Do you ever feel like you’re just treading water, trying your hardest just to stay in one place? Do you feel dissatisfied with your accomplishments, even when you know you should be celebrating? Do you ever feel completely alone, even amid a busy world?

Welcome to modern life, a time when we have the tools to be connected to everyone every moment, for all purposes, regardless of the toll it takes on our physical health or, for that matter, on the world itself. Understanding our dreams and what they mean provides one key to being able to reconnect with our authentic selves, make connections with others, deepen our connection to our ancestral heritage and find true purpose and meaning in our lives.

Alienation—The Pervasive Symptom of Modern Life

Nightmares are disturbing dreams that wake up the sleeper. They not only interrupt the restorative sleep cycle, but repetitive nightmares hijack the protean process of dreaming, hammering the dreamer repeatedly, screaming, “Wake up, Wake up!” On waking, the individual will have a vivid recollection of the dream.

According to WebMD, nightmares are more frequent in children and decline in frequency as people get older.  One out of two adults have occasional nightmares, and between 2 percent and 8 percent of the adult population are plagued by nightmares.

Rosalind Cartwright in her book, The Twenty-Four Hour Mind, describes two types of nightmares, the idiopathic nightmare that has no apparent cause and nightmares that reflect the effects of trauma. The latter present a recurrent pattern of dreaming she calls “the repetitive-traumatic pattern” that contrast with the “progressive-sequential pattern” in which dreams evolve and change over time.

Can Nightmares Be Controlled?

Nightmares confront the individual with the intolerable, the horrible and the unacceptable, evoking visceral feelings of terror, shame and repugnance. Understandably, individuals want to stop and/or control the nightmare. Certain approaches to treatment focus on improving sleep hygiene and teach ways to change the negative aspect of the nightmare into a positive one. Cartwright has developed a method called RISC model that aims to empower dreamers by teaching them how to stop the dream when it is happening and then how to change the ending from a negative to a positive one. While this method has helped individuals reduce the frequency of nightmares, it doesn’t focus on understanding what the nightmare is communicating.

Do Nightmares Have Value?

Dream Tending views the nightmare as a disruptive but invaluable source of information.  In the language of archetypal psychology, it is a gift from the gods that needs to be opened cautiously. Stephen Aizenstat in his book Dream Tending states, “From the point of view of the dreaming psyche, the nightmare pulls us out of ‘business as usual’…During the encounter with an intolerable image, our body is awake, energized and alert. The image itself demands new methods of dealing with the horror lurking within the psyche.  It makes us discover unique ways of responding. We are pushed to access new abilities, find new resources, and expand our boundaries. So nightmares, paradoxically touch our authenticity.”

Tending the Nightmare

Dream Tending aims to facilitate a relationship between the dreamer and the nightmare, moving the dreamer from fear and repugnance to a position of curiosity.  It creates an imaginal space for the dreamer to interact with and get to know the nightmare figure. Aizenstat identifies steps to working with nightmares, condensed to these essentials:

  • First, ground and center yourself before dealing with the frightening image. Occupying a position of curiosity is pivotal to reclaiming your strength.
  • Second, ask questions, such as “who are you?” and “what are your intentions?”, to discover the essential nature of the figure.
  • Third, as one gains knowledge about the qualities of the image, one discovers the value of the image that underlies its horror. One also learns what relevance it has in one’s life.
  • Fourth, the personal knowledge one gains from understanding what the nightmare communicates can be applied to problematic situations in one’s life.

Working With Nightmares: An Example

A client had the following dream, telling me:

“I was in some big house on some kind of sleepaway, camp-meets-artist residency situation, and there was some girl being really snide and nasty to me and then even getting vicious, and then I started getting vicious in response, and then at some point I heard her talking about me from downstairs, and I came down and proceeded to attempt to kill her by manual strangulation. She stopped moving but I didn’t know if she was dead or not. I hoped she was. I woke up feeling sick and negative, and very stressed. But I’ve never had a dream quite like that.”

This client is a woman in her early 30s. She had a conflicted relationship with her mother who was depressed, addicted to pain medicines and verbally abusive. Following a vicious argument with her mother, the client left the house. When she returned, she discovered her mother dead, having taken an overdose of pills. The client was 18 at the time this happened.

Contrasting the viciousness of the dreamer, in life, she was overly accommodating and extremely fearful of negatively affecting others. Consciously working with the quality of murderous rage that she seemed to value in the dream enabled her to see anger in a positive light. She made a connection between her rage toward her mother and guilt about her mother’s death and how she viewed all expressions of anger.  She understood why she was so afraid to show any signs of anger and realized that she didn’t need to protect others from her personality. This new knowledge allowed her to access her inner non-destructive strength.

Written by Larry Brooks, Ph.D.

Larry Brooks, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who has been in full-time private practice for 25+ years. In addition to his psychotherapy practice, he provides consultation to post licensed mental health professionals and has written for the Cultural Weekly, an online publication critically examining cultural issues of the day.


  1. Cartwright, R., The Twenty-Four Hour Mind, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  3. Aizenstat, S., Dream Tending, Spring Journal, Inc. 2009.

Stephen Aizenstat

Stephen Aizenstat, Ph.D., is the founder of Dream Tending, Pacifica Graduate Institute, and the Academy of Imaginal Arts and Sciences. He is a world-renowned professor of depth psychology, an imagination specialist, and an innovator. He has served as an organizational consultant to major companies and institutions, and as a depth psychological content advisor to Hollywood film makers. He has lectured extensively in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. He is affiliated with the Earth Charter International project through the United Nations, where he has spoken. Professor Aizenstat is the Chancellor Emeritus and Founding President of Pacifica Graduate Institute. He has collaborated with many notable masters in the field including Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, Marion Woodman, and Robert Johnson.

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The 5 Best Ways to Remember your Dreams
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Why Keep a Dream Journal?
Association, Amplification & Animation Method
 The Meaning of Nightmares and what they Communicate

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