Q: I have a recurring dream that someone is trying to break into my house. It’s usually a very scary man, maybe about forty years old. (I get chills even thinking about him now). When I wake up from this dream, I often have to get out of bed to make sure the door is locked before I can go back to sleep.
A: Oh dreamer, this is such a common theme. I’m glad you brought it to our attention so we can work through it together. You want these dreams to go away and stop taunting you, I know. You wonder what they could possibly mean and why they’re afflicting you. They’re disturbing your sleep and penetrating your waking life with the fear they contain. These dreams are very important dreams, but they rarely mean anything like what you’re likely to think they do.
First of all, I’d like to refer you to a little post I wrote about recurring nightmares. Please give it a read to help gauge what type of nightmares you typically suffer from. It can be important to identify some trauma history around nightmares, in addition to overall symbolism.
Okay, before we go on, I need to ask you to do one more thing: Get a piece of paper and a pen. Go on… I know it’s old fashioned. Now take a moment to go back into the feeling of this dream, then write down as many descriptors of this scary guy as you can muster. But write down what he’s like besides being scary. Does he have a job? Does he have a family? What do you know about him that you might be surprised to know. Then, finally, ask yourself what you think he wants from you.
It’s really important that you try to get to know this guy because he is your shadow. He’s you. I know, it’s yucky to hear that, but keep listening. This is important stuff. When we have an idea of who we are, our perspective about ourselves can become kind of rigid and fixed. Those things you avoid acknowledging about yourself to feel more comfortable don’t just go away. They get cut-off from your awareness and then tend to fester and get pissed. In your dreams, they turn into actual figures, and they can turn kind of primal and wild in their frustration at being neglected. These figures are part of your whole person, but they’re being left out in the cold. No wonder they want to break in.
So, the underlying sense in this dream is that you feel under attack. You likely feel like you’re under attack or in danger in some form out in the world too. But your dreams are telling you something very clearly here: despite all the dangers in the world that may cause a person to feel fear, you are currently under attack by your own self. Nothing more. Get real with yourself here. Try to be gentle and forgiving. Take your time. What are you running from? What are you trying not to notice? Who are you scared of being?
The answer to these questions can be found in gently trying to understand who this figure is that’s trying to break-in. There may also be information in what house you’re in in these dreams. Is it your current home or a childhood home, for instance? Notice what time of your life these dreams are situated in, and you may gather more information about what part of your life they’re speaking to.
As you do this exploration, take heart! There is always a happy ending when these dreams resolve. You will find that this man actually just wanted to tell you he loved you, for instance. Or he may hand you flowers. I know this might sound absurd, but this man is not as scary as he feels. The anticipation of jumping out of a plane is scarer than the jump itself (or so I’ve heard…). Similarly, anticipating an encounter with someone you’re trying to avoid tends to be worse than the encounter itself. Try not to think about this too much, but work on engaging with this man a little more directly–either in your dreams, if you can, or in waking life projected onto strangers or people you don’t like. Get to know him and what he wants. Try not to avoid him internally or externally. Discover what’s happening when you start to feel under attack in waking life. Stay safe, but also bring your guards down a little. Get curious. You may discover that your life changes in positive ways as this happens. And you’ll be surprised by how.
P.S. You may enjoy listening to this Radio Lab episode called “Haunted Dreams” in which a man who has been plagued by the same dreams as you–for twenty years!– finds a way to make them stop. It’s a great episode but–spoiler alert–they stop rather short of explaining why the dreams were there in the first place and what changed for the man after the dreams stopped. Perhaps your own exploration into this territory can illuminate those questions further.
Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!
Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their 20s and 30s. www.QuarterLifeCounselor.com
People who suffer from recurring nightmares are often desperate for anything to help make them go away. If you are one of those people, there are a few easy steps to take to help the recurring nightmares stop. The first step is identifying what time of nightmare they are.
What Type of Nightmare is Recurring?
Nightmares come in many varieties. You can think of their difference in origin and meaning in much the same way you might notice that a stomach pain could be the result of indigestion, or a bullet wound, or cancer: completely different diagnoses and different treatment required. They all require attention and self-care, however.
The following is a simple breakdown of some different types. This is not comprehensive and is only meant as an initial introduction.
If you have any questions at all, do not hesitate to contact a clinician in your area who works with dreams. Not all therapists do (in fact, the majority do not) so take some time to find the right person for you.
Nightmares Related to Post-Traumatic Stress
Nightmares related to a traumatic event or events are of a very specific variety. You can read more about my exploration of Post-Traumatic Stress dreams in an earlier entry. In summary, these nightmares are often highly literal representations of what occurred in waking life. There is room to debate if they are even dreams in the standard definition in that they are drawing so heavily from memory, therefore suggesting a disruption in the way events are generally metabolized. Nightmares that replay events or do not feel symbolic fall into this category. They are nightmares that do not make you think “what is that about??” when you wake up; you already know what they’re about far too well.
Non-Literal Nightmares Related to Trauma or Major Life Changes
Many nightmares result from trauma but are not actual replaying of events. These can be dreams like dismemberment, tsunamis, apocalypse but may be more a reflection of what is being altered in your life, or what is being ignored. Dreams of tsunamis, for instance, are quite common. These are likely to do with some kind of emotional overwhelm which, because it is showing up in dreams, you may not be acknowledging fully.
Stress Related Nightmares
Nightmares not related to trauma are often a result of being overwhelmed or “disconnected” and not paying attention to your inner life. These dreams can show up in any variety. Maybe you are running from something. Maybe someone is trying to break into your house. Maybe you’re seeing sickness or suffering a lot in your nightmares. They’re stressful to experience and you can wake up feeling groggy and frustrated and scared.
Sleep Paralysis, “Incubus” Nightmares, Night Terrors
Nightmares that feel like sleep paralysis or in which you experience a force in your room or sitting on your chest are not uncommon. These dreams are often referred to as “Night Terrors” and cultures all over the world have explanations for what is occurring in this highly visceral and terrifying experience. These dreams seem to result from a sense of “disembodiment” or what I think of as the disorientation of consciousness. They may come when you’ve slept way too long, or when you’re sleeping in a new location. They may also be more common for people who have experienced leaving their bodies through dissociation; a history of sexual abuse, for instance, may contribute to a greater incidence of these dreams. If you’re feeling powerless or trapped in your life, they may arise in those instances.
How do I Stop Recurring Nightmares?
Almost all nightmares, with the exception perhaps of the PTSD variety, have the effect of grounding you. If you notice the visceral experience they evoke, they may be a psychic immune system response to make you pay attention to your body and the physical world. They seem to support in improved awareness and force an individual to slow down and regain focus in their day to day life.
Stopping PTSD Related Nightmares
Help for these nightmares can come through working to jump-start your psychic metabolism by encouraging symbol making that is not happening organically. This may sound highly abstract, but stick with me here. Writing can help. Writing about what occurred and what the dreams are, but trying to recover what was lost. Reading poetry. Engaging in art or dance. Literally, these forms of relating in the world can help to calm nightmares over time. The “irrational”, artistic, symbolizing aspect of the mind has been disrupted. Everything is too literal.
There is also some excellent work being done around “re-dreaming” with PTSD nightmares in which certain images within the dream are consciously altered. Some lucid dreaming techniques are also helpful to bring conscious engagement into healing the disruptive dreams.
Help for All other Recurring Nightmares
1) Write your dreams down. Seriously. I bet you that if you write your dreams down in the morning, you will see a decrease in their intensity and frequency within a week.
2) Spend time exploring them. Why did that guy show up? What is that building from childhood doing there? Really explore it. Notice themes: What topics are showing up regularly? Which periods of life? Something is being triggered right now and some aspect of YOU is trying to make contact with you. Listen to it. The less you listen to it, the more intense the nightmares need to get to make you pay attention.
3) Get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Do not get less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Sleep. Being under rested is a chronic issue in modern life and the effects are much more severe than people realize. If you sleep regularly and well and without sleeping pills, your nightmares will almost certainly be less frequent.
4) Consider playing more if you’re not playing enough, or consider getting more responsible and focused if you’re playing too much.
If you follow these simple tasks, your recurring nightmares are almost guaranteed to stop or at least decrease dramatically. There’s much, much more to be gained from working with your dreams, however. If working with your nightmares raises your interest in your inner life, let them take you there. Nightmares are not a nuisance. They tend to be helping you. Pay attention.