Ever since I started posting my Nightmare log stories, a lot of you have been asking if I had really dreamt all that and if so, how am I not crazy yet? Well, the answer to the first question is yes, although I am using these nightmares for creative writing practice, so they end up looking more polished than they really were. As you probably know, dreams aren’t always clearly structured and you often feel more than understand what’s going on, so I sometimes need to use my imagination to fill in the blanks and give the story a sense of completion. However, the motives and the weird parts are 100% real.
As for the second question, well, luckily I don’t get these nightmares every night or even every month and I often don’t remember them after waking up. The ones I do end up writing down are the ones that were spectacular enough to stay in my memory or ended up being a recurring dream and there aren’t that many of those. Since I’ve had nightmares ever since I was a child, I’ve also learnt to understand and control them to a degree, so they usually don’t scare me beyond the immediate fear at waking up.
Obviously this is by no means professional or medical advice, just based on my own experience, but here are some of the golden rules that work for me and might help you out if you have troubled dreams as well:
#1: Know the reason behind your nightmares
Our bodies are incredibly smart systems and they always know what’s going on, even if our consciousness doesn’t. Although some dreams and nightmares are psychologically induced, like if we’re stressed out, sad, worried or if it’s the night before a major change or an important event, I’ve found that most of them have a practical purpose. In my experience, the craziest nightmares with an almost cinematic build up to the moment of horror that’s bad enough to wake me up usually end up being about needing to go to the toilet. I’ll wake up and feel that my bladder is full and that I have to pee immediately. The degree of crazy usually corresponds to how badly I need to pee, so if you notice that pattern with your dreams too, you can try minimising your nightmares by changing your habits and not drinking too much water before bed. Super simple and usually effective.
Besides needing to pee, my body also loves to warn me of immediate problems by directly playing with my fears. This is where this post gets a bit gross: whether it’s a sudden onset of diarrhoea or sickness, an overflow of menstrual blood, a stomach ache, any kind of pain or an arm or a leg falling asleep due to an awkward position, my body loves to bring out the terror guns. Those are usually the classic horror nightmares with tons of giant furry spiders, massive heavy crabs, insects or disgusting worms and larvae crawling over or sometimes even inside my body. Essentially a dream designed to wake you up as soon as possible, with no plot to speak of and no psychological component other than pure primal feelings of fear and disgust. Fever dreams also fall into the same category, although those are usually a bit more complex, as the brain likes to weirdly hallucinate when it’s hot. If fever nightmares get bad enough to wake up from, they’re usually a sign that you’re overheating or really sick and that it’s time to take your meds.
The other remaining kind are psychologically induced dreams and I’ve found that it’s possible to control those to a certain extent. These are usually the ones that get really disturbing and intimate, so you won’t find me writing about most of them because they are just too painful to share. In my experience, psychological nightmares are designed to torment you in the worst possible way by digging their claws into your self-doubt, worries and more insubstantial, social fears like the deaths of friends and family members, loneliness, ostracism and abandonment, fear of some mutilating disease or personal inability etc..
#2: Take control of your dreams
The key question here, however, is who designs your dreams? Well, if you believe that your dreams are a manifestation of some other psychic plane or divine messages, then my advice won’t help you, but if you believe dreams are created in our subconsciousness and enacted within our brains, then you’re ultimately tormenting yourself. If so, it should be possible to stop, right?
The first step is to take control of your dreams, acknowledge them and stop fearing them as a separate entity or something inevitable. Learn your dream patterns, analyse your sleeping habits and try to see how your nightmares correlate with your life. Some psychoanalysts like Carl Jung believe that dreams are designed by our psyche to show us the hard truths and help us face personal problems that are too hard to consciously acknowledge without help. I’ve read some of his books when I was younger and although his approach tends towards the esoteric and has been debunked in certain circles, most mental health professionals tend to agree that some dreams have a purpose. Please keep in mind that this is by no means my field, but I have been able to learn a lot about myself and my subconscious fears through recurring nightmares, so there must be something to it.
I’ve found that stress-induced dreams usually take the form of performing a repetitive, impossible task where you have absolutely no control over what’s happening. So, if you find yourself walking down an endless hallway or peeling an endless sack of potatoes night after night, it might be time for some stress management in your life. In contrast, anxiety dreams usually show us the worst possible scenario of whichever situation is worrying us. You know those classic dreams of failing a test, messing up a public speech or finding yourself naked in the classroom? We all crave approval from our fellow humans and the fear of humiliation is very real.
However, you can train yourself out of these dreams to a degree. What works for me is to prepare for the event in question as well as possible and to visualise it going well right before falling asleep. Visualisation is a powerful tool both for controlling your dreams and for achieving your life goals and there are tons of resources online in case you’re not familiar with it.
#3: If you have recurring nightmares, you usually need to see them through
Next up we have recurring nightmares, which are a real pain and often fall under the category of anxiety dreams or dreams that are designed to teach us something. When I was a child, I often dreamt of my loved ones dying until I was old enough to really accept that people die and I can’t do anything about it. I also dreamt of being fat and awkward forever as a teenager, until I started exercising and going to dance classes, and of burning books and being invisible to my friends after I moved abroad. More recently, when my gynaecologist dared to suggest that I should start thinking about having kids, I spent a month watching my imaginary child die in a 100 different ways before I got over the instinctive panic of “I’m not ready to have kids because I still feel like a kid myself and this makes me physically sick”. But I processed it and although it was rather traumatic, my brain apparently gave me the nudge I needed to no longer be completely horrified by the idea.
Then again, there was that year in my teens when I kept dreaming about raiding an amusement park with Scooby Doo every week. That nightmare always ended in a bad way and didn’t go away until I consciously tried to dream it until the end without waking up at the bad parts, but it didn’t teach me anything at all. The problem with recurring nightmares is that we often need to finish them or they won’t stop. Think of it as an unfinished movie that your mind really wants you to see and will keep showing it to you until you stop waking up at the worst parts. In order to do that, I’ve found it’s important to process the nightmare and figure out what is in it that scares you so. Then we’re back to visualisation – if I visualise stepping into the nightmare and the way I want it to end before falling asleep, I will usually dream something like that and when the dream is done it won’t come back. It doesn’t always work though.
#4: If all else fails, write it down or talk it out
Much like with anything to do with mental health, it helps to write down or draw your nightmares if they refuse to go away. I’ve only ever had to write down 2 nightmares in my entire life to make them go away, but they were quite bad. One of them was my recurring childhood nightmare of a giant pear with a shotgun and a cowboy hat that kept chasing me until I was 8 and drew it in art class (don’t ask). The teacher didn’t like it and said TV is a bad influence.
It also helps to talk about your dreams with someone you trust. Just share what you’re comfortable sharing, they don’t need to know everything. Kids always feel better after talking about the scary dream with their parents, because it helps to acknowledge that whatever they saw in their head wasn’t real. Whenever I’m having a bad nightmare nowadays, my boyfriend always tries to wake me up and tells me that I had a dream and that everything is fine. Hearing that while my mind is still in the grips of sleep helps me to quickly see the line between dreams and reality, because some dreams can feel quite real. In fact, when I was a child I once jumped off my top bunk bed because I dreamt I could fly. Everything in my dream was exactly the same as my real life, except I could fly, so jumping down from the bed upon waking up felt like the most natural thing in the world, but the landing was anything but.
Another important thing is to not be scared of having a nightmare in advance, because that almost guarantees it will come – our brains are masochistic bastards in that way. If you do feel nervous about going to sleep, I’ve found it’s usually worth staying up an extra hour to distract yourself with something else and go to sleep with a calmer disposition. Some people like to drink tea or warm milk before bed and a warm beverage helps for me as well.
And that’s it.
That’s all the empirical wisdom that I have to share about nightmares. You might have noticed that I’ve avoided mentioning concepts such as lucid dreaming, self-hypnosis and dream hacking. I experimented with lucid dreaming when I was younger and it led to sleep paralysis, which is terrifying beyond belief and I wouldn’t wish to lead you into that. I also avoided linking to resources for the same reason, because again, this is not my field and I don’t want to give advice beyond my personal experience as a nightmare aficionado. I’ve learnt most of these things intuitively or through talking with others and didn’t study a lot of psychology books or anything, so I’d recommend searching the Internet for relevant literature or talking to a professional, particularly if you’re very troubled by your dreams and they’re preventing you from getting enough sleep.
However, what I wanted to illustrate with this post is that it is possible to learn to alleviate your nightmares through awareness and self-reflection. I want to encourage you to study yourself and learn your patterns instead of reading through tons of theoretical literature, because our bodies often know best, we just need to learn how to listen to them. With that said, there’s no shame in seeking help from mental health professionals and we really should normalise that, so I encourage you to book a psychotherapy session if you feel like you could benefit from it, whether dream related or not.
Last but not least, although I said that there’s usually a reason for nightmares, not every dream has a purpose, so there’s no need to overanalyse your dreams and stress out about their hidden meaning. Nightmares are annoying, so I took the time to try and figure them out for myself, but dreams are another matter. We are bombarded by so many sensory impulses every day that our brains tend to absorb the weirdest images and feelings and spit them out in dreams at random, so don’t pay too much attention to your everyday dreams. Some people, like my boyfriend, rarely dream at all or never remember what they dreamt about upon waking up and they’re doing just fine without the extra hidden messages from the universe too.