It is easy to forget a sweet dream, but a frightening nightmare can last a lifetime. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe your nightmares are a gift in disguise? Finding that hidden nugget of gold they are trying to tell us can often stop the nightmare forever. If you have had a nightmare that was so horrific you were afraid to go back to sleep, good for you! Nagging nightmares do not terrorize us for fun; they actually have a positive purpose.

According to Harvard University Psychologist Deirdre Barrett, PhD, if nightmares weren’t helpful to our survival, they probably would have faded away with evolution. Barrett theorizes that nightmares act as the brain’s way of focusing attention on issues that need to be addressed.1

A nightmare may be a call to action to revisit a painful childhood incident so you can heal, or even help you overcome a current challenging situation. This makes your dream world the perfect opportunity to try out new solutions to an old problem. Or, the frightening emotion with which you awake could be a piece of something bigger, such as a future occurrence. 

A Latin proverb dating from the 16th century says ‘praemonitus, praemunitus,’ which loosely translates as ‘forewarned is forearmed.’2 Might our nightmares be arming us? Could this be our gift in disguise? The key to help us find solutions is to remember the details between our many nightly dreams. 

We shift in and out of our dream doors approximately four to six times during the night.3 Between our dream cycles, in the deep sleep level of REM (rapid eye movement), we can experience our most significant nightmares. But what is the reason for a nightmare so disturbing that it wakes us in the middle of the night? 

Nightmares have three essential purposes: They get our attention using fear because fear works. Then they keep our attention by making the experience unforgettable, thereby gifting us important information for our waking world. Lastly, their dream guidance could be a call-to-action with specific verbal directions, thus, the golden nugget. 

Nightmares can guide us to making a positive change in our lives, like reminding us of a vital childhood event, so we don’t make the same painful mistake as an adult. All our life challenges, no matter how sad, were – and still are – learning experiences. 

Bad dreams can be personal gifts from your inner-self that benefit your waking life. Embrace your nightmare’s gifts in disguise, decipher its meaning and message, follow the call to action, and thank your dreams for the opportunity to use this seemingly fearful information to live a more joyful life.  

Kathleen O’Keefe-Kanavos of Rancho Mirage is a cancer survivor, author, dream expert, speaker, TV/radio host/producer and has been featured on Dr. Oz and The Doctors. For more information, visit

References: 1); 2); 3)

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