Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When Dreams Go Bad

The world of dreams has long fascinated scientists, mystics and artists. Dream imagery has archetypal significance. As universal symbols, their mythological and folkloric interpretations are what make these sleep time symbols meaningful to a particular culture or society. Individual interpretation is what makes them personal and unique.

So what's in our dreams and why should we care?

I recently interviewed dream consultant, Dream Talk Radio host and author Anne Hill, D. Min. about these questions. Author of What To Do When Dreams Go Bad: A Practical Guide to Nightmares, founder of Creative Content Coaching, expert speaker and contributor to Huffington Post and SageWoman Magazine she shared with me a wealth of knowledge about how dreams fit into the weave of our lives.

Q: Why did you decide to write What To Do When Dreams Go Bad?

I wrote the book as a response to a nightmare I had while presenting a workshop that dealt with participants’ nightmare material. In working with my dream I realized that the (seemingly) threatening figure was actually more of a challenger, opening my eyes to something that was right in front of me but I had been unaware of. I understood that to mean a couple different things, and one of them was that it was time for me to write a guide to nightmares.

Q: There are many folklore/mythological themes (motifs) in dreams. Are there certain motifs that are more common than others?

I think the appearance of certain universal dream themes is cyclical, and that interests me very much. For instance, I heard literally dozens of reports from people this month who had tidal wave dreams around the first of the year. In the middle of this month, there was a cluster of dream reports having to do with the sudden death of children.

This is all anecdotal, of course, but I tend to look for patterns in what I hear, as a way of maybe tuning into a more regional or cultural level of meaning in the dreams of individuals.

Q: Sleep plays many roles in our culture. It’s about physical rest/restoration and it’s also about a time of day that has often been imbued with qualities that are mystical, even magical. Are there other roles?

We also have phrases like “asleep at the wheel” and “daydreaming,” which usually mean that someone is not paying attention or is “out of it” when they need to be more awake. Meanwhile, there are so many people with sleep disorders—diagnosed and undiagnosed—that prevent them from getting the restorative sleep they need at night. Hence their inability to track things during the day, and the tragedies that arise from people who take sleep aids that make them do irrational or dangerous things while essentially sleepwalking. There is so much about sleep that we don’t understand, but fortunately more attention is being focused on the fact that sleep deprivation is a public safety as well as a mental health issue.

I think everyone longs for a better balance of wakefulness and energy during the day, along with a deep sleep at night that helps them connect to the mysteries and wisdom of the dream world. The good news is that there are so many pieces of this puzzle coming to light, and lots of specialized attention available for people who need help with their sleep patterns or their dream material.

Q: Can you cite an example of how dreams or nightmares challenge us to live up to our potential?

A: In the case of my nightmare, it scared me so badly I woke up petrified. The figure in the dream seemed so real and so threatening—there was a heavy emotional charge to the dream. But one of the practices I use with my own dreams is to pretend I am a reporter, looking for “just the facts, ma’am.” I took a step away from the emotional content and looked at what exactly was happening and what exactly I saw in the dream. As is so often the case, the literal truth of the dream was different from what I felt was happening.

This is one of the keys to understanding dreams: they are brilliant in the way they sharpen our perceptions. So many times in our lives something will be happening, or be on the verge of happening, and all we know is how threatening or scary it feels. Our emotional reaction may be way out of line with what is actually going on. Dreams that come in the form of nightmares highlight this disparity really well, and can help us re-focus on the real issues at hand rather than staying in fear.

Dreams can also accurately predict future events, warn us of potential dangers, and point out opportunities that we otherwise would have missed. The more we work with dreams, the more likely we are to recognize this information when it comes. That is one of the real cumulative benefits of paying attention to dreams over a lifetime.

Q: Do (and if so, how) night dreams differ day dreams?

A: Most dream researchers would agree that they are on the same continuum of dreaming to waking consciousness. There has been some really interesting research done about how a little daydreaming—even an afternoon nap—helps us remember things we have just learned, and makes us better at test-taking and other stress situations. In terms of dreamwork, I see no real difference between night and day dreams. And sometimes people who don’t remember their nighttime dreams have very detailed recall of their daydreams, so that is a good place to start in exploring what their dreaming mind is up to.


  1. My personal belief is that dreams are your body's way of telling you something that only your subconscious realizes, but wants your conscious to pick up on.

  2. I agree, Haley.
    Dreams can also represent alternate realities. In either case they are magical and mysterious!