Just like with all dreams, there are different kinds of nightmares.
I usually need more information about the kind of nightmare we are talking about before I dare speak specifically about them.
In general, nightmares can reflect stressful situations from waking life, and they can also help prepare people for stressful situations in waking life. The greatest aspect of ordinary nightmares in my opinion—is that they don’t tiptoe around the dreamer’s issues or developmental needs—they put it all out there, right up front—and as a dreamworker, that makes it so much easier to work with! So when we talk about the potential for inner transformation… ordinary nightmares are actually the best kind of dream, and therefore I consider them very positive.
Working with nightmares can help build courage and confidence to face challenges in waking life… starting in childhood. Ordinary nightmares are common with children, and a normal, healthy part of development. It’s unfortunate that for so long children have been taught to ignore their scary dreams or told, “It’s just a dream.” Although we think we are comforting them, instead we actually teach children to be more afraid when we do that. Usually the adults saying it do not understand what is happening and feel just as afraid as the child. Children experience nightmares as very real. The same people that were taught to ignore or invalidate their dreams and nightmares, often grow up having the same kind of immature dreams and nightmares they had as children because they were never taught to develop courage and well-being in dreams.
When parents and guardians give children developmentally appropriate tools to cultivate the imagination they need to face and socialize opposing forces in their dreams, the positive results in their waking lives can be abundant. I speak from personal experience as well as professional on this subject—I began my own dream education at home at age four, and have raised my two children the same way. A lot of people discover dream education as teenagers, or in college, and then they get to catch up with dream development at that time. Many people have expressed to me that they wish they could have had dream education starting in childhood. In my opinion, we need more early childhood dream education for new parents so they can feel ready to meet their child’s dreams and nightmares when they happen—because they do happen.
It’s normal for teenagers to have nightmares, because they are growing so fast toward adulthood, and going through many changes. Something that might seem negative or scary, can often symbolize these changes and growth, and be quite positive. For example, one way of metaphorically looking at apocalyptic nightmares is that they can happen when a dreamer’s ‘entire world’ in waking life is completely changing! Just as death is often associated with change in dreams and nightmares, apocalyptic nightmares can be viewed as a much bigger, more all-encompassing change. It might be hard to see what it all means in the heat of the nightmare, but when teens take time with nightmares to gain clarity, it helps them grow emotionally. It can also be fun for teens to investigate their dream meanings, and express nightmare content in creative writing, drama, and other dream-arts. Now that I’ve said all that—keep in mind: there are different kinds of nightmares.
Nightmares from Trauma
People suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) often re-experience versions of past traumatic events in dreams. In these situations, nightmares serve the dreamer because they provide opportunities for healing within a much safer space than the original events—with the right kind of professional help. Usually, that means a counselor or therapist who is trained to work with symptoms of PTSD in nightmares.
Some dream experts believe nightmares shouldn’t be changed or altered (as with lucid dreaming) because they contain important warnings for the dreamer to pay attention to. I agree with that perspective only if a nightmare is believed by the dreamer to be an extraordinary dream that has the purpose of carrying a literal message (rather than messages cloaked in metaphors, symbols, and puns). It can be useful to discuss the possibility of a dream being extraordinary with a trusted dream professional, or with fellow members of one’s dream group.
Some examples of these kinds of extraordinary nightmares are: telepathic, clairvoyant, and pre-cognitive nightmares. To illustrate these examples:
• In a telepathic nightmare, the dreamer might receive a warning from his friend in his dream because in another town, the friend is sending the dreamer the thought, “Do not come to this town because everyone is being held hostage.”
• In a clairvoyant nightmare, the dreamer might see his friend and everyone else being held hostage—like he’s been given a window into the waking life problem.
• In a pre-cognitive nightmare, the dreamer might hear the warning, or see the situation hours or days before anyone is actually held hostage. In these extraordinary cases, the nightmare is not considered belonging only to the dreamer and his inner development—because the dreamer is being asked to pay attention to a literal situation in waking life.
Nightmares offer important opportunities for dreamers to learn about themselves. Once meaning is discovered, nightmares can help people stretch and grow more than other kinds of dreams. Once they are understood, nightmares often develop courage, and the ability to face life's challenges.