Ask Me: Help, I Can’t Stop Dreaming Awful Things

manic-pixie-dream-girl

“Dear Bronwyn,

I am at the point where I am afraid of going to sleep at night because I can’t stop dreaming about terrible, evil things. I wake up feeling like I have evil and fear seeped into my bones, and it sometimes takes me several hours to shake it. Lately, I’ve been delaying going to bed until I’m beyond exhausted or trying other sleep aides to try and drug myself into a dreamless sleep, but it’s not working.

Why do I keep dreaming such disturbing things? And should I read something into it about something wrong with me, or something God might want to tell me through it?

Help!

Don’t Want to Dream”

Dear DWTD,

I went to a conference last month where one of the speakers talked about dreaming, loosely based on the Joseph story (in Genesis 37-50). His talk made me think about the various ways we talk about dreaming:

as hopeful ambition (think of MLK’s “I have a dream”),

as wishful thinking (“I dream of riding unicorns”),

as imaginative flight of fancy/remembrance (“I dreamed of Africa” as in the movie),

as random stories that we experience while we sleep (“I dreamed I was naked in public”), and

as one way that God sometimes reveals himself to people (“Your old men will dream dreams, your young will see visions” – Joel 2:28)

Maybe there are more ways that this, even, but this list is enough to leave me confused when we talk about interpreting/understanding our dreams, or hoping to influence or actualize them. The speaker in question was talking about dreams as ambition, yet using a text which was really (IMHO) about God revealing himself prophetically to Joseph. When we read and talk and google about dreaming, I think we need to be careful to distinguish what kind of dreaming we are talking about.

Your question sounds like the kind where we have random stories we experience as we sleep: and you are having repeated dreams that you remember upon waking and which disturb you deeply. I am in no way an expert on this, but as a person who has wrestled with disturbing dreams myself, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • I understand dreams to be a primary way that our brains sort through and process information. Like in Inside Out, it’s the stuff that flits through our subconscious while our mental, emotional and lived experiences are being filed into the “memory bank”. As such, it’s a really jumbled and unedited reel, and for the most part I think we do well to not pay too much attention to them.
  • Sometimes, I believe God has something to show us through dreams. Just as he can “speak through a friend” in the course of ordinary conversation by revealing something in their words we hadn’t noticed before, I believe He can (and does) sometimes highlight things in our dream sequences which, in the light of day, we need to think through and, where possible, consider in light of Scripture. There are many, many stories of people in the Muslim world who dream about Jesus and it propels them to search him out in their waking hours. In fact, I have a close Jewish friend who came to faith exactly this way: Jesus spoke to her in a dream and it freaked her out completely. After a couple of those dreams, she sought out a friend and asked her to tell her more about “this Jesus who haunted her dreams.”
  • Sometimes, I believe we dream about the things we haven’t quite processed consciously. Sarah Bessey wrote about how, a while ago, it was a repeated dream during pregnancy that caused her midwife to ask whether she had ever processed the trauma of her son’s birth several years before. No, she hadn’t. “If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our feelings, they have a habit of peeking around the corners of our lives, breaking in at the most inopportune moments,” she writes. I think this is true of trauma, as well of deep relational hurt that we may not have acknowledged (for example, repeated dreaming—even sexual dreaming—about certain people may not just be about unmet physical needs, but perhaps about even deeper unmet emotional needs.) Sometimes our dreams are not about the thing per se, but about the hurt and confusion that underlie the thing our dreams reflect.

I have experienced some very traumatic dreams in the past years, having moved from a place with significant violent crime to a city with hardly any. In the weeks before going back to South Africa, I almost always dream for several weeks about various scenarios where I’m terrified and out of control and unprepared for bad things to happen. These dreams are rarely about crime, but what they have in common is this deep feeling of terror of the unknown; and when I wake, I know that somehow this has to do with me feeling like I need to put up my guard and recover my street smarts in preparation: remembering the habits I don’t use in my current life but will need again in South Africa: looking over my shoulder when I walk, locking my car door as soon as I get in, checking the locks, not turning my back as I pack groceries and children into a car…

Recurrent terrible dreams are often a cue that we have stuff that needs our attention: fears we need to process, hurts we have not yet acknowledged or begun to heal from. I know people who dream of crime, and wake up terrified. I know people who struggle with recurrent sexual dreams that leave them feeling dirty and desperate, and they wish it could stop. People who dream of falling, of dying, of loss. We dream of shame, of pain, of long, dark valleys with thick and thirsty shadows.

How can we get them to stop? I don’t know. But this I do know: if we are recurrently dreaming of bad, awful things, it may be a sign that there is something going on we need to pay attention to. Even if the dream isn’t directly correlated to your life, there is quite possibly a fear, a theme, a struggle reflected in that dream which, with the help of a trusted friend and/or wise counselor, we need to wade through and ask God to bring light and healing to what the issue is.

I don’t think praying “take it away!” and “make it stop!” are necessarily the right way to go (although of course God could answer this!), but perhaps taking the time to pray “what is this dream telling me about my fears and struggles? and what do you have to show me through this, God?” is something you might consider the next time you wake up in that dreaded cold sweat.

I hope this helps. May God give you wisdom and peace in this,

Bronwyn

8 thoughts on “Ask Me: Help, I Can’t Stop Dreaming Awful Things

  1. Good advice, Bronwyn.

    At various points in my life, I’d had horrible dreams, too. For example, once I dreamed I was naked in the church choir loft during a time when I felt very vulnerable at church and that “everyone” knew my private mess. I’ve also found that sleeping pills don’t help me with insomnia or with dreamless sleeping, and can cause rebound insomnia.

    Two suggestions: pray over your bedroom and play soft, relaxing praise music as you go to sleep. I did that during one horrible depressive episode, while I was also muddling through mono, and it helped me think about God rather than dark, fearful thoughts as I fell asleep. And if you keep the CD on repeat, then if or when you wake up after a nightmare, the music will be a reminder of God’s presence with you, his love for you, and his desire for your life to reflect him.

  2. God’s word is an excellent “sleeping pill.” Read favorite passages or whole chapters. So is praise and worship. However, there is a very real enemy (John 10:10) and don’t forget that as a source of night fears or terror. Resist him. Stomp him! Read or quote scripture to him. Tell him about the cleansing blood of Jesus, all about grace, forgiveness, the peace that passes understanding, God’s mercy, His promises and provision of rest, and the fact that his lies and thievery are no match for our rescuer, our Warrior God, Jesus. Greater is He that is in us.

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  4. Depending on the precise character of this experience and the other things that may or may not accompany it, it might also be worth considering the possibility of primarily obsessional OCD (one woman describes her experience with it here). I am not remotely near any kind of expert on the subject and have no first-hand experience of it, but it might be of some help.

  5. My psychology professor said that dreams are the brain’s way of dealing with things while we sleep that we didn’t finish dealing with while awake. That is over simplified and over generalized, but you get the idea. A good counselor can help deal with life’s junk, and some of it is bad enough that the only way to deal with it is with a very good counselor. Professional help is part of God’s universal grace for his creation. Don’t be afraid to consider it, please. It’s not the only way, but it might be right for you.

    • Amen to that, Tim. I’ve gotten some great counseling over the years, and it’s helped tremendously, particularly during that period of time I mentioned in my earlier comment.

  6. Really good advice!

    I wish God spoke more through dreams. I believe he spoke to me once, very clearly, through a dream and it brought me so much peace. I would love him to reveal himself to dear friends of mine in this way too.

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