be meaningful in interpretation,’ adds Anna.
I’M UNPREPARED FOR AN EXAM
This is a people pleaser’s dream — it’s the nightmare suffered by someone who usually thinks about others more than themselves. It also indicates feelings of inadequacy or humiliation and a need for self-compassion.
Being unprepared for an exam is a ‘people pleaser’s dream — it’s the nightmare suffered by someone who usually thinks about others more than themselves,’ according to Dipti
‘Perhaps your perfectionism tendencies are a little bit out of balance?’ says Dipti.
‘Perhaps you’re feeling guilty for something, as well as being out of your depth and taking on too much. You worry about your capability. There may be a confidence issue here, which can easily be sorted. It’s a dream to remind you that “you are enough” and to give yourself some slack.’
NAKED OR FORGOTTEN UNDERWEAR
‘If a person sees themselves naked in the dream, then they fear that their insecurities might get revealed,’ says Britta Hochkeppel. ‘It can also indicate a fear of getting exposed: they may pretend to be someone, but in reality, they could be presenting a false image in daily life.’
Dipti agrees. ‘This nightmare represents the truth of who you are and perhaps shows that your inner core beliefs have been challenged in some way.
‘If a person sees themselves naked in the dream, then they fear that their insecurities might get revealed,’ says energy healer and trauma expert Britta Hochkeppel.
‘Perhaps there has been an attack on your character or your values have been compromised. You are feeling exposed and extremely vulnerable: this is an indication of shame and guilt in your emotional system.’
If this reading of the nightmare doesn’t ring true, there could be a more positive interpretation, says Anna. Being naked may indicate that you simply need to free yourself up from some conventions or limitations that stop you from progressing in your life.
BUGS ARE CRAWLING ALL OVER ME
These bugs typically represent the real life problems that are now crawling and burrowing their way into your sleeping mind. This kind of dream can also symbolise self-disgust.
‘This nightmare is a message from your subconscious mind to your conscious mind that will continue to creep and crawl over you until you listen and take some action,’ says Dipti. ‘Being stung in a dream points to being hurt or “stung” by this problem. The dream can, like a wasp, be persistently annoying because it is trying to get your attention.’
Work out what the issue is and deal with it — otherwise it will continue to plague you.
MY TEETH ARE FALLING OUT
In the animal kingdom, the teeth are the gripping tool. ‘The symbolism of teeth falling out can mean losing one’s grip — of what depends on the individual —a relationship, a sense of reality, control,’ says Dipti.
In the animal kingdom, the teeth are the gripping tool. ‘The symbolism of teeth falling out can mean losing one’s grip — of what depends on the individual —a relationship, a sense of reality, control,’ says Dipti
Or perhaps we are afraid of losing something precious to us and how we are perceived. She adds: ‘Our teeth are also the front line for our smile . . . so when we dream of these being lost, perhaps we are also silently worried about something precious being taken away from us. Perhaps an accolade, a demotion or we feel unrecognised and unappreciated. Something is preventing us from being fulfilled.’
Regain your confidence to smile a full smile again.
HOW TO INTERPRET YOUR OWN NIGHTMARES
Though these interpretations might give you an idea of what’s behind your nightmares, the meaning of dreams will vary according to your own personal associations and experiences.
Here, Sarah Bick, a clinical and cognitive hypnotherapist working with the subconscious mind at Inna Therapies, details how to interpret your own unique dreams, bad or good:
- Write down the dream in detail as soon as you wake.
- Make free associations to what each of the dream elements mean to you. Don’t research it, rather ask yourself what comes to mind first when you think of, say, a rabbit. Fast, white, magician, magic? Or perhaps underground, family, babies, running away?
- Connect the dream to what is happening in your own life. What resonates as being true for you?
- Interpret the dream, combining what you’ve written into a coherent message, until it gives you an ‘aha’ moment. Dreams rarely go over material that is resolved, rather that which is yet to be solved.