How To Get A Messed-Up Dream Out Of Your Head

Simple techniques to turn a scary dream into something useful.

by Kaitlyn Wylde
A woman with a guitar stares out a window. If you've had a scary dream, these techniques can help yo...
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There are some nightmares that are so scary, simply waking up from them isn't enough of a relief. The visceral imagery haunts you all day, and your mind holds onto every single detail, making you wonder if it was a dream or something horrible that actually happened. If you've ever had the kind of nightmare that continues to disturb you in your waking life, there could be a reason why you are so fixated on it, but it might not be as obvious or literal as you think. The best way to address a hideous nightmare is to dive into it and weed through the details on a hunt for symbolism.

Dreams that we can't shake off in a wakeful state are not just emotionally problematic, but can also contribute to anxiety, says Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., a dream expert, author of Pandemic Dreams, and an assistant professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard School of Medicine. "Dreams are subjectively real experiences while they are happening, and when the memory of it is strong, it feels as though it did actually happen," she tells Bustle. In some cases, anxiety comes first, inspiring the traumatic dream in the first place. Regardless of the order of events, Barrett says it's important to break the dream down into symbolically tangible pieces because an anxious mind has a hard time incubating a pleasant dream.

For people who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), disturbing dreams are often a reenactment of real-life events in sleep, Barrett says. "It's just like being re-traumatized every night and it's a part of what keeps these people traumatized," Barrett explains. "It's nature's way of keeping you scared and keeping you on your guard," she says. If you are experiencing this kind of dream, working one-on-one with a mental health professional is going to be the most effective treatment route. But if there are no known mental health-related issues that could be affecting your dreams, Barrett recommends these two practices to rewrite the dream and understand what it's trying to tell you:

Do A Dream Interview

According to Barrett, one of the most powerful ways to break down a traumatic dream is to look past the most obvious and literal interpretations. To do this, she suggests interviewing the dream. "Pick out the key elements, the main characters, dramatic objects, main actions, and ask yourself what each thing is or means," Barrett says. The goal is to get away from subconsciously trying to figure out the symbolism, instead just answering with gut responses. "You can pretend you're from another planet and explain things simply and instinctively," Barrett suggests.

For example, if there was a dog in your dream, ask yourself, or have a partner ask you, "what's a dog?" Your answer might be "a cute creature" or, "an animal with sharp teeth" or, "something that is more loyal than people." How you define that element of the dream will hopefully lead you to unpack its meaning. Go through each element of the dream, and explain what it is, from here, Barrett says, you'll be able to string together connections from your waking life.

Often, Barrett says, what you initially think a dream means is far from your actual connection to it. For example, if you describe a dog as a symbol of loyalty after having a dream about running over your dog, it doesn't mean that you have ill intentions towards your dog. It could mean that you feel loyalty was compromised in another area of your life. When you zoom into to each uncomfortable aspect of the dream, looking for alternative meaning, you'll find it. And you'll also crush the power the dream has over you in doing so.

Take Control Of The Next Dream

After you've taken the time to study your bad dreams, Barrett says to put some positive energy into sowing the seeds for a good one. "If you feel like you understand what your anxiety dreams are about, focus on what you would like to dream about before you go to sleep," she suggests. To do this, "form a simple image, and picture everything: the environment, the people, the plot," Barrett says, explaining that by scripting the dream you want to have before bed, you might actually get what you want.

If you find that your dreams are being hijacked by disturbing sequences or stressful circumstances, despite all of the happy thoughts you're having before bed, you'll want to spend sometime journaling or meditating to ensure there aren't external stressors that need to be addressed. If you have unresolved stress, Barrett says, it will find its way into your dreams, so put everything out onto the table. "The same dream can mean a lot of different things to different dreamers," she says, so explore yours independently in lieu of scanning for answers in a dream encyclopedia — the answers are in your subconscious already.


Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., dream expert, author of Pandemic Dreams, assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard School of Medicine