• Nobody’s too fond of nightmares or scary dreams, but the truth is that they do often serve an important purpose.
  • There are different types of dreams, which are largely defined by their purpose and cause; the four main types include metaphorical dreams, warning dreams, physiology-based dreams, and night terrors.
  • That said, there’s a common thread among each type of nightmare: they contain “strong emotional content” and are generally unpleasant.
  • While the functionality and meaning of nightmares vary, they typically function to make us aware of a problem that is or could affect us mentally, emotionally, or physically.
  • Recurrent nightmares (or nightmares we have over and over again), in specific, function to warn us that something is wrong and needs our attention.
  • Nightmares are certainly no fun, but it’s important we explore them, so as to better understand our subconscious selves and resolve any problems that might be getting in our way of living our best lives.

We’re standing on opposite sides of the kitchen island. My heart rate is a beat quicker and there are more bumps than usual on my arms, I notice. He’s looking curiously into my eyes, silently snooping around my mind. Finally, I escape the trance and announce that I must find my friends in the other room. He smiles, inquisitively, and then lunges toward the glass of liquid that sits between us. Suddenly, I’m covered in what smells and tastes like orange juice.

Moments later, I’m in the living room with my friends. They’re comforting me and slandering him. “How could he do that?” “He hasn’t changed a bit.” “You deserve so much better.” A few more moments later, and I’m back in the kitchen. He’s comforting me and cursing his behavior. “I’m sorry, I lost control.” “You know I’d never mean to hurt you.” “I’ll do better.” I relax into the space between his torso and his outstretched arm. Then I jolt awake. I’m coated in sweat and struggling to slow my breath. Relief washes over me. It was just a dream.

I started to have this nightmare a few years ago—and this is just one of many variations. A couple times each week, I’d dream about getting back with my abusive ex-boyfriend. While little details within the dream would change each time, this general theme remained. And every time I would wake up in a panic. For the longest time, I rejected that this recurrent dream—or nightmare, rather—meant anything. But as time went on, I realized that there was some emotional turmoil that needed addressing. Long story short, there is, in fact, often a rhyme or reason to our mind’s subconscious creations. Dream analyst Craig Sim Webb, author of Nightmares? Lucky You! and The Dreams Behind the Music, is here to walk us through these hidden meanings and the basic functionality of our nightmares.

What Makes a Nightmare a Nightmare?

Nightmares can simply be described as scary or unsettling dreams. That said, it can get a little more complicated, as there are different categories of nightmares, which are largely distinguished by their cause. Webb explains the four main types:

  1. Metaphorical dreams about emotional situations in the dreamer’s life or past such as emotional or physical trauma.
  2. Warning dreams that link with unpleasant future events later experienced by the dreamer or which may be happening or will soon happen in the lives of loved ones.
  3. Physiology-based dreams, which can be triggered by medications or non-optimal diet.
  4. Night terrors, which are not the same as nightmares physiologically and also differ experientially, but which sometimes get called nightmares.

We typically classify nightmares as a type of dream. However, there is one key difference that separates nightmares from dreams. “Nightmares have strong unpleasant emotional content and generally do not end in a way that the dreamer would consciously choose,” Webb explains.

What Causes Nightmares? What Do They Mean?

When we climb under the covers, we hope for a restful night of sleep. Sometimes, though, we get a stressful night of sleep instead, abound with bad dreams or nightmares. We despise these nights and do our best to avoid or ignore our nightmares—falsely assuming this is the best way to deal with them. The truth is, nightmares function to alert us of a problem, and they need our due attention. “The majority of nightmares are important warnings from the subconscious that something is out of balance in our lives,” Webb explains. “They act somewhat like an oil light does on a car when engine problems are detected, alerting the dreamer of problems with or potential trouble regarding their emotional, mental, and even physical health.”

While it might not seem like it, nightmares benefit us in more ways than one. In addition to alerting us of potential problems, they can provide emotional relief, as explained by Webb: “Sometimes, nightmares allow us to release built up emotional charge that we haven’t dealt with during the day or days preceding the nightmare. So, in that way, they can sometimes offer a natural pressure release therapy for the psyche—yet it is still important to contemplate and change the habits or situation that led to the emotional build up.”

Why Do I Have the Same Nightmare Over and Over Again?

Sometimes, we’re afflicted with the same nightmare over and over again—like my nightmare about getting back with my ex. Why is this? What causes us to have a recurrent nightmare? Webb explains that these dreams typically signify a deeply rooted—and often traumatic—issue that needs addressing: “Unpleasant recurring dream themes usually show the dreamer a past experience they need to integrate or heal, or a life lesson they need to learn. Some nightmares are more severe and more frequent and are experienced by people who have gone through emotional or physical trauma, such as is the case with many PTSD sufferers.”

Webb goes on to explain that recurrent nightmares can have a negative impact on your day to day living especially if you fail to address the basis of these dreams. “Frequent nightmares can indeed negatively impact the dreamer’s waking life, both in terms of disrupted sleep as well as increased stress during daytime hours, and can especially add stress before sleep when the nightmare problem is frequent or severe,” he explains. “Such factors can negatively affect our emotional health and relationships, and when severe, can over time also adversely affect physical health.”

How Can Nightmares Benefit Me?

I think we can all agree that nightmares aren’t fun—and we’d prefer not to have them. That said, if we take a minute or two to really understand why we’re having these dreams, we can find value in them. As Webb explained above, nightmares often function to make us aware of a past, present, or even future problem that needs our attention. So, instead of ignoring and avoiding your nightmares, explore them. Find out what your subconscious is trying to tell you, and use these dreams as a guide for taking better care of yourself—whether that means finally dealing with past trauma, evaluating your current relationships, or setting some lifestyle guidelines that will benefit future you.