The Benefits of a Nightmare

Photo by Katie Rea

“For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams…”

Edgar Allan Poe

Did you know nightmares are not all bad?

As a person who dreams regularly, the idea of nightmares could be a benefit came as a surprise to me. Obviously, they had not experienced one of my nightmares. One of my worst nightmares was watching a beloved family member plummeting to their death—and I could do nothing to prevent it. I just watched. I felt helpless.

Nightmares are terrifying. There seemed to be nothing beneficial about that dream. I still remember it in specific detail, though it happened years ago. It still scares me.

But Jill Mellick explains in her book, The Art of Dreaming: Tools for Creative Dream Work, nightmares have both good and bad qualities to consider.  Mellick said, “‘Bad’ dreams can balance out idealized versions of ourselves, events, and values. They can bring form to the dark side of an event…Some dreams scream real warning, danger” (p.120). It helps to put nightmares under that perspective. You may have a repressed or hurtful memory which you are avoiding to face. Perhaps a dream is warning you of the unhealthy decisions you are continually making. If you continue on this path, you may have terrible repercussions. Bad dreams scream to get your attention.

In our waking life, we are encouraged to face our fears and rise above them. So too should we face our fears in our reveries. Nightmares allow subconscious fears bubble up to the surface. This lets us confront them. There are many who dismiss dreams and place them in the category of fiction; it was just a nightmare. But dreams are an extension of ourselves. Something to pay attention and work through.

I have been writing down my dreams in a journal for years. Even so, I have only recently learned how to respect them. I have found several dreams wish me to learn more about myself or life in general.

Start with writing the nightmare down. I keep a dream journal on my night stand and if a dream wakes me up, I try to write it down then and there. Sometimes just the act of writing a terrifying dream down on paper calms me enough that I can go back to sleep. It gives me a sense of control to write it down. Then when I am ready, I will re-read what I’ve written. Take all the time you need to come back to it. I’ve waited a couple of weeks before. Follow your gut and be kind to yourself. The key is to revisit it.

Then look at all of the associations of the dream and what they mean to you. No need for a dream dictionary unless you would like one. But make sure the association resonates with you. Also, consider what is going on in your life at the time of the dream. It has taken me a few years to realize the majority of my nightmares occur during the winter months.  I dislike the cold and darkness. Could there be a nexus between my dislike of winter and this increase of nightmares? 

Mellick also suggests to imagine the opposite image of the nightmare (p.124). The threat becomes assurance or the monster becomes a friend. I found this advice strange, but it helped to take the edge of the fear away and helped give me a different perspective.

Nightmares are not all bad. When we take the time to pay attention to dreams and respect them, it is possible they contain wisdom and guidance. While I will always wish you sweet dreams, there may be hidden value to the “bad” ones.

“‘Bad’ dreams can balance out idealized versions of ourselves, events, and values. They can bring form to the dark side of an event…Some dreams scream real warning, danger.”

Mellick, Jill. The Art of Dreaming:Tools for Creative Dream Work. Conari Press/Berkeley, CA. 1996

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