Nightmares - causes, meaning, topics and help

Nightmares - causes, meaning, topics and help

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The Aplraum - an alarm siren of the unconscious
A nightmare is a nightmare - often so severe that we wake up from it. The feeling of a nightmare often remains when you are awake, for minutes or even shape the day. The dreams can be so bad that people are afraid to fall asleep if they experience them regularly. In addition to fear, disgust, grief and anger are feelings that trigger and include nightmares.

When do nightmares occur

Nightmares (alternative spelling: "nightmares") occur especially at the end of the sleep phase, especially in the rapid eye movement period. They are therefore particularly plastic and remain in the memory - often down to the last detail.

Demons, the subconscious and the environment

In the mythology of the north, albums were the dark siblings of the elves. People believed that such beings sat on the sleepers' breasts at night and triggered terrifying dreams.

We know from psychology that demons and evil spirits are mostly "guilty" for unconscious parts of the personality that have been shifted outwards. However, this is not always the case: nightmares are mostly about children and adults, about people and animals, serious injuries and natural disasters, from falling to the bottomless, from hopeless escapes, from the death of loved ones or from one's own death.

Individual experiences play a much stronger role in humans than in the dreams of animals, and yet archeypical nightmares show that it is not just a matter of personal personality.

Rather, the themes of nightmares reflect real dangers that were everyday life for our ancestors, especially for children. Wild animals were able to eat children, kidnapped them by strangers, there were real situations in which people had to flee, and natural disasters, such as a recent hurricane in Texas or forest fires in Greece, are still a threat to life today.

The shadow

Carl Gustav Jung called the aspects of our unconscious that we find uncomfortable shadows, and he considered the themes of our own shadows to be the core of nightmares. Accordingly, the nightmare does not tell of external dangers, but of the abysses of the psyche.

According to Jung, however, these must absolutely be drawn into the consciousness by the unconscious in order to process them there. According to Jung, this shadow is the signpost for the direction in which a personality matures or stagnates and ultimately dies. Not the external causes, but the dreamer himself would be the cause of the nightmare.

In any case, when interpreting a nightmare, we have to pay close attention to whether our own shadow share or real threats play a role. A first clue is our own perception during the dream, also the perception of our own dream.

Roughly speaking: If a teenager keeps dreaming that he wants to go into a forest, but in front of it sits a tiger that blocks the path, we can rule out today that it is a real forest and a real tiger.

Rather, our unconscious operates with images that, in our evolution, designated actual external dangers, like a big cat, but implements them symbolically. So the tiger does not stand for a tiger, but for a symbolic lock on the way into the forest. The forest, in turn, does not stand for a real forest, but is a symbol for an unexplored world that lies ahead of us. There is probably a lot to discover in this world and he is expecting things we do not know.

In a teenager in particular, two key issues can be filtered out here: curiosity and fear. The dreaming sees the forest and wants to go in, but the fear of the tiger is stronger, like that of an adolescent who leaves childhood but is afraid of exploring the big wide world and growing up.

The tiger could symbolize various obstacles: the parents who do not want their child to go on a journey, but also the young person's own inhibitions, his fear of the unknown, his fear of change. In rare cases, there are objective obstacles: Is the forest perhaps the university that the young person cannot go to because his NC does not correspond to his preferred subject?

With such objective obstacles, the dream analysis must capture the subjective sensation and feelings when dreaming. Is the dreaming afraid to walk past the tiger and doesn't dare to be near it? Then the topic is probably his own fear: In the example mentioned, he does not dare to ask the university what options there are for him to enroll in his dream subject.

But if he dares and the tiger attacks every time he approaches and the mood of the dreaming is more angry than fearful, then he could be subject to real restrictions to get closer to his goal.

Does the forest behind the tiger shimmer in the most beautiful colors or does it exude a threatening atmosphere? In the second case, the tiger is probably part of the fear that the dreaming connects with the unknown experience. In the first case, "the tiger" lies between where the dreaming wants to go and the longed for.

The monsters of our psyche

All monsters of the horror film appear in nightmares: werewolves, vampires, cannibals or serial killers. We face them paralyzed or we run away from them. They rape or kill us.

The core of nightmares are not the monsters, but the feeling of being at the mercy of them. We experience extreme fear and / or fainting, which causes us to wake up. If the same or similar dreams are repeated and the fear increases, then we should definitely see a therapist.


Nightmares are not just normal, they are vital. In particular, those that deal with situations that could be real probably originated in evolution as training for emergencies.

In short: Our ancestors dreamed of running away from wild animals, hiding from them or calling for help when strangers sneaked into the camp to be able to act in an emergency. Even if they woke up bathed in sweat, such dreams were not psychologically unhealthy, but led to increased vigilance, which could save life.

Nightmares as warning dreams

In this form, nightmares can be warning dreams. They can indicate that we are weighing ourselves in false security or that we are taking risks more seriously than before. There are examples of people who quit smoking after dreaming of lung cancer. The dream illustrates a real danger that the smoker has so far unconsciously suppressed.

Some nightmares even lead to concrete actions, such as a dream in which a family man dreamed of a fatal car accident in which he survived but his children died. The dream did not let him go and he brought his car to the workshop before a planned vacation in Italy. There it turned out that the brakes had to be replaced urgently.

Our ancestors saw such nightmares as divine warnings and many cultures knew specialists to interpret these "clues from the gods". Although it is not a matter of supernatural inspirations of external forces, but of the subconscious, the character of the interpretations remains the same.

In his unconscious, the father of the family had saved his fear for his children on the one hand, but on the other hand that he urgently had to check his car. Perhaps a year ago a mechanic had told him to check his brakes soon, or he had already had problems with the brakes. The dream made him drastically aware of the possible consequences of negligence. Because of his irresponsibility, he would have caused the death of his children in the event of a fall and could never have forgiven himself for this. Such nightmares are a hard kick in the butt, but make a lot of sense.


So we all have nightmares, and that's not a problem. On the other hand, they become a problem if those affected suffer greatly. We notice this from the fact that the tormenting dreams and their topics frighten us during the day, or that we are afraid to fall asleep.

Anxiety dream disorder

With nightmares that occur several times a week, psychologists speak of an anxiety dream disorder - and this is often associated with another anxiety disorder: People with fear of spiders (spider phobia), for example, also have nightmares in which spiders play a role. People with a general anxiety disorder do not come to rest even during sleep, but rather flee at night, are paralyzed in a dream, are injured in a dream, etc., while these fears make it difficult for them to leave their homes during the day.

Typical nightmares

As individual as the individual nightmares are, the most common scenarios are very similar. The five most common nightmare topics are: I fall, I am persecuted, I feel paralyzed, someone close to me dies or disappears.

The dreams are very different even for the same person, but the same elements appear again and again in the same person, only the context and the sequence change.

It is no coincidence that these five topics come up again and again, because it is the basic situations that frighten adults in a variety of contexts.

Come too late

For example, being late in a dream can mean that a person is afraid of not having had experiences in his finite life when the time was there: a thirty-year-old who never moved out with his parents and is bitterly aware that it is is too late for a wild flat share life, a young woman who did not dare to reveal her feelings to the man of her heart and watched him marry another.

A concrete late arrival can also trigger the dream: Our pen pal from America is in the city and I forgot the meeting, a better position for my company that I would be right for is available and at the last minute when I applied wants to send, the Internet suspends.

Or it is a general “shadow” of our personality. We are reminded that we are notoriously late because we do not care about the things that are necessary to organize a fulfilling life. We are late in all required activities and therefore do not develop further.

Depth psychology, repeated nightmares, indicating late general passivity, regression and an immature personality. Here, however, the context is important. Even people who have unachievable goals and are driven by perfectionism to achieve them can suffer from nightmares of being late.

The shadow here is not that they are really none of their business in life, and if they do it is too late, but that they are constantly under pressure to miss something. Do you see a documentary about Tibet and torture yourself because you have not become a travel reporter? They then feel guilty because they stayed at the amateur level while taking pictures. So they are with everything. You always see a Hollywood actor, a prime minister or a pop star who "got ahead" than she does.

Their problem is not that they are late, but that they do not appreciate who they are and what they have achieved in life. The dream work is now about giving this feeling again.

To be paralyzed

The paralysis dreams also stand for situations to which we are repeatedly exposed. It is rarely about paraplegia, but about things happening in the world that we cannot influence. The greater our dependency on others, the more we are "paralyzed".

As a result, paralysis dreams should occur primarily in people who are very dependent. The decisive factor, however, is not, as with all dreams and our subconscious in general, the objective situation, but the subjective feeling.

The shadow character of the dream becomes evident in people who are particularly confident and carry their independence in front of them, but suffer from paralysis dreams every night. It is always a question of the overall setting of the dream. For example, the greatest fear of such people may be that they can no longer act independently. Their vehemently demonstrated independence can even serve to compensate for this fear.

Be tracked

Persecution dreams are also multifaceted. On the one hand, they have a concrete component: being followed by wild animals or people who want to harm us is a biological and social experience.

Added to this is the transferred meaning of persecution: unpleasant experiences of childhood haunt us, even if we have long established a structure of life that has nothing to do with it; unsettled relationships haunt us; the tax office persecutes us; People follow us with our demands.

A persecution dream becomes a nightmare when we are and remain the victim and see no perspective to escape. Dreams in which we turn around, confront or defeat the persecutor, or run away from him are not nightmares.

The aim of therapy is to process the dream so that we recognize, address and eliminate the fears expressed in the persecutor.

Death and loss

If we lose loved ones in a dream, it is also a prehistoric experience. We all have to say goodbye because our grandparents and parents are dying. But dying always has a transferred meaning in the dream: Our childhood friends "die" when we develop apart, our ex-partners "die" when they no longer exist in our lives; Desires die, ideas die, career ideas die when the reality of life develops differently.

Death almost always has a symbolic meaning in the dream, and the exact event is essential for the interpretation. Does our partner die? Can it be that our feelings die for them and we don't want to admit it? Are our children dying? Could it be that we haven't contacted them for months, that we never listened to them? That they grow up and build their own lives? Is an old friend dying? Have we perhaps developed so much that we have nothing more to say to each other? Am I killing someone myself in a dream? Am I angry with this person? Or is it my mother, my father? Then the killing can mean that I release myself from the bond to take my life into my own hands.

Nightmares in which close people die can also be warning dreams. A mother who dreams that her children are drowning may have real fears that her children are not up to the demands of the environment, in "drowning alcohol" etc.

Here again, it can be about their own fears, which have no anchor in reality, and therefore their problem of not being able to let go. Or, it can be real dangers in which the children are.

The mother may be afraid of not living up to her own ideal of parents, or the dream may express hidden tensions between mother and child.
Typical is the dream of a mother who suffered from severe depression that alternated with manic phases. In her manic episodes, she not only dealt with countless projects, but also arranged the house in which she lived with her children so that it was "perfect" and what was "perfect" determined her.

She had nightmares almost every night in which her 18 and 19 year old children were killed in a car accident. A few months later the daughter moved out first and then the son. At first she fell into a black hole, didn't want to live anymore, tore pictures off the walls and blamed her children for whom she would have done anything.

Her son wrote her a letter that she would never have listened to him. She plunged into various projects again. So what did the dream say? She unconsciously sensed that her children would turn away from her, thereby breaking down the "perfection" that she kept building up to keep her own fear of losing control under control - a helpless undertaking.

Her subconscious warned her that her children would go away if she didn't respond to their needs. However, she did not accept this warning.
If real people in our environment die again and again in a dream, but are there in real life, then this indicates that the dreaming is very afraid of loss. He feels helpless without the support of others.

It is important to strengthen the self-image and to work through the natural occurrence of death in a therapy. We cannot prevent relationships from ending, friendships falling apart, and people dying, but we can learn to deal with it.


Dreams of falling almost always have a symbolic meaning. Anyone who has climbed a certain point in life, i.e. closer to the mountain peak of their goals, can always fall. Here it is necessary to look at the details: Do I fall into the bottomless in a dream or do I fall in the direction of a hard floor where I threaten to shatter?

Psychological causes for fear dreams

On the one hand, nightmares have a historical basis, on the other hand our own experience plays a role. We often know very well what the dream expresses, and we are afraid when we are awake because (!) We know it and helplessly try to avoid what frightens us. The dream then rubs this avoidance behavior under our noses.


This applies to "normal neurotics". The nightmares of people with post-traumatic stress disorder go deeper. On the one hand, they have compulsive awake flashbacks that reflect the traumatic experience, on the other hand, they suffer from recurring nightmares in which the subject of traumatization arises.

Traumatized people react extremely physically to nightmares, their traumatization means that they experience the recurring traumatic experiences as if they were real. After a nightmare, they wake up with a racing heart, find it very difficult to get back to sleep, and much more difficult than healthy people to differentiate between the dream and reality.

Stressful nightmares

Stress also triggers nightmares. If this is the case, it is less about an accurate dream analysis than about reducing the stress. Finally, antidepressants and alcohol can also cause nightmares.


It is important to separate such nightmares that cause substances from those that reflect our inner conflicts: alcohol affects the messenger substances in our brain. Especially if we regularly drink too much and have nightmares, we must not confuse cause and effect. So instead of looking for the meaning of the symbols, we should urgently reduce alcohol. Then dreams change quickly.

This is especially true if, firstly, you have a tendency to dream anxiety, secondly, you suffer from anxiety, thirdly, try to numb with alcohol and fourthly, your dreams increase under the influence of alcohol.

There are several dangers lurking here. The first is that alcohol distorts a possible psychological statement of dreams. Alcohol is "dream poison". Nightmares under the influence of alcohol are as confused as the impressions of a drunk. You don't have to express inner suffering, but inner suffering can play into it. So with alcohol you hinder the dream analysis and its possible healing.

Secondly, the fears underlying the nightmares are made worse by drinking, and this is also why the bad dreams increase.

Cause biology

Not only nightmares in general, but also their frequency and intensity partly have a genetic basis: identical twins both suffer from frequent nightmares when one suffers, unlike dizygotic twins.

Nightmares also reflect archaic situations that correspond to the elementary forms of behavior that every living being has to master in order to survive: perceiving a threat, fighting or fleeing, eating or being eaten.

Cause medication

Not gods, but our brains control dreams. Those who take inhibitors of the “happiness hormone” serotonin ensure that our brain does not release the good feelings when we sleep.

Personal predisposition

People who are prone to depression, who are particularly anxious or irritable, are more likely to have nightmares than more mentally stable people. People with addictions or anxiety disorders have them not only because of their fear patterns, but also because of poor sleep.

Difficulty sleeping

Lack of sleep, restless sleep, drug-induced sleep, or irregular sleep do not have to, but can trigger nightmares.

Dream therapy

Nightmares are not fate, but can be worked on. Many are, literally, meaningless - they are caused by alcohol, drugs or poor sleep. Others, however, show difficult situations, burdens and conflicts and are our “allies”.

If in life "everything runs smoothly" without us doing something, something is usually wrong. Those who live actively deal with problems, solve them and look forward to future challenges. There is no phase of life without conflict - to live a life means to survive these conflicts. Just as Jung saw the monsters of our spiritual shadow as the ones that bring us to the core of life's questions, nightmares force us to cope with terrible situations in our sleep.

From victim to director

If storylines occur in dreams that could have meaning in real life, then therapy is about taking a close look at the threatening elements and working through how they can be defused. As in real life, the following applies here: A recognized danger can be dealt with.

Even if it turns out in therapy that the greatest threat to the nightmare cannot be dealt with, there is no reason to despair. Then it is usually an expression of something that we cannot solve like the death of people.

Therapists are now also starting to develop alternative stories with patients: both together design a new dream story that takes away the horror of the old one. Those affected can also keep a dream diary and restructure their story themselves.

The unconscious creates our dreams, and it is we who enrich our unconscious with stories. We can also change the patterns of our brain's stories.

It is important not to write a completely different story. The storyline itself remains, we only correct the script at the most important points. The tiger is still lying in front of the forest, but instead of threatening us, he purrs and can be petted.

Our brains can be manipulated in this way, and the "good end" is anchored in the synapses just like the horror story. Nightmares also have something positive: They enable us to live out fear that we cannot give in when we are awake. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


  • Reinhard Pietrowsky: Nightmares, Hogrefe Verlag, 1st edition 2011
  • Michael Schredl: Dreams: Our nightly head cinema, Springer Spektrum Verlag, 2nd edition, 2013
  • Michael Schredl, Ruth Pallmer: Nightmares in Children, Practice of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry 46 (1997) 1, pp. 36-56, (accessed September 5, 2019), psydok
  • Professional associations and specialist societies for psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychosomatics, neurology and neurology from Germany and Switzerland: What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? (Accessed: 05.09.2019),
  • A. Gieselmann et al .: Aetiology and treatment of nightmare disorder: State of the art and future perspectives, Journal of Sleep Research, e12820, (accessed September 5, 2019), wiley

ICD codes for this disease: F51.5ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find yourself e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.

Video: What is Nightmare Disorder? (December 2022).