Nightmares happen to most people from time to time. However, when a single type of nightmare occurs night after night, a person could be experiencing recurring nightmares. Recurring nightmares can be upsetting, and can even interfere with you getting a restful sleep.
What They Mean
The meanings behind recurring nightmares can be highly individual and be meaningful to each person depending upon their life experiences.
- Some people can relive a traumatic event over and over again every night in their dreams. These dreams tend to be more literal as the person re-experiences the upsetting event in detail.
- When the dream occurs because of unresolved emotional issues, it could have a personal meaning and can be highly symbolic. This is a way to protect the conscious from information that it might not be ready to accept.
- It can also signify a past traumatic or upsetting event. The dream contains a symbol for the way a person is feeling.
Dr. Ernest Hartmann, in his paper The Nature and Functions of Dreaming in The New Science of Dreaming III, stated that certain dream meanings reflect certain emotions or life events. These seem to be centered upon widely accepted symbols that represent these common life events and feelings. Moreover, these symbols have been verified many times in the literature, as people with similar life events experience the same dream, with the same symbols to represent that life event. Some examples he gives are:
- A tidal wave: The tidal wave expresses the emotion of feeling helpless and overwhelmed and is common among victims of trauma.
- Small helpless animals, broken, disfigured, exposed, or injured: These symbols represent feeling vulnerable.
- Being injured, life threatened while others escape: This could represent the feeling of "survivor guilt."
- An empty house: This could symbolize feelings of sadness or loss, or grieving for the loss of a family member.
- Violence, conflict: This can be seen in a person who survived a physically threatening event, or had lost a loved one that met a violent end.
- Earthquakes, land masses moving: Something "earth shattering" has occurred that rocked the dreamer to the core.
Dr. Hartmann pointed out that recurring nightmares can morph over time as the brain processes the upsetting emotions behind the dream. In many cases, this dream morphing could signify a resolution in emotions.
What Causes Recurring Nightmares?
Recurring nightmares could happen for a variety of reasons, such as repressed wishes or needs, emotional conflict, mental processing or other types of causes, such as mental and sleep disorders and medications.
Repressed Wishes or Needs
Dr. Sigmund Freud saw dreams as a way to let the dreamer know that a repressed wish is making itself known. Dreams provide a clear and direct path to the unconscious, and interpretation of dreams in general can be very useful to discover our hidden desires and needs.
In recent research, it seems that Dr. Freud's initial understanding of dreams are accurate.
- A study in Dreaming was revealing in terms of what the researchers called "big dreams," which are dreams that are most memorable in terms of imagery, detail, and strong emotions they invoke. These are common aspects of recurring dreams, except they happen throughout the course of weeks, months, or even years.
- Big dreams, such as recurring nightmares, seem to come from a more primal part of consciousness that do not have the refined, higher mental processes.
Unresolved emotional conflicts are often fodder for recurring nightmares, especially when a strong emotional feeling is attached to the images that causes you to feel upset, afraid, guilty, angry, sorrowful, or any other source of emotional upset.
Dr. Ernest Hartmann stated in his paper called "The Contemporary Theory of Dreaming 2006 to 2007" that dreams occur because our consciousness is a whole unit responsible for our psychical existence.
We have the awake state, the asleep state, and various states in the middle. Dreams and recurring dreams occur because of our mental functioning. Therefore, our dreams originate from our mental processes, and they occur because the brain is processing.
In other words, dreams do not happen because they are meaningless or purposeless. They occur because they are significant to the dreamer and they always serve a purpose in our mental processing.
Other Possible Causes
Today, other mechanisms have been recognized to cause recurring nightmares. Some of these possible causes include:
- A mental condition such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- A sleep disorder such as sleep apnea
- Certain medications, such as fluoxetine, a beta-blocker
Stop Recurring Nightmares
Dr. Raymond Lloyd Richmond, psychologist, has the following advice to stop recurring nightmares:
This technique helps you learn how the upsetting nightmare is applicable to your life. This can help in resolving emotional conflicts.
- Write down the dream. Each dream and its symbols and components are important. Writing down every detail could reveal some important facts and issues on why the recurring nightmare is occurring.
- Figure out what these symbols mean to you personally.
- Find how these symbols and meanings relate to your life. As an example, Dr. Richmond recommends focusing on certain aspects of the dream, and how they relate to your life now and in your childhood.
Imagery Rehearsal Therapy
This technique can change the "script" of your dream. Here are the steps you can take to change the outcome or confront what is disturbing you in your sleep.
- Write down your dream in as much detail as you can.
- Write an alternative ending for it that is not scary.
- Rehearse your new script right before you fall asleep.
These exercises are enhanced when you also perform a relaxation technique, such as progressive muscle relaxation.
Recurring nightmares can interfere with short-term and long-term sleep. They can be very upsetting, especially if the dreams are quite frightening.
If your recurring nightmare is beginning to interfere with your daily life, visiting a psychotherapist who regularly engages in sleep interpretation, a sleep specialist, or other mental health professional can be very helpful to find the source of your recurring nightmare and to tease out the meaning so you can find resolution.