Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Best Case & Worst Case Scenarios: Working With Nightmares

nightmares-03Last month [“Some Bad News, Some Good News”], I described several ways of working with bad dreams in general. Now, I’d like to go a bit further into my own preferred method of working with nightmares.

[Note: As I mentioned in the last post, this kind of dreamwork is meant for ordinary nightmares, and can be practiced on such dreams by anyone. However, if these approaches are applied to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) nightmares or really severe chronic dream issues, it should be with professional support. If you have serious sleep-disrupting dreams on a regular basis, or have other mental health concerns, seeking professional assistance and guidance is strongly advised.]

Let’s talk about really “bad” dreams. People define nightmares in different ways, but what distinguishes a nightmare from any other kind of unpleasant dream is that it leaves you in a state of strong emotion.

In my experience, the nightmare leaves you in this strongly emotional state because you wake up when the action of the dream has reached a crisis point, as the emotion is peaking. The anxiety has been building, the threat is getting closer and closer, and now the fear (or rage, or anguish, or horror, or helplessness) is so strong that sleep is not sustainable. The dream bursts its bounds and carries the shock of all those feelings into the waking world.

You’re lying in bed, but you’re also in the midst of the nightmare, and you can’t shake it. For the rest of the night, and sometimes for much longer, it stays with you. Maybe you dream it again and again, maybe it hovers in the back of your mind and haunts you. Or maybe you make a big effort and manage to forget it completely, but then something sparks a memory and it all comes back. It can seem inescapable.

This kind of dream takes you to a place that is as bad as anything can be, and even though you get over it and get on with your life, you can’t help knowing, now, that such a place exists, at least potentially, within you. A place where anything can happen, where everything you dread does happen. A place you can’t handle—or believe you can’t handle, because the emotions it evoked overwhelmed you and left you feeling messed up. You’re stuck with the idea (whether conscious or not) that this could happen again, anytime. You’re at its mercy.

So, how do you move on from this nightmare place? And, how could it possibly be meaningful or “good” to have such a dream?

As I mentioned in the last post, many dreamworkers and therapists use dream re-entry methods (going back to the dream while awake, and re-experiencing it) to recreate the dream scenario, but with safeguards and the potential to find a new resolution. You can experience the nightmare, and at least some of its emotional impact, from the perspective of the waking mind, which knows that this is a dream and that you will wake up. Such perspective allows you to exercise some choice about your responses to the dream events. And, often, a dreamworker will encourage you to imagine how the dream might continue beyond the shocking emotional crisis point where you were left hanging—following the process through to a place of potential acceptance and integration.

My own variation on this dreamwork practice is to suggest taking it a step further. It’s usually helpful to begin with the “best case scenario” resolution of the terrible dream situation. (The “best case scenario” resolution is the approach most therapists tend to use.)

Remembering that this is a dream as you come to the crisis, you would recognize that anything can happen, and begin to imagine how things might get better if the dream continued… Perhaps the monster is afraid of you when you turn to confront it, or perhaps the thing that was following you turns out to be a big, friendly dog…  Perhaps the child who was hit by a car is okay after all—a doctor rushes in to save her life… Perhaps the bloody massacre turns out to be a scene in a movie, and the actors begin to over-act playfully, so the violence becomes absurd slapstick and everyone is laughing… Perhaps everyone turns into purple furry caterpillars dancing in a ballet…

These positive possibilities can be more beneficial the more imaginative and unlikely they are. Instead of just coming up with a pat solution to a situation that you know was really and truly horrible, it’s good to be as creative and kooky as dreams can be, to make it clear to yourself that this is a dream and therefore the possibilities are truly infinite. Any dream always has the potential to go in an entirely unexpected direction—and our waking lives have a similar open-ended potential (well, maybe not caterpillar ballet…!). The important thing is to experience the truth that just because it looks hopeless, and just because the emotions are overwhelming, doesn’t mean it has to end here. There are always other ways.

Once, you’ve played with the “best case” possibilities, however, I’ve found that the really powerful transformative work happens when you are brave enough, and feel safe enough, to go on to the “worst case scenario.” Now that you’ve had some practice with the flexibility of dream outcomes, you can dare to follow the nightmare where it clearly seems to be going… into the place where everything is as bad as it can be.

Perhaps you confront the monster and it begins to tear you apart… Perhaps the child hit by the car is suffering and then dies… Perhaps the massacre is nothing but slaughter… Perhaps…

But don’t stop there, go on. After the pain and horror and loss and death… Then what?

It’s a dream, so the experience of strong emotion is just that. It’s okay to feel the emotions and sensations. They may be bad, but they won’t destroy you. In the dream, What is it like to be torn apart? Do you feel pain, or strangeness, or nothing, or what? …When the child dies, do you feel torn apart by your grief and helplessness? Do you literally fall apart into pieces? Then what happens to your broken self, and what happens to the child? Is the body still part of the dream? or …In the massacre, surrounded by devastation, does night come, and then another morning? If you have nowhere to go and are lost in the aftermath of the carnage, where does your wandering lead you?…If “you” have died, then where does the dream go from there—is it following a different character, or just observing from the outside as new events unfold?… What happens next?

Death in a dream is a transformation of energy. If the dream is allowed to continue, the life force of the dream figure that died goes into another dream figure or situation, often with a surge of new energy. This is healing: the empty and damaged places provide an opening for the resources we have within us and the resources we share with other living beings. Something falls apart or dies and something comes together or is born, and some kind of balance is restored. When we experience this in our dream lives (with the dramatic flare of dreams), we can begin to be less afraid of pain and harm in our waking lives.

When dreams continue beyond the worst things that can happen, something else has to happen. Just as in waking life when we experience trauma—part of us stops at the point where the crisis occurs, but part of us goes on, life goes on, with us or without us. The process of returning to the crisis point, and recognizing that something continues, is the process of healing. The dream doesn’t necessarily turn into a pleasant dream, but it shows us that there is continuity and possibility beyond even the “worst cast scenario.”



  1. Tina

    “When dreams continue beyond the worst things that can happen, something else has to happen. Just as in waking life when we experience trauma—part of us stops at the point where the crisis occurs, but part of us goes on, life goes on, with us or without us. The process of returning to the crisis point, and recognizing that something continues, is the process of healing.” There is such a big truth here. It feels like it continues the conversation we were having this morning. Thank you for offering this wisdom. There is healing even after the WORST thing.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tina. Our conversation this morning was so healing for me—I appreciate your wisdom and gifts. We’re always taking that next step beyond where the path seems to come to an end, and your courage in this inspires me!

  2. Jean

    Is dream re-entry as easy as it sounds? I’m just learning to use it as a tool for working with my dreams and I sometimes wonder if I’m ‘doing it right’!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Hi Jean! Good question… I don’t think there’s really a “right” or “wrong” way to do dream re-entry. It can be as simple as just remembering the dream and how it felt, or as complex as doing a whole shamanic journey to revisit the dream experience. I find it’s most helpful to center myself in a quiet place (with eyes closed) and then “walk through” the dream, as if I’m walking in on a play already in progress. I try to watch the action from the outside first, like in a play. Then I try playing different roles—not just the dream-ego, but other characters as well. This is usually not a linear process, but one where I’ll replay some parts of the dream several times, trying different ways of looking at the experience. Some people can do this really vividly, but for me it’s more casual—it’s perfectly fine if it’s not an “altered state,” but just a way of thinking with the imagination and without too much analysis. Trust yourself and try whatever feels comfortable for you.

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