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What Are Nightmares and Recurring Dreams?

Intense, frightening dreams are common and normal, says Barrett, as long as you don’t have them every night. Nightmares are often brought on by a real-life event, such as moving to a new place, or a trauma, such as being the victim of a crime. These dreams, too, can be instructive. “I tell clients to try to welcome their nightmares because they can clue you in to an emotion that’s worth exploring,” says Gayle Delaney, Ph.D., the founding president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, in
Berkeley, California. “For instance, a patient had a nightmare where she saw her boyfriend across a room, smiling sweetly. But as she approached, farming instruments, like pitchforks and shovels, started flying out of his head toward her. When she backed away, it stopped. This happened a few times during the dream. She told me she had pulled away from him several times in real life because every time she let herself get close to him, he could be mean and cold. As for the farm equipment? She was a city girl, and he was more rough-hewn.”

Children tend to have more nightmares than adults do. “They haven’t developed the psychological tools to deal with emotions, so they’re more likely to feel overpowered by them,” says Cartwright. “They have a lot of nightmares about animals and monsters. This could be symbolic of all the big things they don’t yet understand.”

Uncomfortable recurring dreams are typically linked to an unaddressed anxiety, says Veronica Tonay, Ph.D., a psychology instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of "The Creative Dreamer" ($15, Says Delaney: “I’ve seen hundreds of clients put an end to upsetting dreams by figuring out what underlying worry the dream is expressing, then dealing with it in real life. One client had a recurring dream about being gagged. As we talked, she revealed that she was worried about her mother-in-law coming to live with her and felt like she couldn’t talk to her husband about it. That was the connection?she truly felt gagged. She talked to her husband about her concerns, and she stopped having the dream.”

(Photo: Andrew McCaul)

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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