Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

A Nightmare Is An Incomplete Dream

I rarely have nightmares, but last week I had a full-blown, truly scary nightmare:

I am being hunted by a formless monster who tears people apart. The police don’t believe me and won’t help. To prove that the danger is real, I show a young couple the desolate house where I was held captive by the monster. We enter apprehensively, making sure the monster is not there. The rooms are empty except for scattered trash. The young woman goes down into the dank basement, and as the young man follows, I realize that he is about to be killed. There’s a moment of terror, as I see him on the basement stairs, screaming, and then a splash of blood against the wall. I run in panic, as the invisible monster goes down to get the woman in the basement. I know I have only a few moments to get away, but there is nowhere to run or hide—only a peaceful neighborhood where I know that I will bring harm if I ask for help again. I try to keep running, stumbling, crawling, but know that I can’t get away…

dark corner

The corners are dark, and something could be hiding there…

When dealing with nightmares, there is some preliminary dreamwork that needs to be done before engaging in the usual practice of unfolding metaphors or exploring associations with the images. A nightmare is basically defined by the emotional and physiological response we have to it. I woke from the above dream in the state of emotional distress and physical agitation typical of nightmares. This distress and agitation must be addressed, before anything else can really be done with the dream.In the short-term, the first, best response to a nightmare is simply to bring the body and emotions back to some sort of equilibrium, as much as possible. For me, that meant getting up to use the bathroom (turning on lights!) and “shaking off” the awful feelings before trying to sleep again. In really serious, chronic nightmares or dreams associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), returning to equilibrium can be much more difficult, and can require professional support.

But, once the initial shock of a nightmare has passed (usually not that same night), it can be very important to recall the dream, and carry it through to some sort of conclusion. What might have happened next if my dream had continued? I can take the “wishful thinking” route, and imagine escaping from the monster. Or, I can remember that this is a dream, and allow it to play out, aware that no one will actually be harmed. I can imagine the monster catching up with me, and even imagine being “torn apart,” being annihilated. Then what? If the dream continued, would I still be observing from a disembodied state? Would I become the monster? Would I see the situation from the perspective of some other dream character? Most likely, the dream would simply shift, and another story would develop, perhaps including the monster plot-motif, perhaps not. But, even if the content continued to be scary, it would no longer be a nightmare.

We experience nightmares as nightmares because we wake up at the crisis-point. Our bodies are so agitated with the momentum of the dream that we have a rush of adrenaline, the physical reaction of “fight or flight” full alertness. The same response is generated by horror movies, but we don’t (generally) experience horror movies as if they were nightmares, because the movie goes on after the crisis point, and the body has time to settle down and integrate the excitement.

The same stimulus-response is also generated by trauma—and what makes traumatic experiences truly traumatic is the fact that the brain “stops” at the shock of the crisis, and can’t completely get past it. Nothing following the trauma is fully experienced. So the trauma seems to be absolute, and cannot be integrated into the rest of one’s life. With nightmares, as with trauma, the healing work has to happen by putting the experience in context, letting it complete itself, so the dreamer can move on.

In my dream, it was relatively easy to move on. By the next day, I was able to remember and write down what happened in the dream, and what might have happened if it had continued. I was then able to really see the dream as a dream, and begin to explore some of the meanings that the monster might have for me.

More on this in a future post…


  1. Bill Pezick

    Well, Kirsten, in my imagined theoretical narrative, incompleteness and fear of the nightmare form feel like aspects somewhat independent of each other. What dream, nightmare or not, is not incomplete and does not suggest either a future at some general level or more particular chapters? When I am dream ego in my nightmare, my most important need is to write something of it before I forget. For me, this may be before or after I calm down about it. Is imagining a continuation helpful? Not for me, if this were my dream, because, in my imagined version, my dream poses and question and pauses. For me, this would have to relate to a usual archetypal association of “death in the dream world…” (Could be continued….)

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Bill, you make some really useful points here. First, of course, there is no prescription for working with nightmares (or other dreams)–some approaches (like continuing the dream) are helpful in some situations with some people, but would not be helpful for others. Also, many dreams are incomplete (though not all)–I think I probably should have used the word “interrupted” rather than incomplete. I’m defining a nightmare very narrowly here, as a dream which is not only unpleasant, but which wakes us up with a physiological fear response (adrenaline rush, etc.). Others define nightmares more broadly as any unpleasant dream. For the nightmares I’m describing, the fact that the dream interrupts itself (because the body is overstimulated, perhaps) and we wake up in the midst of the most distressing part of the dream is what leaves us with the physical response. Calming that physical distress is essential, and, as you say, writing and unfolding the dream may be a good way to calm down (for me, the writing and thinking about it come later). Your suggestion of exploring the archetype of “death in the dream world” is something I am going to write more about in a future post. I appreciate your thoughts on this very much!

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