Symptom Reading of Nightmares -or- Stress and Everyday Life

Personal Boundaries -or- Emotional Well-Being 

From a clinical psychology perspective, "nightmares" can be interpreted using the tools of the medical humanities, more specifically they can be deciphered via a "symptom" reading.  J.A. Hadfield writes in "Dreams and Nightmares"; "People may ignore their dreams, they cannot ignore their nightmares. For nightmares can be most distressing, casting their shadows throughout the following day." Hadfield discusses the nightmare as often being the "only form of symptom" brought to children's "guidance" clinics and the "adult patient complains" about. Freud was one of the first modern medical professionals to see dreams, nightmares, thoughts and memories of his patients from a "symptom reading" perspective. 

Ernest Hartmann "The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams" characterizes people having frequent nightmares having unusually "thin boundaries". Hartmann reviews the concept of boundaries, many meanings are pointed out, including Kurt Lewin's concept of the self's "topological boundaries". The meaning that I will be using in this dream interpretation about boundaries, is that they denote "personal boundaries", and "personal space". 

Growing up, we develop personal boundaries which become defined and shaped by our primary "egocentric" perception and experience with "danger, threat and risk", and "health and safety". When our personal social space, personal boundaries and our emotional well-being are physically and/or psychologically threatened, traumatic nightmares are often the result. Here is a young man's nightmare that speaks about children's health and safety. 

Victor, 24 

I was at a family gathering at home in the city where my parents live. In my dream I was at my parent's house, my siblings and their spouses, and all of their children were there. [Between my 3 siblings, I have 11 nieces and nephews total and they're all under the age of 12]. As usual, all of the kids were running around and playing in the family room. I had a sense that it was Thanksgiving, though in real life I knew Thanksgiving had already passed. I was observing all of the kids playing around with toys and such. Then I noticed my oldest nephew, Albert [who is 6 years old], had sat on a ledge in front of the fire place which was at a perfect sitting height for him. I noticed how unsafe it was that the fire was not enclosed behind glass, but just set a couple inches lower than the ledge. 

I leaned through the window and tried to call to Albert not to sit there that it was dangerous. When I opened my mouth to call to him, the window I was leaning through grew glass, almost like a car window going up automatically. And characteristically of a dream, I couldn't seem to yell. Suddenly, I noticed that the back of his shirt caught fire, and I expected him to jump up and start screaming, but he didn't even notice it. He just kept playing with the toy he had in his hand. I started screaming and crying and pounding my fists against the glass. Albert stood up, still oblivious to his shirt on fire and walked across the room. For a second I was hopeful one of the adults walking around would notice him. I saw my Dad turn slightly towards me and acknowledge that he saw me, but did not seem to notice my desperation and pointing, in fact he seemed to think I was waiving at him or something and gave little waive back. 

I turned to Albert again, he was talking to Jean my oldest niece, and when he turned away from her, the fire on the back of his shirt caught her beautiful long red hair on fire. She also didn't seem to notice. Albert went and sat down across the room. I thought, his poor little back had to at least feel the heat from the flames by now. Then suddenly, I saw him reach around to his back, as if to feel for something behind him, and then he knew. He started frantically and unsuccessfully trying to almost get rid of the fire, but didn't know how to get it out. Still the adults didn't see. The children started noticing, and gathering around, but they were getting burned. Then I woke up with sweat and tears and all those post-nightmarish symptoms. 

Dangerous World -or- Learned Helplessness Model of Depression, Fear and Nightmares 

Fire is one of the physical threats that exist in the real world, a world full of fears, threats and dangers. You watch helplessly through the window that "grew glass", as your oldest nephew's shirt catches fire. In this dream you try to scream but can't. You say this is "characteristic" of your dreams. Your Dad does not notice your "desperation and pointing", he non-verbally (waiving) acknowledges you, yet thinks you are simply waiving at him. Clearly he has mis-interpreted what you were signing and gesturing (pointing) to him. The children who are playing, and the other adults do not seem to "notice" or "see" what is happening either. 

Martin Seligman "Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death" sees in the "safety signal hypothesis" the absence of traumatic situations. We live however in a world of "unpredictability", where traumatic events are not always predictable. If a signal informs us that all is safe, then we can relax. If however the safety signal is turned off, we remain in a state of "anxiety and chronic fear". This idea was not a new one, Sigmund Freud has already pointed to such a signal theory of anxiety. Later his daughter Anna Freud "The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense" would see "signal anxiety" as a built-in biological defense mechanism to warn the ego of threats, dangers and fears. My own research and clinical work in understanding the nature of dreams, shows that signal anxiety does in fact provide the primary biological foundation for understanding nightmares and feelings of learned helplessness. This neuropsychological idea of signal anxiety and helplessness can be proven, disproven or qualified using the medical tools available today. 

Taking these biological ideas one step further, in relation to what you call "post-nightmarish symptoms", you say that you woke up from the dream with sweat and tears. Seligman tells his readers about the behavioural experimental idea of a "conditioned emotional response" (CER)  in predictable and unpredictable traumatic events. In Seligman's own words "The galvanic skin response (GSR), an index of fear related to sweating, has been measured during predicable and unpredictable trauma." Seligman presents the findings; "Thus measurement of CER and GSR suggest that fear is chronic during unpredictable traumatic events because no signal for safety exist." Said differently, from the psychoanalytic perspective, signal anxiety has become chronic. Said again differently, in terms of the stress research done by Hans Selye, postulates the "General Adaptive Syndrome", in which the first phase is the "alarm" phase of stress which activates the fight-flight response. 

Many of the dreams sent to the International Institute for Dream Research speak of stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic nightmares. Many of the dream interpretations such as "Coping with Stress" posted at the IIDR website are dedicated to providing insight and transparency to the psychodynamics of the General Adaptive Syndrome and collective dream patterns and individual dreams such as yours. The IIDR is also dedicated to show ways out of the culture of chronic fear and stress via the "relaxation response" which is often found in meditative states of dreaming. 

Further Reading: 

  • Louis Breger, Ian Hunter, Ron W. Lane "The Effect of Stress on Dreams"
  • Hans Selye, "The Stress of Life"
  • Herbert Benson "The Relaxation Response"
  • Joseph Natterson (ed) "The Dream in Clinical Practice"
  • Alan Monat and Richard S. Lazarus (eds) "Stress and Coping: An Anthology" (3rd edition)
  • Deirdre Barrett (ed) "Trauma and Dreams"
  • Benjamin B. Wolman, "Children's Fears"


All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.