Electric Dreams

Nightmares -
An Introduction

Richard Wilkerson

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Wilkerson, Richard (2005 Octobert). Nightmares - An Introduction.
Electric Dreams 12(10).

Updated from Electric Dreams 5(10).

There are a wide range of events during sleep and wake that are often referred to as "nightmares" and it is wise to learn to distinguish between them. Most of what we call nightmares are simply extreme reactions and fear that accompany uncomfortable dreams that occur from time to time in most everyone, usually towards the end of the sleep cycle. Often we are awakened by a nightmare and there can be strong feelings of sadness, anger or guilt, but usually fear and anxiety. Often we are being chased, and it's not unlikely for children to be chased by animals and fantasy figures, while adults are often chased by male adults.

Night Terror vs. Nightmare

Night terrors usually occur during the first hour or two of sleep. Screaming and thrashing about are common. The sleeper is hard to awaken and usually remembers no more than an overwhelming feeling or a single scene, if anything. Children who have night terrors also may have a tendency to sleepwalk and/or urinate in bed. The causes of night terrors are not well understood, though it appears that night terrors are from a distinctly different stage of sleep. Children usually stop having them by puberty. They may be associated with stress in adults. A consultation with a physician may be useful if the night terrors are frequent or especially disturbing.

Why do we have nightmares?

Nightmares may have several causes, including drugs, medication, illness, trauma or they may have no related cause and be spontaneous. Often they occur when there is stress in one's waking life, and when major life changes are occurring.

What can be done about nightmares?

The International Association for the Study of Dreams notes that "It really depends on the source of the nightmare. To rule out drugs, medications or illness as a cause, discussion with a physician is recommended. It is useful to encourage young children to discuss their nightmares with their parents or other adults, but they generally do not need treatment. If a child is suffering from recurrent or very disturbing nightmares, the aid of a therapist may be required. The therapist may have the child draw the nightmare, talk with the frightening characters, or fantasize changes in the nightmare, in order help the child feel safer and less frightened ."

Nightmares also offer the same opportunity that other dreams do, to investigate the symbols and imagery for life enhancement. The challenge in the last few decades for the dreamwork movement has been to teach a variety of methods that replace the old phase "It was just a dream." In American schools, people like Jill Gregory and Ann Wiseman teach children coping mechanisms that allow the child to come into relationship with the dream monsters and fears in a novel and related manner. Alan Siegel, PhD, Kelly Bulkeley, PhD and others teach parents how to handle their children's nightmares.

Ernest Hartmann and other researchers are finding that those who have "thin" personalities, or sensitive, receptive individuals, are more likely to have nightmares than "thick" personalities. Pioneers like Linda Magallón, Stephen Laberge and Jayne Gackenbach are teaching people to take control of their dreams and have the outcomes they wish rather than becoming the dream's victim.

The International Association for the Study of Dreams website offers a Nightmare Hotline, as well as articles and books about nightmares on its Nightmare Page.

Nightmare Hotline: 1-866-DRMS911

Here you will find among its members the top researchers in the field.



  • Special Issue of Dream Time, with many researchers articles on Nightmares and Children. Much of the work is applicable to adults. Volume 15 numbers 1&2 Winter/Spring 1998 Available via ISD www.asdreams.org
  • Garfield, Patricia (online)
    Nightmares and what to do about them.
  • Wiseman, Ann Sayre (1986, 1989). Nightmare help. A guide for adults and children. Ten Speed Press.
  • Krakow, Barry, and Neidhardt, Joseph (1992). Conquering bad dreams and nightmares. Berkeley Books.
  • Hartmann, Ernest (1984).The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams. Basic books.
  • Dreams and Nightmares: The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams. A new book by Ernest Hartmann, M.D. is now available for ordering through Plenum Publishers.
  • Siegel, Alan; Bulkeley, Kelly (1998). Dreamcatching: Every parent's guide to exploring and understanding children's dreams and nightmares. Three Rivers Press.

  • Cushway, Delia, and Sewell, Robyn (1992) Counseling with dreams and nightmares.Sage publications.
  • Kellerman, Henry (Ed.) (1987). The Nightmare: Psychological and Biological Foundations. Columbia University Press.
  • Lazar, Moshe (Ed) (1983). The Anxious Subject: Nightmares and Daymares in Literature and Film.Undena.
  • Downing, J., and Marmorstein, E. (Eds.) Dreams and Nightmares: A Book of Gestalt Therapy Sessions. New York: Harper and Row, 1973