Upon waking from a disturbing nightmare, we often attempt to shake off the fear that lingers by telling ourselves, "It was just a dream." But according to Gayle Delaney, Ph.D., co-founder of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and one of the pioneers of modern dream theory, the last thing you should do with fearful dreams is try to forget them. "Fear dreams have to do with something that frightens you and needs to be fixed," she says. "It’s usually something real that’s threatening to you. Really scary dreams try to grab your attention and say, 'Something in your waking life or behavior is threatening your well-being or the well-being of people you love, and it behooves you to recognize it.'"
Though many dream images are tailor-made to the individual -- “The color blue isn’t scary to some, but it might be to someone who was traumatized by a person who wore blue,” notes Delaney -- images that are frightening to humanity in general commonly appear. They are:
WILD ANIMALS. “Snakes, tigers, lions, alligators -- anything threatening in waking life is what you tend to use in your dreams as a symbol of a threat,” Delaney says. “Before an important meeting with his three partners, one of my clients -- a lawyer -- had a horrible nightmare that he was ‘ambushed’ by three great whites while he was swimming. He lost one of his legs! Later, he realized that the dream had been warning him: His partners did ‘ambush’ him in a surprise attack. They tried to take a case from him that meant both money and prestige. It was a big deal in his career.”
THUGS. “A mugger; a homeless person coming after you with a knife or gun, who’s going to kill you… these are also common fear images,” says Delaney. “One of my clients dreamt that he was in bed with his wife and a drunk thug got in bed between them. It turned out that he had an unacknowledged alcohol problem -- and his wife later left him because of it.” (His alcoholism had indeed “gotten between” them.)
NATURAL DISASTERS. “Storms, tornadoes, and tidal waves are typical fear images of overwhelm,” says Delaney. “One client told me, ‘There I was, with my daughter on the seashore. Suddenly I see a big tidal wave coming. And we run and run.’ She woke before the dream ended, so she didn’t know how it turned out. So I asked her, ‘What are tidal waves like?’ And she said, ‘They’re huge and overwhelming and they come out of nowhere when you don’t expect it. On the other hand, I was by the seashore. You expect it more there….’ I recapitulated what she’d said back to her in the form of a question: ‘Is there anything in your life that’s huge and overwhelming and might drown you and your daughter?’ And her answer was, ‘My husband’s alcoholism. I’ve got to protect my daughter. We’re both threatened by it.’ But she hadn’t been protecting her daughter -- so the fear dreams were getting more intense.”
And that’s another thing Delaney’s decades-long dream research has uncovered: If you continue to ignore the warnings provided by your nightmares (especially recurrent ones), your subconscious will make the themes more and more life-threatening. “If it’s serious in your dream, it’s serious in your life,” she says. “Fear dreams are almost always about real issues that are threatening you. Whether they’re behaviors you have, situations, or your environment at work or home, your dreams can help you understand and own up to them.”
According to Delaney, some people practice “lucid dreaming” -- they control their dreams, cutting off bad ones as soon as things start to get hairy, or even giving them a happy ending. “That is a very bad idea,” she warns. “What you’re doing is, you’re turning off the spigot that you opened up that could have helped you see yourself and your life from a more mature, integrated view. So I tell people, ‘Don’t change your bad dream! Find out more about it!”
To underscore the importance of fear dreams, Delaney recounts another shark example: “A client dreamt that she was standing on a pier with her brother and saw this cute seal in the water. And her brother said, ‘Look under the seal!’ And she saw big shark jaws. Terrifying! But she had no idea why she was having this dream.
“I asked her what seals are like, and she said, ‘Oh, they’re so sweet, so dear, with big brown eyes.’ So I asked if there was anyone in her life who’s sweet, with big brown eyes. And she said, ‘My boyfriend.’ And I said, ‘Okay, you look under the water and you see Jaws. What are jaws?’
"And she said, ‘Oh, they eat you alive, and there’s no reasoning with them.’ Then I asked if there was anyone in her life like that, and she said no. So I said, ‘Okay, what about your brother? How does he like your boyfriend?’
“‘Oh, he doesn’t like him at all,’ she said. So I asked if there was any part of her boyfriend that her brother sees as 'shark.' And she said, ‘Well, my boyfriend did threaten to kill me two nights ago....’
“Now, this was a competent woman! Her conscious mind clearly just didn’t take her boyfriend seriously when he’d said that. But there’s her dream trying to get her to see the truth. Women do this all the time: ‘Yes, but he’s so sweet.’ They don’t listen to what their common sense is telling them. The brother could see it! And she recognized it when she had the dream, but when she was with her boyfriend in waking life, she compartmentalized: ‘He’s so sweet; that part doesn’t count as much.’ But the dream was saying, ‘They’re both one creature. And you’re at risk.’”
What fearful images or themes appear in your dreams at night? Comment below (using as much detail as possible), and Dr. Delaney may analyze your dream in a future post as part of our Fearless Dreaming with Gayle Delaney initiative.
In the meantime, feel free to consult Dr. Delaney’s website, which gives detailed instructions on how to interpret the people, actions, and settings in your dreams. Go to YourSleepingGenius.com by clicking here.