Nightmare Meaning and Nightmare Disorder: A Jungian Perspective

In Dream meaning by Jesamine Mello3 Comments

Nightmare Disorder and Nightmare Meaning | John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

John Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare

Nightmare meaning is something a lot of you are asking about, so let’s take a closer look at why we have bad dreams.  Nightmares do have meaning, and typically, they are urgent messages from the unconscious, telling you that something in your life needs to change. It’s up to you to find out what that means.  I can give you some pointers on nightmare meaning, but this post is not about me telling you what your particular nightmare means.  None of my posts are ever about that.  That would be impossible.

I want to help you see your nightmares differently so that you can learn how to work with them. Don’t fear your nightmares; respect them.

Why do we have nightmares?

Nightmare Meaning | Nightmare Disorder |Nightmare imagesNightmares generally mean that you are missing something in your conscious life.  They are symbolically telling you that your current situation is not good for you.  Most of the time, the situation your nightmare refers to is your attitude.

Maybe you are denying some aspect of yourself, or, you aren’t paying close enough attention to some part of your life and now, that part of you demands your attention.

Nightmares can also mean that you are not adequately adapted in certain areas of your life, for example, they could indicate a creative or emotional problem.  And finally, nightmare meanings can also be about something that you have either suppressed or repressed, and now, it is coming back into your conscious life.  This is by no means an exhaustive list; these are just examples.

No matter what the case, nightmare meanings generally point to a singular message:
Wake up and pay attention to your life!

Overall, nightmares are like any other dream. They are aiming at your psychological equilibrium, and for me, this includes nightmares stemming from nightmare disorders.

If you have a nightmare, then you know that something is really out of balance.  And I don’t mean a chemical imbalance, though that plays a part because anytime we are out of balance, our chemistry is also out of balance.  But your chemistry is not the problem.

The images in our nightmares are symbolic references to that imbalance, and they can show us exactly how we have led ourselves astray, and hopefully, they also show us the way out.

If you can understand and integrate the meaning of nightmares, you should see a shift in your dream content.
The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. Carl Jung, Aion, par 126

Working with Nightmares

Working with nightmares’ meaning is difficult work, but I promise you that it’s worth it.  The more you work with bad dreams, the more you will learn to appreciate them as vital messages from your soul.

Nightmare Meaning | Nightmare Disorder |Nightmare imagesNightmares, I know very well from personal experience with my own inner demons.  They started when I was 3 years old.  Sometimes, I was terrified to go to bed because it felt exactly like Fuseli’s image above.  Everything that worried me in my life – which was almost everything in life – pushed its way into my dream imagery.

Demonic spirits, evil men and women who wanted to kill me, people mercilessly mocking me beyond endurance, would-be rapists, and preying wild animals haunted me every night.

I took Ambien for 11 years to keep those nightmares and demons away – and I was basically neurotic as hell.  Though I looked like I had it together on the outside, on the inside, I was all torn up.  After reading Jung’s Collected Works, I finally decided to stop the meds and face the night because I finally had some idea of what I was dealing with.

The first night without Ambien, I dreamed of running through a dark and desolate place in the middle of the night. I was trying to get home.  I had no shoes on.  A guy was running after me.  When he caught up, he said, “I’m going to kill you.”

That guy personified every fear I had.  When I said, “no you won’t kill me.  I will fight”, suddenly he stopped chasing me.

My first suggestion to anyone who has these dreams of being chased:  stop running and confront whatever chases you.

Facing Fear in Nightmares = Facing Fear in Your Life

Working with nightmares means that you have to figure out what the images in your dream symbolize. For example, an intruder coming into your home can be a personification of some unknown part of yourself that wants to come into your psychic house and live with you.  That means you have to discover something new about yourself.

Until you figure out what that unknown something is, it will be aggressive toward you.

For example, once I dreamed of a man who came into my home and threatened to rape and kill me.  He had two women working for him and they were dragging me around in chains.  When I realized I could fight those women with my Kung Fu (something I studied for two years), I killed them with the very chains they had around my neck.

At that moment, my chains fell off and the man started talking to me about art and my writing.

Hopefully, you can see that was a clear message from own creative source…something I had lost touch with.  He really wanted my attention, so he scared the crap out of me.

The Dream Figures in Nightmares Mean Something Specific

The man was an aspect of my inner masculine who wanted me to be creative.  He was going to persecute me until I fought for my own creative voice. The two women in this dream were personifications of my tormented/tormenting inner feminine.  At that time, I had some seriously persecutorial inner voices, voices which made me constantly doubt myself – not to mention, they drew some horrible women into my life – women who deeply betrayed me.

Nightmare Meaning | Nightmare Disorder |Nightmare imagesI had to learn to fight those voices, just like I did those horrible women in the dream.  Sometimes we have to learn how to act like our dream ego does.  We fight those killer voices inside by not identifying with them – by not believing them anymore. That’s our secret weapon.

As I said, now I appreciate it when I have a nightmare because I know that psyche is telling me that it’s time to change my inner world – or else something is going to happen in my external world, forcing me into a more difficult situation.

Here’s what I mean by that.  Let’s say that you are pushing yourself – really pushing yourself to achieve something that you think is really important, but yet, you keep hitting obstacles.  You keep pushing forward, despite the fact that you are making yourself sick.  Then you get a dream of “disaster” – a flood or fire or of plane crash or something.

That’s your warning, man.  You’re taking it too far.  If  you don’t listen and take a step back for re-evaluation, you’re going to suffer some fateful incident: a nervous breakdown, a job loss, a terrible fall, something even worse, such as a psychosis or even death.  I watched my own father suffer from the latter two…he wasted his whole life by not becoming conscious of his demons.

That’s what Jung means by that quote about Fate:

… when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.

Nightmares Meaning: Taking a Closer Look at Your Life

Naturally, the most common question I get is “How do I stop having nightmares” and “start having better dreams?” My answer to this kind of question is always the same:

In order stop having nightmares and start having better dreams, you have to become more conscious of the meaning of nightmares

If you are asking that question, I have a question for you:  What are you willing to do in order to become more conscious and change yourself?  Like really change yourself.  Do that thing you fear the most.  Let go of whatever you are clinging to … just drop it and fall into the unknown.

San Francisco de Borja y el moribundo impenitenteBecoming more conscious means not only closely examining everything about your current life situation, but also closely examining your attitude toward your current life situation.  Bad attitudes are toxic.  They are toxic for your whole system: mind, body, spirit.

Remember, almost all of your dreams, including nightmares, aim to correct or adjust your attitude toward life.

Nightmares are startling, frightening, and highly disconcerting for a reason.  Nightmares are trying to tell us something.  In many cases, our nightmares are a wake-up call from the unconscious.

Nightmares and Trauma

Other nightmares, such as those induced by traumatic experiences, are often not as much about your attitude and more about psychological indigestion, meaning that some parts of our lives haven’t been processed in a way such that we can give them meaning.

Lending meaning to what happens in our lives is not the same as saying, everything has a reason.  Telling someone they were tortured for a reason … that’s just not right.  But asking someone if they can find meaning in it – that’s different.

I highly recommend a book called Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.  That man lived through the Holocaust, so he knows something about living a nightmare.  His recovery and healing was based in finding meaning in that abjectly incomprehensible experience he had in concentration camps.

Nightmare Meaning | Nightmare Disorder |Nightmare imagesAnd speaking from my own traumatic experience, I know that we can break down deeply traumatic events, and metabolize and integrate them into a meaningful experience.  A lot of people stay in a broken-down stage.  You too can certainly stay there if you want to, but it’s to the damage of your own soul – and possibly to the damage of the other souls around you.

This is especially true if you have children.  I don’t mean to preach, but you owe it to those little beings to get your shit together and work it out so that they don’t end up bearing the burden.

Believe me, I know that we can find plenty of reasons to stay bitter, angry, scared, indignant, or whatever else you feel that keeps you traumatized.  But ultimately, it’s your choice to stay down or rise up.  My whole reason for living the way I live and doing what I do stems from my decision to rise up … rise up and become the hero, as Jung said.  Well, he actually said, “go down and become a hero” – but the implication is that we will eventually rise.

Nightmare Disorder and Nightmares Meaning:  Contemporary Definitions

Nightmare Meaning and Nightmare Disorder

Oh look!  Another DSM disorder to keep you contained in a nice little compartment.  Take some drugs and detach from your humanity because lord knows that becoming conscious of yourself doesn’t benefit the billion dollar medical/pharmaceutical industry.  This is exactly why most Jungian Analysis isn’t covered by insurance.

Apologies for the sarcastic outburst …

Before we get into looking at nightmare disorder and nightmare meanings, we’ll look first at some of the facts that have been gathered around the phenomenon of nightmares.  As you read this section, please take it “with a grain of salt” (as we say in English).

Don’t take everything you read about the stats so seriously.  The only reason I am even showing you these stats is to look at them later in a different light, that is, in the light of Carl Jung’s psychodynamic dream theory.

And last,

Please don’t get too excited about labeling yourself with a disorder.

Take responsibility and become conscious instead!

Nightmare Meaning | Nightmare Disorder |Nightmare imagesThere are far too many people who revel in their disorder diagnosis.  It gives us an easy reason for being like we are, thus alleviating us of our personal responsibility for doing something about who we have become – meaning, it relieves us of the responsibility for doing something other than taking a drug.

I, too, was a disordered person, living for decades with both a generalized anxiety disorder and a sleep disorder, so for any of you who are getting ready to send me a nasty email about how your situation is different – spare yourself some self-righteous indignation and some time.  Move on to another site.

Regarding nightmare disorder, according to the DSM-5, a diagnostic and statistical manual for labeling mental health disorders

Nightmares are typically lengthy, elaborate, story like sequences of dream imagery that seem real ,and that incite anxiety, fear, or other dysphoric emotions. Nightmare content typically focuses on attempts to avoid or cope with imminent danger but may involve themes that evoke other negative emotions. Nightmares occurring after traumatic experiences may replicate the threatening situation (“‘replicative nightmares”), but most do not.  On awakening, patients remember nightmares in detail.

PsychDB, Nightmare Disorder Defined

Nightmare Meaning | Nightmare Disorder |Nightmare images
Nightmare Disorder falls into the category of Sleep-Wake disorders

Here is the official diagnostic criterion:

Repeated occurrences of extended, extremely dysphoric, and well-remembered dreams that usually involve efforts to avoid threats to survival, security, or physical integrityand that generally occur during the second half of the major sleep episode.

  • On awakening from the dysphoric dreams, the individual rapidly becomes oriented and alert.
  • The sleep disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
  • The nightmare symptoms are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication).
  • Coexisting mental and medical disorders do not adequately explain the predominant complaint of dysphoric dreams.

*** Source:  PsychDB, Nightmare Disorder Defined

So, now we have nightmare disorder to add to the more than 200 mental disorders listed in the DSM-5. 

Nightmares and Nightmare Disorder Demographics


Nightmare Meaning and Nightmare DisorderNightmare Disorder and Nightmare Statistics

from the paper Nightmares in the general population: identifying potential causal factors

  • About one in 20 of the general population experiences nightmares every week
  • Nightmares often arise following exposure to a traumatic event
  • The prevalence nightmares is much higher in the psychiatric populations
    • For example, nightmares occur more frequently in people with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorders, and PSTD
  • Frequent nightmares are associated with increased psychological distress
    • There is a connection between frequent nightmares and self-harm, including suicidal behavior.
    • Note that it says suicidal behavior not suicide.
  • One study even suggested that frequent nightmares might be early indicators of psychotic experiences, PTSD, and sleep disturbance
    • Here is an example of where not to freak out if you’re having recurrent nightmares
  • Stressful events such as job, school, or relationships issues can precipitate nightmares
  • Negative affect is a key trigger in nightmares
    • Negative affects are defined as negative emotions, such as fear, worry, contempt, but in reality the negative affects are the uncomfortable sensations associated with negative emotion

I highlighted the last one because I think negative affect is a key factor in understanding nightmares.  Affects are both psychological and physiological processes, meaning they can be quantitatively measured.  Affects, as with all psychic processes, have a tendency to image themselves when the reach the threshold of consciousness.

In other words, our nightmares are symbolic personifications or images of uncomfortable psychic processes.  When you understand what those symbols mean, then you can work with integrating that meaning into consciousness.  I talk about what this means all throughout this site.

Nightmare Disorder and Nightmares: A Jungian Perspective

If a person has a nightmare, [sometimes] it means he is either too much given to fear or too exempt from itCarl Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, par 161

Let’s consider the quote from Carl Jung regarding nightmares and fear.  Nightmare Meaning and Nightmare DisorderFear is a biological response aimed at self-preservation, but these days fear has gotten very complicated.

By that I mean, a lot of our fears are strictly psychological, i.e., we fear psychological discomfort, as though it would kill us to experience it.

I always suggest that you start with looking at how you relate to fear.

For example, if you don’t have enough fear where you should have fear, then your nightmare could be pointing to imminent catastrophe.

Throughout the Collected Works, Jung shares story after story about the arrogant people who failed to heed the warnings of their nightmares, and thus, suffered the devastating – sometimes fatal – consequences.  Some common dream themes in this scenario are falling, crashing, fires, or floods.

If you have too much fear in your life already, that too is problematic because it leaves you neurotically incapacitated.  In this case, you may have dreams of persecutors who mean to do you harm.  This can express itself in anxiety or paranoid disorders.

Nightmares Meaning:  Exploring Your Dream Content

  1. What is happening in the dreams? Who are the players? You have to look at every detail.
  2. Make your associations to this content and then translate that into psychological terms.  For example, take your dream content and say to yourself:   this situation in the dream is similar to this situation in my life.
    1. you are looking for an emotional connection
  3. Remember, the dream-image is not an analogue, it’s a symbol. You’re looking for something that you cannot otherwise see.  Seeing yourself through a dream is like looking at the back of yourself in a mirror.
  4. What’s happening in your life at the time of the dream?
  5. How’s your emotional and mental state?

I have given you countless examples in this site about how to work with particular dream images.  Go back and review those posts with sample dreams to see what I mean.

How to Work With Your Nightmares:  Meaning and Reflection

Nightmare Meaning and Nightmare DisorderHere are the kinds of questions I initially ask my clients whenever they have nightmares:

  • Do you pay attention to your inner life?
  • Are you self-reflective?
  • Who or what drives your life?
  • Are you moving forward or stuck?

Furthermore, when we live only in the light of consciousness, without paying any attention to our depths, the unconscious will make itself known.

Consider your nightmares as an inner calling that something from your depths wants to say something. Pay attention to that and your dream imagery will change.Nightmare Meaning and Nightmare Disorder

My second level of questions about your nightmares would be:
  • Do you have an understanding of your instinctive life?
  • What drives you in life?
  • How do you process emotional pain or suffering?
  • Do you understand what a healthy sense of aggression is?

By all of that I mean, do you live responsibly alive to all aspects your being or do you fight your own nature and bow to convention?  Sometimes we don’t even know it when we fight our instinctual nature because we are so out of touch with it.

We can also fight our instinctual nature when we have unhealthy relationships with our basic needs as human beings, such as sexuality or hunger.

Third question regarding nightmares:
Are you connected to your creative life?

For example, when women are disconnected with their creative capacity, then the dream shows aggressive male figures, who want to rape or kill us, as I said in an earlier section of this post.  When men are disconnected from their creative life, they can easily turn to addictive behavior or have dreams about killer women.

Types of Nightmares

Nightmare Meaning | Nightmare Disorder |Nightmare imagesOf course, nightmares are very personal and if you are having a recurring one, feel free to contact me about working through it.  Here are some typical manifestations, which are by no means the only expressions of nightmares.

  • Male attackers in women’s dreams can be symbolic of a creative problem that is only solved when she resolves her issues with her inner masculine.
  • Dreams of animals attacking typically mean that we have strayed too far from our instinctual nature.
  • Dreams about being lost mean just that: we can’t find our way home, i.e., to our true selves. We are not living authentically in these cases.
  • Murder and Killing
  • Crashing or Falling
  • Hauntings or Demon Possession

Again, always remember that every nightmare, even those from nightmare disorder, is an expression of an underlying psychological process in you – something which  needs your conscious attention.



Jesamine Mello
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Laura Denenholz

I have moved into a senior community where a lot of the residents are old enough to be my parents. I feel like I have “oldified” myself, but I like all the help I can get here.

Cardinal M

Another great post. Thank you!