Nightmares usually represent our power—our raw, primal life force. What happens to us in nightmares is often a metaphor for how our power is being given or taken in the waking world. Nightmares demonstrate what needs to be addressed in both realms in order to regain our power.
For example, if a particular nightmare involves someone breaking into our house to cause us harm, we should ask ourselves, “How and where did they get in? What allowed them to cause harm? What did they do?”
If we practice shoring up our resources in both waking life and in dreams, we can begin to regain our power in both realms. If our efforts prove efficacious, the nightmares will become less terrifying and will decrease in frequency, and we will become more empowered.
What Do Nightmares Mean?
Nightmares have several possible overarching meanings that are not mutually exclusive.
First, nightmares may indicate unresolved personal or ancestral trauma. Power was previously taken away from us (or an ancestor), and our nightmares appear to guide us toward healing and re-empowerment.
Second, nightmares may represent our shadow. We may have wounds that have caused vital aspects of ourselves to be hidden away in the shadows. As part of our spiritual growth and evolution, the wounds need to be healed, and the shadow aspect of the self needs to be retrieved from the unconscious and integrated into conscious awareness.
Third, we may experience nightmares as a call to the healing arts. Many cross-cultural initiations into the healing arts begin with the future healer receiving a distinct series of nightmares. The initiations also often involve recovery from illness or tragedy, which is then healed through dream work.
Nightmares as Unhealed Personal or Ancestral Trauma
Many of us are able to recover from traumatic experiences on our own, given enough time and a safe and supportive environment. However, PTSD develops when the conditions necessary for healing trauma naturally are not met, and the traumatic experience remains unresolved. Aspects of the traumatic experience(s) “stick” with the survivor, often in the forms of physiological energy, emotional responses, flashbacks, belief systems, and nightmares.
Ancestral or intergenerational trauma is trauma that has been passed down from one generation to the next through belief systems, emotional and physiological responses, behavioral patterns, and even DNA. Additionally, those of who carry ancestral trauma often experience their own personal trauma that goes unresolved and compounds with ancestral trauma.
Nightmare content for those with unresolved trauma commonly includes children or animals who are injured, buried, lost, imprisoned, trapped, locked away, or stuck in a closet or basement. According to Donald Kalsched in Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and Its Interruption, this symbolism represents the locking away of the soul or inner child in the unconscious for safekeeping until it is safe to begin the trauma-healing process.
When the choice is made to begin trauma healing, persecutory, demonic, or monstrous figures may emerge; dream content may also include settings like prison camps, hell, dystopian realities, and more. This is often an unconscious backlash against new ventures into uncharted territory, the release of old survival mechanisms, and the healing process as a whole.
As healing progresses, the child or animal figures may become more alive and more active in the dream narrative. Other common dream content during this time includes heavenly scenes, churches, temples, numinous or magical experiences, and in-between places; this imagery indicates that a connection to the spiritual world has been re-established.
As trauma reaches resolution through the healing process, dream content may evolve to include engagements or marriages. These themes represent the marriage of the masculine and feminine aspects of self as well as the reintegration of memories and other dissociated experiences. At this point the nightmares usually stop, and the dream content becomes much more hopeful, empowering, and carefree.
Nightmares as the Shadow
Our shadow is anything about us or our lives that we’ve come to view as unacceptable as a result of societal or individual programming.
When our programming labels something as objectionable or bad, the mind likes to store it away in the unconscious where we won’t have to look at it. The problem with this process is that these aspects are all useful and necessary for us to evolve and become fully actualized human beings.
So, if self-actualization is our goal, we must enter the shadow of our unconscious, retrieve these relegated aspects, and bring them into conscious awareness. This is where our nightmares come in.
Nightmares, despite their terrifying nature, are actually designed to help us. Nightmares and dreams tap into deep wisdom, and they provide a fantastic opportunity to explore the shadow and receive instruction on its retrieval and healing.
In shadow nightmares, we might see themes of literal shadow or darkness, like a shadowy figure, or we may encounter a metaphor representing shadow and its purification, like someone bathing in a tub. These nightmares might also include a shadow aspect of an archetype (such as the Mother), which would include the archetype’s negative attributes (an overpowering mother figure represented as a dragon).
Our shadow may appear as something we don’t like—a behavior we engage in during a dream that seems totally out of character, or a behavior someone else exhibits that upsets or irritates us. Our shadow can also show up as a fear or blockage, something we need to overcome in order to level up on our spiritual journey.
Nightmares as a Call to the Healing Arts
The Mohawk name for a shaman, doctor, or healer is atetshents. It literally translates to “the one who dreams”—more specifically, “the one who provides healing through their dreams.” The Tungusic people of Siberia believe that shamans are those who can journey outside of their bodies to bring back healing and wisdom from other realms. This link between healing medicine and dreaming appears ubiquitous in both ancient and modern shamanic traditions across the world.
Before one becomes a shaman or healer, there is an initiation process. In most cultures, shamans need to experience a precipitating illness or tragedy that is healed through dreaming. Shamanic dream content often involves themes of death and rebirth; abduction (aliens); persecution; dismemberment; being filled with light or crystals; ancestors; spirit animals; tigers, leopards, or panthers; mythical creatures; ancient wisdom; and malevolent spirits.
Dream spirit guides may be present and can include ancestral spirits as well as spirits of the land where the shaman resides. These guides may appear as other humans, animals, mythical creatures, mountains, trees, water, rocks, non-corporeal beings, and more. Synchronicities may also increase in waking life.
Nightmare Interpretation: A Backward and Circular Process
People are always curious about what their nightmares and dreams mean. That’s a logical curiosity, but dreams are not logical—dreams are mystical. A more helpful question to ask is, “What can my waking life tell me about my dreams?”
The meaning of symbols and archetypes in dreams is dependent upon the dreamer, the dreamer’s life, and the context of the entire dream story. One dreamer’s personal demon can be another dreamer’s ancestral shamanic superpower. Harnessed in this way, nightmares can promote empowerment and facilitate deep healing.
**By Brianna Mann