As with all dreams, what a nightmare means depends on what it means to the dreamer. To interpret one, you must figure out what it means for you.
Far more than most other dreams, nightmares inspire strong emotion – specifically, fear. If you have just woken up from a nightmare, you are probably terrified. When the initial fear passes, and you are more solidly awake, you can then start identifying your emotions and the aspects of your dream more clearly.
For many people, writing everything down helps. For others, especially those with a more visual or kinetic orientation, it may be more meaningful to draw, anything from sketches to full pictures. If you are an artist or a poet, some of your best work may be inspired by nightmares. If you write horror stories, a nightmare is the best fodder your imagination can have.
However, most people are content with just exorcising their nightmares, and, if they are reading this, with learning the dreams’ meanings.
The first thing to identify is what your dream was about, and what scared you. If you decide to draw, draw whatever thinking of your dream brings to mind. If you are writing, write whatever comes into your head remembering the dream. Do not think about what you are writing, and do not be concerned with spelling or grammar or whether it makes sense. The only person it will need to make sense to is you.
Perhaps there was a big, growling dog in your dream, and you were terrified. Perhaps you are not normally afraid of dogs, but there was something about this one. When were you afraid? When you first saw it? When it began to growl? Did it threaten you directly, or was it just the dog being there that was the nightmare? What did the dog look like? Did it remind you of a real dog you know? Or was it just an anonymous dog?
Once you have worked through the initial feelings of fear and identified what scared you, consider the other aspects of your dream. Write (or draw) everything you can remember. Some of it may be relevant, some not. In the end, only you can decide which details matter.
The next step, after milking your dream for everything you can remember, is to consider what is going on in your life. Sometimes what triggered the nightmare is obvious. If you watched the movie “Cujo” the night before, that may well explain a nightmare about a big, growling dog. Other times, there is no obvious explanation. That is when a deeper look at your life becomes necessary, and it may take days, weeks, or even months for the meaning to become clear.
Think about what is happening in your life in general. Again, write about it, stream of consciousness, or draw if that works better for you. Think about the mundane: what did you have for dinner last night? Did you drink alcohol, or anything caffeinated? If you smoke, when was your last cigarette? Sometimes the substances we put in our bodies are triggers. Personally, I’ve noticed that I’m more likely to have violent dreams after a night of drinking. A friend told me she had strange and violent nightmares when she quit smoking cold turkey. Another friend had especially intense dreams after changing to a new birth control pill.
Also think about the big picture. This may take several days, or even weeks, to completely figure out. Perhaps you have a nightmare about a big, growling dog right when you are about to confront someone who has been making your life miserable. Or perhaps you have been taking the path of least resistance in a bad situation. Maybe this growling dog represents something, or someone, you are afraid of.
But do not be too quick to assign meanings. If you are, you will probably miss the real meaning. Take your time, and let awareness of the dream and the big picture of your life gradually sink in. It would be helpful at this phase to keep a daily journal, and to write down what you can remember of all your dreams upon waking, for as long as you feel it is necessary.
If you have recurring nightmares, keeping a journal of both your dreams and your life is vital to understanding them. They may be separate – a dream journal and a life journal – or, if you prefer, you can keep them both in the same notebook.
You may find that you have the same nightmare in similar situations. I once heard a psychology professor, explaining this dream interpreting technique, say that one of her students found that she always dreamed about a horse when she was about to go on a trip. Moving into the category of nightmares, I’ve had an occasional recurrence of a dream about the roof caving in on me, and it’s always happened right before I failed at something.
If you have experienced major trauma, whether recently or long ago, a recurring nightmare may point to that trauma, indicating where healing is still needed. And with or without such an experience, recurring nightmares are likely to point to something in your life that needs to be fixed. Uncomfortable truths that we can ignore in daily life surface in our dreams.
Despite what some “experts” may say, there is no way to interpret dream symbols, whether from ordinary dreams or nightmares, that is true for everyone. Especially in the case of a nightmare, it is helpful to learn what the dream means for you. Nightmares often indicate what is wrong in our lives and what needs changing. Though terrifying, a nightmare, if properly interpreted, is a great teacher.