From: S. LaBerge & H. Rheingold, (1990)
EXPLORING THE WORLD
OF LUCID DREAMING
Chapter 10: Overcoming Nightmares
What Are Nightmares?
I began to try to recognize my
dreams as products of my mind, even as I dreamed them. The
breakthrough came one night soon after a nightmare. I decided I
could not live fully while I let my fears roam about on their
own power, so to speak. I entered the dream state determined not
to yield. I had read somewhere that a fear could only be
dissipated by friendliness and trust. Anger, threats,
aggressiveness were out. These reactions were actually fearful
reactions. So I made up my mind to be friendly.
The dream evolved, and I barely had time to remind myself to
smile before the nightmare began. This time it was an almost
childish nightmare, in which my collective fears took the shape
of a large, nebulous but very scary monster. I quailed and
almost turned tail, but by sheer will (I was really scared) I
stayed and let it approach. I said to myself "it’s my dream, and
if I forget this, I’ll have to go through it again," and I
smiled as sincerely as I could. What’s more, I spoke as calmly
as I could, a big step since waking or sleeping terror leaves me
speechless. I said something like "I’m not afraid. I want to be
friends. You’re welcome to my dream!" and almost as soon as I
said it, the monster became friendly, delightedly so. I was
ecstatic. Needless to say, I awoke quickly, still saying "I did
(T.Z., Fresno, California)
I know that I can change a
frightening situation in a lucid dream, so I don’t let myself
get scared or panic. I never run away from things or persons in
my dreams anymore. And the strange thing is that in waking life
I don’t run away either, anymore. I face things head on and
don’t drag situations out forever. My lucid dreams have changed
the way I look at life. People think I’ve changed through the
years, but the fact is that this is the real me coming out.
(V.F., Greensboro, North Carolina)
Nightmares are terrifying dreams;
dreams in which our worst fears are brought to life in fully
Whatever horrors you personally believe to be the
worst things that could happen—these are the most likely subjects of
your nightmares. All people, in every age and culture have suffered
from these terrors of the night. People’s understanding of the
origins of nightmares has varied as much as their understanding
of dreams. To some cultures, nightmares were the true experiences of
the soul as it wandered another world as the body slept. To others,
they were the result of the visitation of demons. Indeed, the
word nightmare comes from the Anglo-Saxon mare, for
goblin or incubus. (An
incubus is a demon who comes in
the night to steal the sexual favor of ladies, and has its female
In Western culture today, most people are content to say of
nightmares that they are "only dreams," meaning they are
imaginary and of no consequence. Thus, when a successful business
executive awakens with his heart pounding from a dream of being
pursued by zombies through the jungle, he is grateful to be able to
recite the comforting refrain, "Thank God, it was only a dream," get
a glass of water and return to bed. However, when just a few minutes
before the stinking corpses with eyes like pits to hell were
breathing down his neck, the executive had no doubts about their
reality. The zombies may have been imaginary, but the terror was
real. So, to lightly dismiss the real terror of horrific dreams as
illusory seems like an error that leaves us with no choice but to
submit ourselves again and again to the greatest fear we are likely
to ever experience.
What gives nightmares their special terror? In dreams, anything is
possible. This limitlessness can be wonderful, since it allows us to
experience delights of fantasy and pleasure unachievable in waking
life. However, turn over the stone, and anything you can imagine
that you would not like to experience, however unlikely in waking,
can happen as well.
In nightmares we are alone. The terrifying worlds we create in our
minds are populated with our fears. We may dream that we are
accompanied by friends, but if we doubt them they can just as easily
turn into fiends. If we run from an axe- wielding maniac, he can
find us no matter where we hide. If we stab a devil with a knife, he
may not even notice, or the knife may turn to rubber. Our thoughts
betray us; if we think, I only hope he doesn’t have a gun—lo! he has
a gun. It is no wonder we are grateful to return from nightmares to
the relative sanity and peace of the waking world.
Thus, it is understandable that people in the midst of nightmares
who realize they must be dreaming frequently choose to wake up.
However, if you become fully lucid in a nightmare, you
realize that the nightmare can’t really hurt you, and you
don’t need to "escape" it by awakening. You remember that you are
already safe in bed.
It is better, as we will discuss below, to face
and overcome the terror while remaining in the dream.
Causes and Cures
Studies of frequencies of
nightmares among adults show that one third to one half of all
adults experience occasional nightmares. A study of college students
found that almost three-quarters of a group of 300 had nightmares at
least once a month. In another study, five percent of college
freshmen reported having nightmares at least once a week.
 If this rate applies
to the general population, then we might find that more than ten
million Americans are plagued by wholly realistic horrifying
experiences every week!
Some factors that seem to contribute to nightmare frequency are:
illness (especially fever), stress (caused by situations like the
difficulties of adolescence, moving, hard times at school or work),
troubled relationships and traumatic events, like being mugged or
experiencing a serious earthquake. Traumatic events can trigger a
long lasting series of recurrent nightmares.
Some drugs and medications can cause an increase in nightmares. The
reason for this is that many drugs suppress REM sleep,
producing a later effect of REM-rebound. If you go to sleep
drunk, you may sleep quite soundly, but dream little, until five or
six hours into sleep. Then, the alcohol’s effect has mostly worn off
and your brain is prepared to make up for the lost REM time. As a
result, you will dream more intensely than usual for the last few
hours of your sleep time. The intensity is reflected in the
emotionality of the dream, which often will be unpleasant.
There are a few drugs which seem to increase nightmares by
increasing the activity of some part of the REM system. Among these
are l-DOPA, used in the treatment of Parkinsonism, and
beta-blockers, used by people with some heart conditions.
Since research has shown that lucid dreams tend to occur during
periods of intense REM activity, 
I believe that drugs that cause nightmares may also facilitate lucid
dreaming. This is a topic I plan to research in years to come. I
think that whether an intense REM period leads to dreams that are
pleasantly exciting or terrifying depends on the attitude of the
Thus, it is to the dreamer’s attitude that I think we should look in
seeking a treatment for nightmares. For example, people rarely
experience nightmares in the sleep laboratory, because they have a
feeling of being observed and cared for. Likewise, children who
awaken from nightmares and crawl into bed with their parents feel
safe from harm and thus are less likely to have more bad dreams.
I believe the best place to deal with unpleasant dreams is in their
own context, in the dream world. We create our nightmares out of the
raw material of our own fears. Fears are expectations—why would we
fear something we thought would never happen? Expectations affect
our waking lives, but even more so, they determine our dream lives.
When in your waking life, you walk down a dark street, you fear that
someone will threaten you. However, for some dark figure to actually
leap out at you with a knife depends on there really being some
knife-bearing thug hiding in an alley nearby waiting for a victim.
On the contrary, if you dream of walking down a dark street, fearing
attack, it is almost inevitable that you will be attacked, because
you can readily imagine the desperate criminal waiting for you. But,
if you had not thought that the situation was dangerous, there would
be no thug, and no attack. Your only real enemy in dreams is your
Most of us harbor some useless fears. Fear of speaking in public is
a common example. In most cases, no harm will result from giving a
speech, but this fact does not prevent many people from being as
frightened of public speaking as they would be if faced by a life
threatening situation. Likewise, to be afraid in a dream, while
understandable, is unnecessary. Even when fear is useless, it is
still quite unpleasant, and can be debilitating. An obvious way to
improve our lives is to rid ourselves of unnecessary fear. How is
Research on behavior modification treatment for phobias shows that
it is not enough for a person to know intellectually that the object
of their fear is harmless. Snake phobics may "know" perfectly
well that garter snakes are harmless, but they will still be afraid
to pick one up. The way to learn to overcome fear is to face it—to
approach the fearsome object or situation little by little. Each
time you encounter the feared thing without harm you learn by
experience that it cannot hurt you. This is the kind of approach we
propose for overcoming nightmares. Many anecdotes demonstrate that
the approach is effective, and can even be used by children.
None of our proposed treatments for nightmares require that you
interpret the symbolism of the unpleasant images. Much fruitful work
can be accomplished in dreams by working directly with the images.
Waking analysis (or interpretation while in the dream) may help you
understand the source of your anxieties, but will not necessarily
help you outgrow them. For instance, consider again the fear of
snakes. The classical interpretation of snake phobia is that
it is a disguised anxiety about sex, especially regarding the male
member, and in fact most snake phobics are women.
A much more plausible biological
explanation is that humans come into the world prepared to easily
learn to fear snakes, because avoiding venomous snakes has obvious
survival value. However, providing this information doesn’t cure the
phobia. What does help, as mentioned above, is for the phobic to
slowly become accustomed to dealing with snakes.
directly with dream fears, learning they cannot harm us, can help us
to overcome them.
The Uses of
According to Freud, nightmares were the result of
masochistic wish-fulfillment. The basis of this curious notion
was Freud’s unshakable conviction that every dream represented the
fulfillment of a wish.
"I do not know why the dream should not be as
varied as thought during the waking state..."
 wrote Freud,
For his own part, he continued,
"I should have
nothing against it...There is only a trifling obstacle in the way of
this more convenient conception of the dream; it does not happen to
If for Freud, every dream was nothing but the
fulfillment of a wish, the same thing must be true for nightmares:
the victims of nightmares must secretly wish to be humiliated,
tortured or persecuted.
I do not see every dream as necessarily the expression of a wish;
nor do I view nightmares as masochistic wish fulfillment but rather
as the result of maladaptive reactions. The anxiety experienced in
nightmares can be seen as an indication of the failure of the
dreamer to respond effectively to the dream situation.
Anxiety arises when we encounter a fear-provoking situation against
which our habitual patterns of behavior are useless. People who
experience anxiety dreams need a new approach for coping with the
situations represented in their dreams. This may not be easy to find
if the dream results from unresolved conflicts which the dreamer
does not want to face in waking life. In severe cases, it may be
difficult to treat the nightmare without treating the personality
that gave rise to it. But I believe that this qualification applies
mainly to chronically maladjusted personalities.
For relatively normal
people whose nightmares are not the result of serious personality
problems, lucid dreams can be extremely helpful. However, if you are
to benefit from our method of overcoming nightmares, you must be
willing to take responsibility for your experiences in general and
in particular, for your dreams.
To illustrate how lucidity can help you work through anxiety-
provoking situations, consider the following analogy. The non-lucid
dreamer is like a small child who is terrified of the dark; the
child really believes there are monsters there. The lucid dreamer
would perhaps be like an older child—still afraid of the dark—yet no
longer believing that there are really monsters out there; this
child might be afraid, but would know that there was nothing to be
afraid of, and could master the fear.
Anxiety is a state of uneasiness composed of two emotions: fear and
uncertainty. It results from the simultaneous occurrence of two
conditions: one is fear in regard to some (possibly ill-defined)
situation we find threatening; the other is an uncertainty about how
to avoid an unfavorable outcome. In other words, we experience
anxiety when we are afraid of something, and have nothing in our
behavioral repertoire that will help us overcome or evade it.
Anxiety may serve a biological function: it prompts us to scan our
situations more carefully and re-evaluate possible courses of
action—in search of an overlooked solution to the situation- -in
short, to become more conscious. 
When we experience anxiety in our dreams, the most adaptive response
would be to become lucid and face the situation in a creative
manner. In fact, anxiety does seem to spontaneously result in
lucidity fairly frequently (for example, in a quarter of the 62
lucid dreams I had in the first year of my records).
 It may even be the
case that anxiety in dreams would always lead to lucidity if we were
instructed about this possibility. With practice, dream anxiety can
become a reliable dreamsign, no more dangerous than a scarecrow,
pointing to where you need to do some repair work.
There is no cause
for fear in dreams....
In the midst of a lucid dream I saw
a series of gray-black pipes. Out of the largest pipe emerged a
black widow about the size of a cat. As I watched this black
widow, it grew larger and larger. However, as it was growing I
was not the least bit afraid and I thought to myself ’I am not
afraid’ and I made the black widow vanish. I was very proud of
my achievement since I had always been terrified of black
widows. The earliest nightmare I can remember was about a large
black widow which I couldn’t escape. For me, black widows were a
very strong symbol of fear itself.
(J.W., Sacramento, California)
About twenty years ago I realized that the monster in my
nightmares couldn’t really hurt me. I told it I wasn’t afraid
any more and it changed into a toothless, whimpering witch and
went away. Yesterday I read the article about your work in
Parade magazine, and last night the monster returned. This time,
knowing I was dreaming, I enjoyed the intricacy of detail,
changing from one revolting, menacing shape to another, second
by second. I remembered the black kitten you had described from
one of your dreams and I told it to smile. I was stunned as I
watched the bulging eyes recede, the snarling mouth try to relax
into a smile. It didn’t know how. The shark teeth changed into
horse teeth and it beamed. It was the silliest damn thing I ever
saw, and I woke up laughing my head off. I feel like a 67 year
old kid with a new toy.
(L.R., Jacksonville Beach, Florida)
"There is no cause for fear," wrote Sufi
teacher Jalaludin Rumi seven centuries ago:
"It is imagination, blocking you as
a wooden bolt holds the door. Burn that bar...."
Fear of the unknown is worse than
fear of the known, and this seems nowhere more true than in dreams.
Thus, one of the most adaptive responses to an unpleasant dream
situation is to face it, as can be seen in the following account of
a series of nightmares experienced by the 19th Century
lucid dream pioneer, the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys:
I wasn’t aware I was dreaming, and I
thought I was being pursued by frightful monsters. I was fleeing
through an endless series of interconnecting rooms, always
experiencing difficulty in opening the dividing doors and
closing them behind me, only to hear them opened again by my
hideous pursuers, who uttered terrible cries as they came after
me. I felt they were gaining on me. I awoke with a start, bathed
...I was all the more affected on
waking because, when this particular dream came upon me, I
always lacked, through some curious twist of fate, that
consciousness of my state that I so often had during my dreams.
One night, however, when the dream returned for the fourth time,
at the moment my persecutors were about to renew their pursuit,
a feeling of the truth of the situation was suddenly awakened in
my mind; and the desire to combat these illusions gave me the
strength to overcome my instinctive terror. Instead of fleeing,
and by what must indeed under the circumstances have been an
effort of will, I leaned against the wall and resolved to
contemplate with the closest attention the phantoms that I had
so far only glimpsed rather than seen.
The initial shock was, I confess,
strong enough; such is the difficulty that the mind has in
defending itself against an illusion that it fears. I fixed my
eyes on my principal attacker, who somewhat resembled the
grinning, bristling demons which are sculpted in cathedral
porticos, and as the desire to observe gained the upper hand
over my emotions, I saw the following: the fantastic monster had
arrived within several feet of me, whistling and cavorting in a
manner which, once it had ceased to frighten me, appeared comic.
I noted the claws on one of its paws, of which there were seven,
very clearly outlined.
The hairs of its eyebrows, a wound
it appeared to have on its shoulder and innumerable other
details combined in a picture of the greatest precision—one of
the clearest visions I have had. Was it the memory of some
Gothic bas-relief? In any case, my imagination added both
movement and color. The attention I had concentrated on this
figure had caused its companions to disappear as if by magic.
The figure itself seemed to slow down in its movements, lose its
clarity and take on a wooly appearance, until it changed into a
kind of floating bundle of rags, similar to the faded costumes
that serve as a sign to shops selling disguises at carnival
time. Several insignificant images appeared in succession, and
then I awoke. 
That seemed to be the end of the
Marquis’ nightmares. Tholey has also reported that when the
dream ego looks courageously and openly at hostile dream figures,
their appearance often becomes less threatening.
On the other hand,
when one attempts to make a dream figure disappear, it may become
more threatening, as in the following case of Sparrow’s:
I am standing in the hallway outside
my room. It is night and hence dark where I stand. Dad comes in
the front door. I tell him that I am there so as not to frighten
him or provoke an attack. I am afraid for no apparent reason.
I look outside through the door and see a dark figure which
appears to be a large animal. I point at it in fear. The animal,
which is a huge black panther, comes through the doorway. I
reach out to it with both hands, extremely afraid. Placing my
hands on its head, I say, "You’re only a dream." But I am half
pleading in my statement and cannot dispel my fear.
I pray for Jesus’ presence and protection. But the fear
is still with me as I awaken. 
Here the dreamer uses his lucidity to
try to make his frightful image disappear.
There is little
difference between this and running from dream monsters. If, upon
reflection, Sparrow had recognized that a dream panther could not
hurt him, the thought alone should have dissipated his anxiety. Fear
is your worst enemy in dreams; if you allow it to persist it will
grow stronger and your self-confidence will diminish.
However, many novice lucid dreamers may at first tend to use their
new powers to find more clever ways to escape their fears. This is
because of our natural tendency to continue in our current frame of
mind. If, in a dream in which you are fleeing from harm, you realize
you are dreaming, you will still tend to continue escaping, even
though you should now know that there is nothing to flee from.
During the first six months of my personal record of lucid dreaming,
I occasionally suffered from this sort of mental inertia until the
following dream inspired a permanent change in my lucid dreaming
I was escaping down the side of a
skyscraper, climbing like a lizard. It occurred to me that I
could better escape by flying away, and as I did so, I realized
that I was dreaming. By the time I reached the ground, the dream
and my lucidity faded. The next thing I knew I was sitting in
the audience of a lecture hall, privileged to be hearing Idries
Shah (an eminent Sufi teacher) comment on my dream. "It was good
that Stephen realized he was dreaming and could fly," Shah
observed with a bemused tone, "but unfortunate that he didn’t
see that since it was a dream, there was no need to escape."
I would have had to be deaf not to get
the message. After this dream lecture, I resolved to never use my
lucidity to avoid unpleasant situations. But, I wasn’t going to be
content to passively avoid conflicts by doing nothing.
I made a firm
resolution regarding my lucid dreaming behavior: anytime I realized
I was dreaming, I was required to ask myself the following two
1) Am I now or have I
been running away from anything in the dream?
2) Is there now or has
there been any conflict in the dream?
If the answer was yes to either, then I
was honorbound to do everything I could to face whatever I was
avoiding and to resolve any conflict. I have easily remembered this
principle in almost every subsequent lucid dream and have attempted
to resolve conflicts and face my fears whenever it was called for.
"Escaping" from a nightmare by awakening only suppresses your
conscious awareness of the anxiety-provoking imagery. You may feel a
certain relief, but like the prisoner who digs through his prison
wall and finds himself in the cell next door, you haven’t really
escaped. Moreover, aware of it or not, you are left with an
unresolved conflict which will doubtless come back to haunt you some
other night. In addition, you may have an unpleasant and unhealthy
emotional state with which to start your day.
If, on the other hand, you choose to stay in the nightmare rather
than waking from it, you can resolve the conflict in a way that
brings you increased self-confidence and improved mental health.
Then when you wake up you will feel that you have freed some extra
energy with which to begin your day with new confidence.
Lucid dreaming gives us the power to banish the terror of nightmares
and at the same time to strengthen our courage—if we master our fear
sufficiently to recognize our most disturbing images as our own
creations and face them.
My first experience of this terror
of being awake but not in control of my body was when I was
young, sick with a fever, and in my mother’s bedroom. I saw a
black shadow pass the window, enter the room and try to take the
covers off of me. Inside I was screaming and frantic, outside I
knew that nothing was happening. I was dreadfully scared of
people coming in through that window, and this somehow helped me
realize that it was a black shadowy figure, not a person. I
fought it off and woke up. In the past year I have had a repeat
of that dream complete with the feeling of flesh on my
shoulder—I was terrified. Also recently, in another such dream,
something awful was trying to kill me.
I remembered something my husband
had told me he’d done in the same situation when he was
dreaming, so I turned and faced the "thing," and essentially
challenged it to go ahead and kill me asserting that I was not
afraid. I felt strongly that it could not hurt me if I put out
my strength and began summoning up an image of goodness and
purity (God) and praying. The "thing" was defeated and I
woke up feeling very good.
(K.S., Etobicoke, Ontario)
The experience of sleep paralysis
can be terrifying, as in the example above. In a typical case, a
person awakens, but then finds he cannot move.
It may feel like a
great weight is holding him down and making it difficult to breath.
Hallucinations may appear, often loud buzzing noises, vibrations in
the body, or people and threatening figures nearby. The dreamer may
feel things touch his body, body distortions, or "electricity"
running around inside him. As the experience progresses, the
surroundings may begin to change, or the person may feel he is
leaving his body—either by floating up or by sinking through the
bed. Quite often, the dreamer knows the experience is a dream, but
finds it very difficult to awaken.
The probable cause of sleep paralysis is that the mind awakens, but
the body remains in the paralysis state of REM sleep. At first, the
dreamer actually perceives the environment around him, but as the
REM process takes over again, strange things begin to occur.
Anxiety seems to be a natural concomitant of this physiological
condition, and it is worsened by the dreamer’s feeling that he is
awake, his belief that these peculiar things are really happening,
and the sensation of being unable to move. If the dreamer goes more
completely into REM sleep, he loses the awareness of his body which
causes him to feel paralyzed. At this point, he may experience the
sensation of "leaving his body," as his mental body image is freed
from the constraints of perceptual input from his actual body.
Sleep paralysis experiences are likely to be the cause of
some of the strangest night phenomena, such as visitations by
demons, incubi, and succubi, and
out-of-body experiences. They don’t
need to be terrifying, however, if you reflect as they are happening
that they are dreams and that none of the bizarre events are
dangerous. People in these states commonly try to cry out for others
to awaken them, or to force themselves to move in order to awaken.
This usually only makes matters worse, however, since it increases
their feelings of anxiety. Anxiety itself may help to perpetuate the
A better approach is to,
1) remember it is a dream
and therefore harmless, and
2) relax, and go with the
Adopt an attitude of intrepid
curiosity. Dreams that proceed from paralysis experiences are
often quite intense and wonderful.
I was on top of a mountain at the
edge of a cliff. I seemed to be a prisoner of two guys who had a
dog and a lion with them. I felt they were going to throw me off
the cliff, so I rushed them and knocked the two guys off the
cliff along with the lion but I went over too, into the water. I
was alright and now my hands were free. I swam to the side and
started to climb up the mountain but the lion was in front of me
and he was angry because I pushed him into the water. He would
not let me up so I tried to scare him by throwing water and
rocks at him. He just got angrier. He started to get closer to
me and I moved back into the water. He started to roar, and
jumped in after me, but I jumped to the rocks. Now I was on my
back and knew I couldn’t get away, so I faced him, and as he
attacked I said, "Come on."
I put my hands out and suddenly I
realized I was dreaming. In mid-attack his expression changed
from rage to friendly and playful. When he landed on me I hugged
him and we play wrestled and rolled. I kissed him and he licked
me. I felt really great that I was lucid and playing with a
lion. Then he rolled over and turned into a naked black woman.
She was beautiful with large nipples on her breasts. I started
to play with her, and was getting excited, but I had this
feeling that getting back to the top of the cliff was more
important, so I said, let’s go back. As we started I woke up.
(D.T., Lindenwold, New Jersey)
I had a fear of death, but cured it through a lucid dream. I was
walking through a Hell-like environment and realized that this
could not be, as I was asleep in my bed. At that instant, I was
stabbed in the back. ’Feeling’ the pain, I decided to see what
’dying’ would be like. I felt myself in a catatonic state. I
willed my dream ’soul’ to depart from my dream ’body.’ It was a
strange feeling to see my dream ’body’ beneath me. I also had a
sense of all-pervading peace and calm. I said to myself that if
this is what dying is like, it isn’t so bad. From that day
forward, I have had no fear of dying. I even remain calm in
(K.D., Lauderhill, Florida)
Anyone who ever suffers from
nightmares can benefit from using lucidity as a response to
severe anxiety in dreams.
Readers who have nightmares frequently
will be able to put the advice we provide here to use right away.
But others would do well to study these materials and have them
ready in mind for the next time they find themselves in a
A few differing approaches to dealing with unpleasant dream
experiences appear in the literature. They can all be assisted by
lucidity, because when lucid we are sure of our context (dreaming)
and know that waking world rules don’t apply. One of the first
proposed systems for overcoming nightmares was that attributed to
the Senoi people of Malaysia by Kilton Stewart in his
paper "Dream Theory in Malaya."
 Patricia Garfield brought Stewart’s
ideas to the public in her inspiring book Creative Dreaming.
principle of the Senoi system is to confront and conquer
danger. This means that if you encounter an attacker or an
uncooperative dream figure, you should aggressively attack and
subdue it. If necessary, you are advised to destroy the figure, and
thereby release a positive force. Once you have subdued the dream
figure, you must force it to give you a valuable gift—something you
can use in your waking life. Another suggestion is that you enlist
friendly and cooperative dream characters to help you overcome the
People have reported positive, empowering results with the "confront
and conquer" approach. However, as Paul Tholey has found,
attacking unfriendly characters may not be the most productive way
to handle them. The reason for this will be discussed in detail in
Chapter 11, but in brief, the idea is that hostile dream
figures may represent aspects of our own personalities that we wish
to disown. If we try to crush the symbolic appearances of these
characteristics in dreams, we may be symbolically rejecting and
attempting to destroy parts of ourselves.
Another idea associated with the Senoi is valuable to keep in
mind regarding nightmares. Falling is a very common theme in anxiety
dreams. The Senoi system proposes that when you dream of
falling, you shouldn’t wake yourself up, but go with it, relax and
land gently. Think that you will land in a pleasant and interesting
place, especially one that offers you a useful insight or
experience. As a next step, it is suggested that in future dreams
when you are falling, you should try to fly, and fly somewhere
intriguing and worthwhile. In this way, you can turn a frightening,
negative experience into one that is fun and useful.
Tholey, who has researched the efficacy of various attitudes
towards hostile dream characters, concludes that a conciliatory
approach is most likely to result in a positive experience for the
dreamer.  His
conciliatory method is based on the practice of engaging in dialogs
with dream characters (see exercise below). He found that when
dreamers tried to reconcile with hostile figures that the figures
often transformed from "lower order into higher order creatures,"
meaning from beasts or mythological beings into humans, and that
these transformations "often allowed the subjects to immediately
understand the meaning of the dream."
Furthermore, conciliatory behavior
towards threatening figures would generally cause them to look and
act in a more friendly manner.
For example, Tholey himself
I became lucid, while being chased
by a tiger, and wanted to flee. I then pulled myself back
together, stood my ground, and asked, "Who are you?" The tiger
was taken aback but transformed into my father and answered, "I
am your father and will now tell you what you are to do!" In
contrast to my earlier dreams, I did not attempt to beat him but
tried to get involved in a dialogue with him. I told him that he
could not order me around. I rejected his threats and insults.
On the other hand, I had to admit
that some of my father’s criticism was justified, and I decided
to change my behavior accordingly. At that moment my father
became friendly, and we shook hands. I asked him if he could
help me, and he encouraged me to go my own way alone. My father
then seemed to slip into my own body, and I remained alone in
the dream. 
To have a good dream dialog, you should
treat the dream figure as being your equal, as in the example. The
following questions may open up fruitful lines of dialog with dream
"Who are you?"
"Who am I?"
"Why are you here?"
"Why are you acting the way you are?"
"What do you have to tell me?"
"Why is such-and-such happening in this dream?"
"What do you think or feel about such and such?"
"What do you want from me? What do you want me to do?"
"What questions would you ask of me?"
"What do I most need to know?"
"Can you help me?"
"Can I help you?"
WITH DREAM CHARACTERS
1. Practice imaginary dialogs in
the waking state.
Choose a recent dream in which you had an unpleasant
encounter with a dream figure. Get a piece of paper and pen to
write down the conversation you imagine. Imagine yourself
talking to the dream character; visualize the character before
you. Begin a dialog by asking questions. You may choose a
question from the list above or substitute any personally
relevant question. Write down your questions, and the responses
you get from the character.
Try not to let critical thoughts
interrupt the flow, such as "this is silly," or "I’m just making
this up," or "That’s not true." Listen, and interact. You can
evaluate later. Terminate the dialog when it runs out of energy
or when you achieve a useful resolution. Then evaluate the
conversation and ask yourself what you did right and what you
would do differently next time. Once you are successful with
this, try the same exercise on another dream.
2. Set your intention.
Set a goal for yourself that the next time you have a
disturbing encounter with a dream character you will become
lucid and engage the character in dialog.
3. Dialog with problem dream figures.
When you encounter anyone with whom you feel conflict, ask
yourself whether or not you are dreaming. If you find that you
are dreaming, continue as follows: Stay and face the character,
and begin a dialog with one of the opening questions from the
list below. Listen to the character’s responses, and try to
address his, her, or its problems as well as your own. See if
you can come to an agreement or make friends. Continue the
dialog until you reach a comfortable resolution. Then, be sure
to awaken while you still remember the conversation clearly, and
write it down.
4. Evaluate the dialog.
Ask yourself if you achieved the best result you could. If
you feel you did not, think about how you could improve your
results next time. You could use Step 1 to relive the dialog to
attain a more satisfying result.
Adapted from Kaplan-Williams
 and Tholey
In contrast to the positive results of
conciliatory dialog, Tholey found that when dreamers attacked dream
characters either verbally or physically, the dream figures often
regressed in form, for instance from a mother, to a witch, then to a
beast. We might assume that the other characters in our dream worlds
are more helpful as friendly humans than as subdued animals, so the
aggressive approach may not be the best choice most of the time.
I say most of the time, because in some instances it may not be
advisable to open yourself to a dream attacker. The circumstances
which might make this true are in cases of dreams which replay real
life events in which one was abused by someone—say, a rapist or
child molester. In such cases, a more satisfying resolution may
result from the Senoi approach of overcoming,
destroying, and transforming the dream attacker. However,
in many instances, Tholey’s research has shown that
aggressive attacks on dream characters can result in feelings of
anxiety or guilt, and the subsequent emergence of dream "avengers."
So, I would advise avoiding such behavior unless it truly seems to
I have a few suggestions to add to these ideas for how to resolve
nightmare situations. One is an extension of the "confront and
conquer" approach. Though I cannot wholly recommend conquering dream
characters, the intention to confront all danger in dreams is fully
in accordance with my conception of a constructive dream-life.
Remember that nothing can hurt you in dreams, and consider if there
is any reason why you should not allow yourself to experience the
things you are trying to avoid in the dream.
An excellent example of
enduring the dreamed danger is provided by Garfield:
I was in a subway like the London
tube system. I came to an escalator. The first three or four
steps weren’t going. I figured I had to walk up. After I got up
the first few steps, I found that it was working. I looked up
toward the top and saw all this yellow machinery above the
escalator. I realized that if I kept on going, I would be
smashed by the machinery. I became frightened, and started to
wake up. Then I said to myself, "No, I have to keep on going. I
have to face it. Patty says I can’t wake up." My heart began
pounding and my palms sweating as I was carried nearer and
nearer. I said, "This is bad for my heart," but I kept on going.
Nothing happened. Somehow I passed it and everything was all
In another case, a woman dreamt she had
difficulty avoiding being struck by cars as she crossed a busy
street. As she had an unusually intense fear of traffic in waking
life, upon becoming lucid, she decided to directly confront her fear
and leapt into the path of an oncoming pickup truck. She described
that she felt the truck pass through her and then she, in an
ethereal form, rose heavenwards, feeling elevated and amused.
This "let it happen" to you approach may not be best when dealing
with dream characters, however. In Tholey’s research,
"Defenseless behavior almost always led to unpleasant experiences of
fear or discouragement." 
Hostile dream figures would tend to grow in size and strength
relative to the dreamer. The reason for this may be that dream
characters often are projections of ourselves, and by giving in to
their attacks, we may be allowing untransformed negative energies
within us to overpower our better aspects.
Chapter 11 discusses this idea in greater depth and proposes
another method for placating hostile dream figures: You simply open
your heart and accept them as part of yourself.
This may not require
any words at all, and can have an astonishingly positive effect.
The following is a list of some of the more common nightmare
themes, with suggested methods of transforming the dream to
achieve a positive outcome. Make yourself a goal that whenever you
next find yourself in a nightmare, you will become lucid, and
overcome your fear.
If the nightmare features one of the following
themes, try the suggested responses.
1. Theme: Being pursued
Response: Stop running. Turn to face the pursuer. This is in
itself may cause the pursuer to disappear or become harmless. If
not, try starting a conciliatory dialog with the character or
2. Theme: Being attacked
Response: Don’t give in meekly to the attack or flee. Show
your readiness to defend yourself and then try to engage the
attacker in a conciliatory dialog. Alternatively, find
acceptance and love in yourself and extend this towards the
threatening figure (see Chapter 11).
3. Theme: Falling
Response: Relax and allow yourself to land. The "old wives’
tale" is false—you will not really die if you hit the ground.
Alternatively, you can transform falling into flying.
4. Theme: Paralysis
Response: When you feel trapped, stuck or paralyzed, relax.
Don’t allow anxiety to overcome your rationality. Tell yourself
you are dreaming and the dream will soon end. Let yourself go
along with any images that appear or things that happen to your
body. None of it will hurt you. Adopt an attitude of interest
and curiosity about what happens.
5. Theme: Being unprepared for an examination or speech
Response: First of all, you don’t need to continue with this
theme at all. You can leave the exam or lecture room. However,
you might enhance your self-confidence in such situations by
creatively answering the test questions or giving a spontaneous
talk on whatever topic suits you. Be sure to enjoy yourself.
When you wake up, you may want to ask yourself whether you
should actually prepare for a similar situation.
6. Theme: Being naked in public
Response: Who cares in a dream? Have fun with the idea. Some
find being naked in a lucid dream erotically exciting. If you
wish, have everyone else in the dream remove their clothes.
Remember, modesty is a public convention, and dreams are private
After waking up from the nightmare,
I would go back to sleep while thinking of a point in the dream
before it went bad. I would go back to that point and re-dream
the dream, changing it, recreating it so that it would turn out
well and end up as a good dream.
(J.G., Kirkland, Washington)
From a friend I received the advice that to just "stand there"
in a dream could change its course. At that time I was having
frequent terrifying dreams. I would wake up screaming for
help—thus ending the dream. And, of course, the overtones of
helpless fear carried over into the day. So before I went to
sleep I began to say to myself that whatever happened in my
dreams, I was simply going to stand there and meet the danger
and just see what the dream would do about that.
An example of what happened is the elevator dream. I was stuck
in an elevator. It wouldn’t go up or down and I couldn’t get
out. Finally, I climbed out the top and while I was on the roof
of the elevator, it began to go up very quickly and I would have
been crushed against the top of the elevator shaft. Instead of
screaming for help, I simply responded as an observer and
recognizing that this was a dream, I said to the dream that I
was going to sit there on the elevator. "Now, how will you
handle that?" The elevator stopped short of the top. No harm was
done. Not only that, the dream was no longer out of control.
Until that time the elevator dream had been recurring. It never
(V. W., Lincoln, Nebraska)
Since I was three years old, twice a month, I have had
nightmares about tidal waves engulfing me; the details varied
but the feeling was always the same: terror and helplessness.
Until...in a half-awake state I determined to have a lucid dream
about diving into a big wave. I did it! With my heart beating
wildly, I ran toward the stormy sea, chanting that it’s just a
dream. I dove in headfirst. For a fearful moment I felt water in
my lungs, but then began to enjoy the sensation of bobbing about
in the powerful currents and waves ... after several (very
pleasant) minutes of this, I washed up on shore.
I had one other lucid dream about facing the wave and enjoying
being underwater. Since then, I have had no more nightmares of
(L.G., San Francisco, California)
When thinking about a nightmare
becomes so painful that we avoid it, it is not surprising that
it recurs. However, even the most terrible images become less
frightening when we examine them.
I believe Saint-Denys sheds
light on the mechanism of recurrent nightmares, in the following
comment on his living gargoyle dream, quoted earlier in this
I don’t know the origin of the
dream. Probably some pathological cause brought it on the first
time; but afterwards, when it was repeated on several occasions
in the space of six weeks, it was clearly brought back solely by
the impressions it had made on me and by my instinctive fear of
seeing it again. If I happened, when dreaming, to find myself in
a closed room, the memory of this horrible dream was immediately
revived; I would glance towards the door, the thought of what I
was afraid of seeing was enough to produce the sudden appearance
of the same terrors, in the same form as before.
I believe nightmares become recurrent by
the following process: in the first place, the dreamer awakens from
a nightmare in a state of intense anxiety and fear; naturally, he or
she hopes that it will never happen again.
The wish to avoid at all
costs the events of the nightmare insures that they will be
remembered. Later, something in the person’s waking life associated
with the original dream causes the person to dream about a situation
similar to the original nightmare.
The dreamer recognizes, perhaps
unconsciously, the similarity, and thus expects the same thing to
happen. Thus, expectation causes the dream to follow the first plot,
and the more the dream recurs, the more likely it is to recur in the
same form. Looking at recurrent nightmares in this way suggests a
simple treatment: the dreamer can imagine a new conclusion for the
dream to weaken the expectation that it has only one possible
Veteran dreamworker Strephon Kaplan-Williams describes a
technique for re-dreaming the end of a nightmare; he calls it
"dream re-entry." The technique can be practiced with any
dream that you feel unsatisfied with the outcome of, but it seems
especially apt for recurrent nightmares, in which you are stuck time
after time with the same set of disturbing events.
Dream re-entry is practiced in the waking state.
Dreamworkers begin by selecting dreams to relive, and then come
up with alternative ways of acting in the dreams to influence the
progression of the events towards more favorable or useful outcomes.
Then they relive the dream in imagination, with the new action. They
continue to visualize being in the dream until they see the result
of their alternative behavior.
Williams offers an example of
dream re-entry from his own experience. He had dreamt:
"I am in this house and there is
something scary to confront. I don’t want to do it and am all
alone. I’m quite afraid. I wake up."
He resolves to re-enter the dream and
face the fear. In this case, he actually fell asleep as he was
practicing the re-entry process, which added to the intensity of his
This time I make myself enter the
bathroom where the source of my fears seems to be. I am so
afraid, so afraid that the flow of images stops. But through
sheer will I make myself enter the bathroom ready for anything.
I think of taking my machete and thrashing around with it if I
am attacked. But I decide against this because I want to
confront my fear by willing myself to stay with the situation no
matter what.... I am ready to face that which could overwhelm me
and exist with it rather than try to defeat it.
...When I do [enter the bathroom], there seems to be a hulking
luminescent figure there. It does not attack me but changes into
a dwarf-like figure, long arms, roundish head, like Yoda. We
face each other. I have stayed with the situation. No attack
comes. My fear goes away when I experience what is there behind
the door, and has been there so many years going back to
childhood. What has been there behind every door and scary place
is fear itself and my inability to fully deal with it.
Several years ago, I used a similar
approach with someone suffering from recurrent nightmares.
telephoned me asking for help. He feared going to sleep, because he
might have "that terrible dream" again. In his dream, he told me, he
would find himself in a room in which the walls were closing in
threatening to crush him. He would desperately try to open the door,
which would always be locked.
I asked him to imagine he was back in the dream, knowing it was a
dream. What else could he do? At first he was unable to think of
anything else that could possibly happen, so I modeled what I was
asking him to do. I imagined I was in the same dream and I
visualized the walls closing in. However, the moment I found the
door locked, it occurred to me to reach into my pocket where I found
the key, with which I unlocked the door and walked out. I recounted
my imaginal solution and asked him to try again. He imagined the
dream again—this time he looked around the room and noticed that
there was no ceiling and climbed out.
I suggested to him that if this dream should ever recur, he could
recognize it as a dream, and remember his solution. I asked him to
call me if the dream came back, but he never did. Unfortunately, we
cannot be sure about what happened. But, I think that having found
some way to cope with that particular (dream) situation, he had no
need to dream about it again because he no longer feared it. As I
have hypothesized elsewhere, we dream about what we expect to
happen, both what we fear and what we hope for. I believe that the
approach I have outlined can provide the basis for an effective
treatment for recurrent nightmares, and look forward to it being
Some evidence has appeared in psychotherapy literature indicating
that rehearsal (i.e., re-dreaming) can help people overcome
recurrent nightmares. Geer and Silverman successfully
treated an otherwise normal patient who suffered for fifteen years
from a recurrent nightmare with five sessions of relaxation followed
by seven sessions of mentally re-experiencing the nightmare
The frequency of nightmares decreased
only after the third rehearsal session, when the patient was
instructed to say to himself "It’s just a dream." After the sixth
rehearsal session, several weeks later, the nightmare disappeared.
Marks described a case in which a recurrent nightmare of
fourteen years’ duration disappeared after the patient relived the
dream three times while awake and then wrote three accounts of the
nightmare with triumphant endings.
Bishay treated seven cases of
nightmares with simple rehearsal of the nightmare and/or rehearsal
with an altered ending.
A one-year follow-up of five patients in the latter study showed
complete relief from nightmares in the four patients who
successfully imagined masterful endings, and marked improvement in a
patient who was only able to imagine a neutral outcome.
Rehearsal re-dreaming is done while awake. However, a
similar technique can be practiced during the recurrent nightmare,
if the dreamer is lucid. Instead of imagining how the dream might
turn out if the dreamer tried something new, while lucid the dreamer
can try the alternative action right there in the nightmare. The
resultant resolution should be all the more empowering, because of
the enhanced reality of the dream experience.
the course of recurrent nightmares both in waking and dreaming may
be even more effective. Sometimes, the waking re-dreaming exercise
is enough to resolve the problem created in the dream so that it
never recurs again. However, if the dream does occur again, then the
dreamer should be prepared to become lucid and consciously face the
The exercise below incorporates both re-entry techniques.
RE-DREAMING RECURRENT NIGHTMARES
1. Recall and record the
If you have had a particular nightmare more than once,
recall it in as much detail as you can, and write it down.
Examine it for points where you could influence the turn of
events by doing something differently.
2. Choose a re-entry point and new action.
Choose a specific part of the dream to change, and a
specific new action that you would like to try at that point to
alter the course of the dream. Also select the most relevant
point before the trouble-spot at which to re-enter the dream.
(If it is a long dream, you may wish to begin at the part that
immediately precedes the unpleasant events).
3. Relax completely.
Find a time and place where you can be alone and
uninterrupted for between ten and twenty minutes. In a
comfortable position, close your eyes and relax as described in
EXERCISE: PROGRESSIVE RELAXATION.
4. Re-dream the nightmare, seeking resolution.
Beginning at the entry point you chose in Step 2, imagine
you are back in the dream. Visualize the dream happening as it
did before until you reach the part at which you have chosen to
try a new behavior. See yourself doing the new action, and then
continue imagining the dream until you discover what effect your
alteration has on its outcome.
5. Evaluate your re-dreamed resolution.
When the imagined dream has ended, open your eyes. Write
down what happened as if it were a normal dream report. Note how
you feel about the new dream resolution. If you are not
satisfied, and still feel uncomfortable about the dream, try the
exercise again with a new alternative action. Possibly,
achieving a comfortable resolution with the waking exercise will
be enough to stop the recurrence of the nightmare.
6. If the dream recurs, follow your re-dreamed plan of
If the dream occurs again, do in the dream what you
visualized during waking re-entry. Remember that the dream
cannot harm you and be firmly resolved to carry through with
your new behavior.
I learned as a child of five or six
to control nightmares. For example, a dinosaur was chasing me,
so I inserted a can of spinach into the plot, and upon eating it
gained Popeye’s strength and "vanquished" my foe.
(V.B., Roanoke, Virginia)
I had this lucid dream when I was ten years old: Feeling like a
frightened victim, I am high in a stone tower with my younger
sister Diane. A witch has tied us up and is about to stuff us
into gunny sacks and throw us out the window to drown in the
water far below. My sister is crying and near hysteria. Suddenly
my panic turns to lightness and wonder. I laugh. "Diane! This is
only a dream! My dream! Let her throw us out the window because
I can make us do anything we want!" The witch is now background
material, no longer the imposing "control." We laugh as we fall
through the air, gunny sacks melting away. The warm, friendly
water gently supports us to the shore where we run, giggling, in
the grass. For days after that dream I felt an inner strength, a
sense that fear is now what I’d let it be up to that point.
(B.H., Sebastapol, California)
As a child I participated in and controlled many of my own
dreams. My own lucid dreaming started when I was about nine or
ten years old. One night I had a dream in which I was being
chased by an evil giant. In the dream I suddenly remembered my
parents telling me there are no such things as monsters. It was
then that I realized I must be dreaming. In the dream I stopped
running, turned around and let the giant pick me up. The outcome
of the dream was good and I awoke with a pleasant and confident
feeling. Over the next two years I developed more skill at lucid
dreaming, so much so that bedtime became exciting because of
this new world I had discovered where anything was possible and
I was the Boss.
(R.M., Toronto, Canada)
Many people have reported discovering
lucid dreaming as a means of coping with childhood nightmares, as in
the cases above. Children tend to have more nightmares than adults,
but fortunately, they appear to have little difficulty putting into
practice the idea of facing their fears with lucid dreaming.
In her book Studies in Dreams published in 1921, Mary Arnold-Forster
mentioned having helped children overcome nightmares with lucidity,
 and I can relate
a similar experience myself. Once, when I was making long-distance
small-talk with my niece, I asked her about her dreams. Madeleina,
then seven years old, burst out with the description of a fearful
nightmare. She had dreamt that she had gone swimming, as she often
did, in the local reservoir.
But this time, she had been threatened
and terrified by a shark. I sympathized with her fear and added,
matter-of-factly, "but of course you know there aren’t really any
sharks in Colorado." She replied, "Of course not!" So, I continued:
"Well, since you know there aren’t really any sharks where you swim,
if you ever see one there again, it would be because you were
dreaming. And, of course, a dream shark can’t really do you any
harm. It is only frightening if you don’t know that it’s a dream.
But once you know you’re dreaming, you can do whatever you like—you
could even make friends with the dream shark, if you wanted to! Why
not give it a try?"
Madeleina seemed intrigued. A week
later, she telephoned to proudly announce, "Do you know what I did?
I rode on the back of the shark!"
Whether or not this approach to children’s nightmares always
produces such impressive results we do not yet know, but it is
certainly worth exploring. If you are a parent with children
suffering from nightmares, you should first make sure that they know
what a dream is and then tell them about lucid dreaming. For more
information on children’s nightmares and how to treat them, see
Garfield’s excellent book Your Child’s Dreams
That lucid dreaming promises to banish one of the terrors of
childhood seems reason enough for all enlightened parents teaching
the method to their children. In addition, an important bonus of the
lucid dreaming approach to children’s nightmares is that it results
in an increased sense of mastery and self-confidence as can be seen
in all of the examples above.
Think of the value of discovering that
fear has no more power than you let it have, and that you are the
 E. Hartmann, The Nightmare (New
York: Basic Books, 1984).
 S. LaBerge, L. Levitan, and W. C. Dement, "Lucid Dreaming:
Physiological Correlates of Consciousness during REM Sleep,"
Journal of Mind Behavior 7 (1986): 251-258.
. S. Freud, "Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis," in
Standard edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund
Freud, Vol. 15 (London: Hogarth Press, 1916-17), 222.
 Hartmann, op. cit.; A. Kales et al., "Nightmares: Clinical
Characteristics of Personality Patterns," American Journal of
Psychiatry 137 (1980): 1197-1201.
 J. A. Gray, "Anxiety," Human Nature 1 (1978): 38-45.
 C. Green, Lucid Dreams (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968); S.
LaBerge, Lucid Dreaming (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1985).
 I. Shah, The Way of the Sufi (London: Octagon Press, 1968),
. H. Saint-Denys, Dreams and How to Guide Them (London:
Duckworth, 1982), 58-59.
 P. Tholey, "A Model of Lucidity Training as a Means of Self-
Healing and Psychological Growth," in Conscious Mind, Sleeping
Brain, eds. J. Gackenbach and S. LaBerge (New York: Plenum,
 G. S. Sparrow, Lucid Dreaming: Dawning of the Clear Light
(Virginia Beach: A.R.E. Press, 1976), 33.
 See LaBerge, Lucid Dreaming, chapter 9, for a discussion of
 K. Stewart, "Dream Theory in Malaya," in Altered States of
Consciousness, ed. C.Tart (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 161- 170.
 P. Garfield, Creative Dreaming (New York: Ballantine,
 Tholey, op. cit.
 Ibid., 265.
 S. Kaplan-Williams, The Jungian-Senoi Dreamwork Manual
(Berkeley, Calif.: Journey Press, 1985).
 Tholey, op. cit.
 Garfield, op. cit., 99-100.
 Tholey, op. cit., 272.
 C. McCreery, Psychical Phenomena and the Physical World
(London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973), 102-104.
. Kaplan-Williams, op. cit., 204.
 J. H. Geer and I. Silverman, "Treatment of a Recurrent
Nightmare by Behaviour Modification Procedures," Journal of
Abnormal Psychology 72 (1967): 188-190.
 I. Marks, "Rehearsal Relief of a Nightmare," British
Journal of Psychiatry 135 (1978): 188-190.
 N. Bishay, "Therapeutic Manipulation of Nightmares and the
Management of Neuroses," British Journal of Psychiatry 147
 M. Arnold-Forster, Studies in Dreams (New York: Macmillan,
 P. Garfield, Your Child’s Dreams (New York: Ballantine,