Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

After the Nightmare: Disorientation as Opportunity

Toby sleeping 01My cat, Toby, has some bad nightmares. Because he’s deaf, he sleeps very deeply and can’t monitor his environment while sleeping like other cats do. This means that when he’s in a dream, he’s utterly immersed in that dream, and when he wakes up, he’s usually a bit disoriented. Normally, he compensates by sleeping in places where he feels especially secure, and by knowing his environment (he’s an indoor cat, and it’s a tiny house) in every detail, so when he wakes he can immediately remind himself where he is. However, when he has an intense nightmare, it takes him so far from his familiar world that his own home seems alien and dangerous as he wakes up.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what he’s experiencing, but it’s not difficult to guess when he has had a nightmare. He wakes suddenly, sometimes with a yelp, on total alert with ears pricked and eyes wild. He looks around frantically, then scrambles for an exit or a hiding place. It’s most heartbreaking when he doesn’t recognize me and is terrified of me for a moment, then comes creeping to me on his belly as I crouch down to reassure him. He huddles against me, trembling so hard that his head bobs, frightened of everything that usually comforts him.

Eventually, he remembers where he is, who he is, and what’s going on. My stroking soothes him. But it takes awhile. Usually, what he needs most is his adopted mother—our older cat, Annie. As soon as he makes a sound of distress, she comes running. She examines him all over with concern, gives me a dirty look (“What did you do to my kitten?”), and briskly washes his face until he calms down. Then we’re all back to normal. (He becomes his usual confident self—and pesters Annie until she squawks with indignation.)

Toby’s nightmares—and shaky transitions—don’t seem to do him any harm. He absorbs their impact in his own way, reorients himself, and gets on with his life. Perhaps, the experience even energizes him, making his quiet, limited, indoor world more exciting by letting him see it in a new way.

When I have a nightmare myself, it’s not quite so difficult to get my bearings as it is for Toby, but it’s still pretty disorienting. By definition, a nightmare shakes things up. The nightmare situation is so compelling and intense that it stimulates a fight or flight response, causing me to jolt awake, on full alert. And it’s not easy to find familiar points of reference, and convince myself to power down my defenses.

There are basic things we do to get oriented when we lose our bearings. Like Toby, we look for something familiar, especially something that generates physically and emotionally soothing sensations for us. For Toby, the most comforting thing is to be touched—by me, and by his Annie. If you have a nightmare, and there’s a loved one at hand, any physical contact can bring the world back into focus, and steady that racing heart rate.

But it still takes a while to process the disturbing dream, and get reoriented to a waking perspective. It’s like Archimedes saying that he could move the earth (with a lever), if he only had a place to stand. The dream needs to be acknowledged and integrated in some way, but a stable point from which to view it is essential.

Nightmares are powerful, and their very intensity suggests their importance to the psyche: whatever they are communicating, it is being communicated with some urgency. A dream that comes with strong feelings of fear, anger or grief may be using those emotions to insure that it will be remembered by the conscious mind. The dream itself contains a life force that cannot be confined to the unconscious—the conscious mind evidently needs it. But when we wake up from a nightmare, all we really want to do is get away from it.

Nevertheless, let’s suppose the disorientation we feel when waking from a nightmare is actually an opportunity. It is a shaky threshold place where it’s possible to feel the full impact of the dream, and take that energy with us into the waking world as we gradually reconstruct our familiar reality around it. The nightmare images are distressing (perhaps to get our attention more effectively), but their energy can be healing and empowering. If we are forced to accommodate those energies in a transitional state, then we may find a healthy way to accept them into consciousness.

In any case, I’ve found that acting as if this transitional state is meaningful and helpful tends to make it so. Getting curious about what’s going on, and assuming (or even pretending) it’s a good thing, calms me down and helps me to integrate the strong emotions and orient myself more readily after a nightmare.

Recently, I woke from a vivid and heart-wrenching nightmare, filled with images that shocked and shook me. I reached over and put a hand on Holly—she was asleep, but there. Okay. I tried to take deep breaths. The room was too dark to see details, but I knew I was home. And still, the feeling of desperate threat continued, and the world of the dream seemed realer than real.

I told myself (not entirely believing it), that it was a great experience to have such a dream—an experience that would change me, open me up, create new potential. I remembered the dream, while also remembering some ordinary things about my life—what happened the previous day, what I planned to do the next day, what I am grateful for.

At the moment, it was okay not to know how such a difficult dream and such disturbing disorientation could possibly benefit me. I just experienced it for a while, with the idea that it was exciting rather than devastating. Then, I let the warmth of the bed soothe me back to sleep. Over the following days and weeks, I began to unfold the dream’s images and story, and it became clear that this is one of the most meaningful dreams I’ve ever had.

I’m sure I’ll write about the dream itself sometime, but for now what I’m getting at is that a nightmare has become a dream of great beauty. And I think that approaching the transitional state of disorientation in an exploratory, healing way made a big difference. By opening up to it instead of shutting down, I somehow allowed a nightmare to reveal itself in a new light. This is something I’ll want to experiment with the next time I have a nightmare. I’m almost looking forward to it!


  1. Kathryn

    Lately after a nightmare I wake up very shakes and disoriented. What type of Doctor would I see fr this and why is this happening for about the last 8 months.
    Thank you

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Sorry you’re having such a difficult time with nightmares, Kathryn. It’s natural to wake up shakey after these intense dreams, which stir up the “fight or flight” responses in the brain and nervous system. People have nightmares for lots of reasons, and often they will just discharge some emotional energy (if there’s a lot of stress in your life, it can be a way of releasing some of that emotion) and then go away on their own. If they are a long-term problem, then seeing a doctor (primary care provider) who may want to refer you to a sleep-study or other form of follow-up could be a good idea.

      However, some doctors will prescribe drugs that suppress or diminish dreaming, and that is really not a good thing at all because it can create all kinds of other serious problems. The best treatments usually combine therapy (to address underlying concerns that the dreams themselves have been trying to address) and sleep adjustment approaches. Many nightmares are triggered by sleep apnea, and if the apnea can be treated, the dreams often become less nightmarish. Trying to find a doctor who understands sleep disorders (and recognizes that dreaming is a valuable and necessary process) may be difficult, but a doctor who just prescribes sleeping pills or anti-depressants without looking at the big picture is not going to be helpful.

  2. traviswernet

    Beautifully said, on many levels Kirsten! I especially love the sense I get here of the multi-layered connections between people, animals, waking and dreaming. You’ve reminded me of the import of having a creative point to engage our difficult dreams and this piece comes at a pertinent and helpful time for myself and folks I work with – will be sharing this one, Many Thanks 😉

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Many thanks, Travis! It’s timely for me and those I work with as well… Many powerful stirrings in the dreamworld, perhaps—even for cats and other animal dreamers!

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