Greetings, creative dreamers! For the last while, I’ve been busy with my private practice, finishing up my long teaching career in psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, giving talks, making art, traveling into the wilderness, spending time dreaming with family and friends, and helping people with nightmares which have become more frequent in the past couple of unstable years, as well as people in disaster zones.

Nightmares are simply dreams that scare the dreamer. What might your nightmares mean, and how can you free yourself from them?

ADULTS’ BAD DREAMS. Those of us who have a lot of nightmares are more likely to: be creative (!), remember our childhoods well and to have been sensitive kids,  have experienced childhood neglect or abuse, be more concerned about death, be unusually affected by other people, and have difficulty protecting ourselves against hurtful feelings.  Many substances can cause nightmares (see Sleeping Better post), and if you are unusually stressed or grieving, expect more nightmares at those times.

In fact, nightmares are a relatively ordinary experience for most of us–not an indication of mental illness or weakness of any kind. Two-thirds of all adult dreams, all over the world, are bad dreams!

What to do about them? First of all, don’t work with any dream that causes you genuine terror when you remember it. For each of the following techniques, start by making sure you are in a safe place and won’t be interrupted for a few minutes. Sit quietly, close your eyes and imagine yourself descending a staircase. When you reach the bottom, you will find yourself at the beginning of the nightmare—before anything scary, or the scariest thing, happened. Then, try…

Relaxation (for recurring or very frightening nightmares). Imagine the dream from the beginning until just before becoming scared. Now stop. * Keep your eyes closed and visualize a place you’ve been that makes you feel very calm, maybe a place in nature. Once you’ve done that, consciously relax all your major muscle groups by taking an imaginary tour of your body. Keep imagining the relaxing place.  Once again, imagine the dream up until the point at which you become scared.  Stop.  Repeat from the * until you get through the entire dream (this could take days or weeks with a powerful, recurring nightmare).  Reward yourself after each session of imagining.

This is an extremely effective technique, but make sure not to continue to imagine the dream once you become tense! That will only reinforce the fear and make it more likely you’ll be more afraid, not less.  Relax (from the *), and perhaps take a break.

Each time you’ve completed this exercise, make sure to thank the dream images for meeting with you (communicating respect for your own unconscious!), and walk back up the stairway. When you reach the top, you’re out of the dreamworld…

Changing the image. This works well for almost any garden-variety nightmare, and can also be an additional step to the process just above. This time, remember the dream from the beginning, and when you reach the point where the scary image resides, simply focus upon it. As you watch it, it will change. Allow your own unconscious mind to present changes to the original image.  The changed image often gives clues as to the meaning of the scary image.  Stay relaxed throughout, but if you can’t, try the “relaxation” technique, above.

Express the scary image creatively. Think of the scariest moment of the dream, when you were confronted or threatened or attacked or chased by something or someone terrifying. Now, give the dream a different, positive ending.  Write a story (or tell a friend) about the dream, using the new ending. Or paint the images in the dream, perhaps bringing in a helpful character for a different resolution, or as the dreamer, doing something to ensure your safety or triumph. Make a collage, photo montage, or video of the dream. Anything you can do that externalizes the dream images and brings them into reality where you can consider and evaluate them will help heal nightmares.  For a child who’s having nightmares, ask him or her to tell you a positive-ending story and to draw the images from the dream each time the dream occurs.  This nearly always ends nightmares.

KIDS’ BAD DREAMS. The dreams kids tell their parents have been found to be more violent and scary than adults’ dreams.  In fact, kids who read scary books or view frightening video images are three times more likely to have nightmares than are other children! Children’s dreams are much more affected by reading than are adults’, so if you have a child in your life, you might want to put the frightening books away until they’re older. Protect children from anything other than “G” rated images. Their nervous systems aren’t developed enough to be able to process the stimulation, or to understand the storyline. Younger children confuse the story with reality, which makes their reality a terrifying place full of potentially non-human things coming at them.

BUT WHAT DO NIGHTMARES MEAN? Characters in nightmares often represent parts of ourselves that we have yet to acknowledge or accept. They present themselves as terrifying because we find their qualities so threatening to our sense of self, and we may dream of them when we most often need to express their qualities.  In dreams of being chased (the most common human dream), we are often chasing ourselves! For example, if you dream you’re being chased by an athletic, tireless, energetic character, that may indicate you need to work out a bit more. But not too much! A recent study from the UK of 1.2 million people found that exercising 2-6 hours per week was the amount of time most associated with positive mental health (tai chi, yoga, walking, cycling seemed to work best).

If you have dreams you’d like help understanding here, feel free to email me (see Welcome, Creative Dreamers post). Sweet dreams!

About Veronica Tonay

International dream expert, Dr. Veronica Tonay, earned her masters and doctoral degrees in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1990s. She has been a licensed psychologist in private practice since 1997 (CA PSY 15379), and has taught psychology courses to undergraduates at the University of California at Santa Cruz since 1989.  Her work has been featured for over 25 years in many media outlets, such as Psychology Today, NPR Public Radio,, and The Chicago Tribune. Dr. Tonay was featured dream expert on the Discovery Health TV Channel's 3-episode miniseries, Dream Decoders. She has organized several dream conferences for the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and has published journal articles and three books, including: "The Creative Dreamer, Revised: Using Your Dreams to Unlock Your Creativity" (Ten Speed Press/Celestial Arts) and "Every Dream Interpreted," published in London by Collins & Brown.  She lives with her husband, Steven, in Santa Cruz, California, gardening, painting, writing, dancing, and dreaming.
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