Horrible life experiences always turn out to be nightmares

Nightmares - Causes, Meaning, Issues, and Help

The aplraum - an alarm siren of the unconscious
A nightmare is a dream of fear - often so strong that we wake up from it. The feeling of a nightmare often persists in the waking state, for minutes or it even shapes the day. The dreams can be so bad that people may be afraid to fall asleep if experiencing them regularly. Besides fear, disgust, sadness and anger are also feelings that trigger and contain 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 vivid and remain in the memory - often down to the last detail.

Demons, the unconscious and the environment

In the mythology of the north, albums were the dark siblings of the elves. People believed that such beings would sit on the chests of sleepers at night and trigger the terrifying dreams.

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

In humans, individual experiences play a much stronger role than in the dreams of animals, and yet in arch-typical nightmares it is shown that it is not just a question of personal parts of the personality.

Rather, the themes of nightmares play back real dangers that were part of everyday life for our ancestors, especially for children. Wild animals could eat children, strangers could kidnap them, 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 bare life today.

The shadow

Carl Gustav Jung referred to those aspects of our unconscious that are uncomfortable to us as shadows, and he considered the issues of our own shadow to be the core of nightmares. Accordingly, the nightmare does not tell of external dangers, but of the abysses of the psyche.

However, according to Jung, these must be drawn from the unconscious into the consciousness in order to process them there. According to Jung, this shadow is the signpost for the direction in which a personality matures, or else stagnates and ultimately dies. Not 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 portion or real threats play a role. A first clue is our own perception during the dream, also the perception of our own dream self.

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

Our unconscious operates here rather with images that denoted actual external dangers in our evolution, like a big cat, but implements them symbolically. The tiger does not stand for a tiger, but for a symbolic barrier 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 things await us that we do not know.

In the case of a teenager in particular, two key issues can be filtered out here: curiosity and fear. The dreaming sees the forest and would like to go into it, but the fear of the tiger is stronger, like with a young person who leaves the childhood, but is afraid of exploring the big wide world and growing up.

The tiger could symbolize a wide variety of 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 young people cannot yet go to because their NC does not correspond to their desired subject?

With such objective obstacles, the dream analysis must capture the subjective sensation and feelings during dreaming. Is the dreaming afraid to walk past the tiger and does not dare to go near it? Then the subject is probably his own fear: In the example mentioned, he doesn't dare to ask at 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 exposed to actual restrictions in order to get closer to his goal.

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

The monsters of our psyche

All horror film monsters appear in nightmares: werewolves, vampires, cannibals or serial killers. We face them as if 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 their mercy. We experience extreme fear and / or fainting, and this causes us to wake up. If the same or similar dreams repeat themselves and the fear increases, then we should definitely see a therapist.

Psychological distress

Nightmares are not only normal, they are vital. In particular, those who deal with situations that could be real, presumably emerged 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 in order to be able to act in an emergency. Even if they woke up bathed in sweat as a result, such dreams were not psychologically unhealthy, but led to heightened vigilance that could save life.

Nightmares as warning dreams

In this form, nightmares can be warning dreams. They can indicate that we are lulled into a false sense of security or lead us to take risks more seriously than before. There are examples of people who quit smoking after dreaming of lung cancer. The dream here illustrates a real danger that the smoker had previously unconsciously and consciously 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 go of him and he took his car to the workshop before a planned vacation in Italy. There it turned out that the brakes urgently needed to be replaced.

Our ancestors saw such nightmares as divine warnings, and many cultures knew specialists to interpret these "clues from the gods". It is true that it is not about supersensible inspirations from external forces, but about indications from the unconscious, but the character of the interpretations remains the same.

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

Psychological distress

So we all have nightmares and that's not a problem. On the other hand, these become a problem when those affected suffer severely. We notice this from the fact that the tormenting dreams and their themes terrify us even during the day, or we are afraid of falling asleep.

Anxiety dream disorder

In the case of nightmares that occur several times a week, psychologists speak of an anxiety dream disorder - and this is often accompanied by another anxiety disorder: For example, people with fear of spiders (arachnophobia) also have nightmares in which spiders play a role. People with a general anxiety disorder do not come to rest even in sleep, but flee at night, are paralyzed in dreams, are injured in dreams, etc., while these fears ensure that they can hardly leave their apartment 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 for the same person the same elements appear again and again, only the context and the sequence change.

It is no coincidence that these five topics keep coming up, because it is the fundamental situations that scare adults in a variety of contexts.

Come too late

Coming too late in a dream can mean, for example, 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 too late for a wild flat share is a young woman who did not dare to reveal her feelings to the man in her heart and watched him marry someone else.

A specific late arrival can also trigger the dream: Our pen pal from America is in town and I forgot the meeting, a better position is vacant in my company for which I would be the right one, and at the last minute when I apply wants to send off, the Internet is suspended.

Or it is a general “shadow” of our personality. We are reminded that we are notoriously late for not caring about things necessary to organize a full life. We are late for all necessary activities and therefore do not develop any further.

In terms of depth psychology, repeated nightmares about being late can indicate a general passivity, regression and an immature personality. Here, however, it depends on the context. Even people who have unachievable goals and are perfectionistically driven to achieve them can suffer from nightmares that they will be late.

The shadow here is not that they are actually nonexistent in life, and if they are too late, but that they are constantly under pressure to miss something. Are you watching a documentary about Tibet and tormenting yourself because you did not become a travel reporter? They then feel guilty for staying at an amateur level while taking photos. So it is with them with everything. You always see a Hollywood actor, prime minister, or pop star who “has come further” than you.

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

To be paralyzed

The dreams of paralysis also represent situations to which we are repeatedly exposed. It is rarely about physical paraplegia, but about the fact that things are constantly happening in the world that we cannot influence. The greater our dependence on others, the more “paralyzed” we are.

As a result, dreams of paralysis should occur especially in people who are heavily dependent. The decisive factor, however, is not the objective situation, as is the case with all dreams and our unconscious in general, but rather the subjective feeling.

With people who appear particularly self-confident and carry their independence before them, but suffer from paralysis dreams every night, the shadow character of the dream becomes obvious. It always depends on the overall setting of the dream. For example, the greatest fear of such people can be that they are no longer able to act independently. Their vehemently demonstrated independence can even serve to compensate for this fear.

To be tracked

Persecution dreams are also complex. On the one hand, they have a specific component: being persecuted by wild animals or people who want to harm us is a biological as well as a social experience.

In addition, there is the transferred meaning of persecution: Unpleasant experiences of childhood haunt us, even if we have long since built up a life structure that has nothing to do with it; unexplained relationships haunt us; the tax office is following us; Our fellow men persecute us with our demands.

A persecution dream turns into a nightmare when we are and remain the victim and see no prospect of fleeing. 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 work on the dream in such a way that we recognize, address and eliminate the fears expressed in the persecutor.

Death and loss

If we lose loved ones in a dream, then that is also a primeval human experience. We all have to say goodbye because our grandparents and parents are dying. But dying always has a figurative meaning in the dream: Our childhood friends “die” when we develop apart, our ex-partners “die” when they no longer exist in our life; Wishes 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. Is our partner dying? Could it be that our feelings for them die out and we don't want to admit it? Are our children dying? Could it be that we haven't contacted them in months, that we never listened to them? That they will grow up and build their own life? Is an old friend dying? Have we evolved to such an extent that we no longer have anything to say to each other? Am I killing someone myself in a dream? Am i mad at this person? Or is it my mother, my father? Then killing can mean breaking my bond and taking my life into my own hands.

Nightmares in which loved ones die can also be warning dreams. A mother who dreams that her children are drowning may have real fears that her children will not be able to cope with the demands of the environment, that they will "drown in alcohol" etc.

Here again it can be about your own fears, which have no anchor in reality, thus your problem of not being able to let go. Or, it can be real dangers in which the children find themselves.

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

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, did not want to live anymore, tore pictures from 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 threw herself back into various projects. So what did the dream say? Subconsciously, she suspected that her children would turn away from her and that "perfection" would collapse, which she built up again and again in order to keep her own fear of losing control in check - a helpless endeavor.

Her subconscious warned her that if she didn't listen to their needs, her children would leave. But she did not take 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 has strong fears 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 therapy. We can't prevent relationships from ending, friendships falling apart, and people dying, but we can learn to deal with them.


Dreams about falling almost always have a symbolic meaning. Anyone who has climbed a certain point in life, that is, comes closer to the mountain top of their goals, can always fall. Here it is necessary to look at the details: In a dream, do I fall into the abyss or do I fall towards a hard floor on which I threaten to shatter?

Psychological causes of anxiety dreams

On the one hand, nightmares are based on ancestral history, on the other hand our own experience plays a role. Often we know very well what the dream expresses and we are afraid in the waking state because (!) We know it and helplessly try to avoid what scares 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 flashbacks in the waking state, in which the traumatic experience is reflected, and on the other hand, they suffer from recurring nightmares in which the subject of traumatization arises.

Traumatized people react extremely physically to nightmares; after all, 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 fall asleep again, and it is much more difficult than healthy people to distinguish between dream and reality.

Nightmares from stress

Stress also triggers nightmares. If this is the case, it is less about a precise dream analysis and more about reducing stress. Finally, antidepressants and alcohol can also lead to nightmares.


Here it is important to clearly separate those nightmares that cause substances from those that reflect our inner conflicts: Alcohol affects the messenger substances in our brain. Especially when 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 quickly change.

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

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

Second, drinking makes the fears underlying the nightmares worse, and because of this, 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 if one suffers from them, in contrast to dizygoti twins.

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

Cause medication

Not gods, but our brain controls dreams. Those who take inhibitors against the absorption of the "happiness hormone" serotonin ensure that our brain does not shed good feelings while sleeping.

Personal disposition

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

Difficulty sleeping

Lack of sleep, restless sleep, sleep under the influence of drugs or irregular sleep do not have to be, but can trigger nightmares.

Dream therapy

Nightmares are not fate, they can be worked on. Literally, many are pointless - they are caused by alcohol, drugs or poor sleep. Others, however, show difficult situations, stresses and conflicts and are our "allies".

When “everything goes smoothly” in life without us doing something, something is usually wrong. Those who live actively deal with problems, solve them and face the challenges ahead. There is no phase of life without conflict - living a life means facing those conflicts. Just as Jung saw the monsters of our spiritual shadow as those who hit us at the core of life's questions, nightmares force us to cope with terrible situations in our sleep.

From victim to director

If storylines appear in the dreams that could have a meaning in real life, then the therapy is about examining the threatening elements and working through how they can be defused. As in real life, the following applies here: a recognized danger can be handled.

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

Therapists are now also working with patients to develop alternative stories: Together they create 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.

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

Our brain can be manipulated in this way, and the “happy ending” is anchored in the synapses as well as the horror story. There is also something positive about nightmares: they allow us to act out fear that we cannot give in to when we are awake. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text complies with the requirements of specialist medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical professionals.

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, Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie 46 (1997) 1, pp. 36-56, (accessed on 05.09.2019), 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)? (Access: September 5, 2019), neurologen-und-psychiater-im-netz.org
  • A. Gieselmann et al .: Aetiology and treatment of nightmare disorder: State of the art and future perspectives, Journal of Sleep Research, e12820, (accessed on September 5, 2019), wiley

Important NOTE:
This article is for general guidance only and is not intended to be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. He can not substitute a visit at the doctor.

ICD codes for this disease: F51.5ICD codes are internationally recognized codes for medical diagnoses. They can be found, for example, in doctor's letters or on certificates of incapacity for work.