Exploring the Sleeping Mind

Let’s Talk About Nightmares

I often write about nightmares, but not for sensationalism, entertainment, or their shock factor. I write about them with a clear purpose: staring into the mirror that reflects an abstract yet insightful image of our own minds.

It was my own nightmares that pushed me into researching the psychology of sleep and dreams almost ten years ago, and eventually convinced me of the insightfulness of dream analysis. Countless times over the course of my nightmare-filled year, I would find myself aware of the room around me during an episode of sleep paralysis. Next, a trusted friend or family member would walk through my door in silence. Sometimes they would climb through the window. Something would seem off about them, and by the time they would have ominously, threateningly climbed on top of my paralyzed body with the weight of their bodies on my small frame, they would have morphed into a featureless and faceless demon. I couldn’t move, scream, or close my eyes. The demons looked like somehow a human with a disjointed body had been removed, and nothing but an opaque void remained in the exact shape of that human—no eyes, no color. Thankfully, before the demons could attack further I would wake up in a panic, usually unable to return to sleep for the rest of the night.

At first, I reacted to these nightmares as most people would—with total avoidance. I would turn on the lights, listen to soothing music, and change the subject of my inner conversation. I would avoid scary movies that I feared would trigger more nightmares. I would drink wine before resigning myself to that awful bed—or couch, but it wasn’t any safer there—like a soldier with his flask preparing to step into a losing battle. I tried sleeping pills, which helped me get to sleep but only made me feel trapped in my dreams once I reached them. I tried lemon balm and valerian root and chamomile. I tried exercise and prayer and meditation. I tried setting schedules, getting organized, and lowering stress. I avoided caffeine and started eating clean. I found dream forums with descriptions of dreams eerily similar to mine. Some people claimed they were real demons. Some even said I must have done something wrong for angels not to come to my protection.

When I had exhausted all methods of distraction, I finally turned to the study of where these nightmares were occurring–my own mind. After all, I thought, dreams occur in the mind, so I began to research what psychologists had to say about dreams. What I found as I read every scholarly article I could find on sleep and dreams, was that dreams aren’t completely random or senseless. As we sleep, our brains keep on working, they just work in a different way that is very abstract and therefore confusing. Sometimes they’re simply processing images we’ve just seen, like from watching a scary movie, but my dreams had clearly gone beyond that. If my brain wanted to practice feeling terrified, invaded, deceived, and trapped every night, I realized it must be practicing for something. This lead to the realization, groundbreaking then but so obvious now, that I was still struggling with feelings of being attacked and betrayed by a list of several people close to me. What I thought was in my past was clearly not. My sleeping brain was saying, “no, you’re still in danger. Beware of those that seem close to you. You still need to practice getting away from those situations.”

As I began to deal with those scars, I was treating the cause rather than the symptom, and the nightmares predictably faded. What used to be a weekly recurring dream hasn’t returned in many years. I may not have liked the way my mind decided to tell me, but when I finally paid attention, my mind had a very powerful message to get across to me.

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