Sleep is supposed to be a safe refuge — a place of calmness, relaxation, and the occasional no-consequences dream about invisibility cloaks. But nightmares change all that. Experiencing plane crash dreams, dreams about being the victim of a crime, or any other nightmare can not only make sleep stressful — it can make us feel on edge during our waking hours, too. I should know; I've been having a recurring dream where I'm chased through the halls of my childhood home by my mother, and every time it happens, I wake up in a state of agitation, then spend the day freaked out and irritable.
But if you've been having nightmares lately, don't freak out. It doesn't mean that something bad is going to happen to you in real life, or that you are experiencing a mental health issue. Rather, nightmares are thought to be our mind's way of coping with the things that frighten us — and if you pay attention to your nightmares, you just might be able to glean some information that will help you deal with you fears.
As psychotherapist Annie Armstrong tells Bustle, "nightmares are a way for us to process our fears – both the spoken, obvious fears and the unspoken, less conscious fears we possess. It is also thought that nightmares help us prepare for worse case scenarios, solve problems, or connect to and better understand, even tolerate, existential fears."
According to the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute's "On The Brain," nightmares can be caused by a wide variety of factors, including medications, irregular sleep patterns, and PTSD — one 2009 survey found that 80% of people with PTSD suffered frequent nightmares, while only around 3% of people not suffering from PTSD experience regular nightmares. (if you think you might be dealing with PTSD-related nightmares, make sure to seek help from a professional you trust).
But for many of us, stress is the culprit behind our bad dreams. "If we are stressed, trying to solve a problem, or have the deep knowing that something [in your life] might be off," says Armstrong, "our dreams are opportunities to work things out. They can express some underlying fear or desire that we might not have time to manage in our waking life."
By looking at your nightmare and the specific symbols that show up, you can discover a more personal meaning.
Of course, knowing that there's a reason you keep dreaming about your house burning down doesn't necessarily make it any easier to deal. But according to Armstrong, the best coping tactic isn't trying to forget that your nightmare ever happened. This strategy can backfire, because "frequently, our dreams become more powerful or scary when we avoid dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings."
Rather, you might want to try thinking about your nightmares — specifically what symbols appear in them, and what they may mean to you. Analyzing your nightmares might do more than just help you understand what exactly you were dreaming about — it could help you get a handle on the issues that are causing the nightmares, and help make sure that your future sleeps are a bit more peaceful (or, at the very least, not filled with terrifying images).
So how do you figure out the deeper meaning in your nightmare? According to Armstrong, there are a few steps you'll want to take after you wake up.
1. Record The Dream
When you wake up from a nightmare, don't immediately start trying to think of soothing fields of lavender and/or your favorite prestige cable drama. Rather, take a moment to record what happened, either by writing it down or making an audio message on your phone.
2. Think About How You Felt In the Dream
"Take a moment to connect or identify the emotion you felt during the dream," says Armstrong. "Were you terrified, overwhelmed, nervous, embarrassed?"
3. Examine the Symbols in Your Dream
Everything in a dream is not exactly what it seems — so while a dream about a house fire could mean that you're just genuinely nervous about your home catching fire, it could also symbolize something else.
Armstrong says that the things that happen in our dreams — whether we're dreaming about experiencing a plane crash or winning an Academy Award — are largely metaphorical. "A dream uses symbols and images that are consistent in telling a psychological story," Armstrong notes. And thinking about these symbols is the way to truly understand what your dream was about. "By looking at your nightmare and the specific symbols that show up, you can discover a more personal meaning and a deeper understanding [of what it was about] than just 'yes, I am afraid of losing control and possibly perishing in a plane crash.'"
When you begin analyzing dream symbols, you may want to start by thinking about the location where your dream took place. "Try and see if the location is familiar and if it has any meaning to you," says Armstrong. "If it is not familiar but you know it is a parking garage, [think about] what associations do you have with a parking garage? Make simple notes of these thoughts if it’s helpful."
After you've thought about the location, pick a few more symbols "that spark your interest and write down some associations you have to the image. If it’s a person note what qualities of character you ascribe to that person."
4. Put the Symbols in Context
Once you've picked out some of the big symbols in your nightmare, it's time to try to think on what your nightmare might have been a reaction to. "Our nightmares are often our attempt to sort through issues we are having or patterns of behavior that have become dysfunctional," says Armstrong. "See if some of the pieces of your dream connect to the whole, and pay attention to what resonates with you. It might not be the obvious answer, so go with your gut!"
Using Anderson's advice, I analyzed my dream, and realized it was about more than my fear of being chased (though, naturally, I also do not like being chased!) or my severely strained relationship with my mother. The setting of my home made me think of my childhood; looking at various other symbols, I realized that I was actually dreaming about how sad I feel about no longer being connected to most of the people or things I knew in my childhood.
Will this knowledge change my life? I don't know yet. But I was heartened by something else Armstrong had to say: "reflecting on our nightmares can make them less intense and easier to tolerate the next one we have." So, in short: think about that plane crash dream right now, and you may not have to experience it again tonight.
This post was originally published on June 2, 2015. It was updated on July 30, 2019.