I’m a therapist who specializes in treating OCD, and I’m often asked about dreams. One common concern: Am I a bad person if I have disturbing dreams?
I understand the concern. In fact, many recurring bad dreams have plagued me throughout my own life. I’ve woken up feeling distraught because of what I’d said or done to someone in my dreams. And I’ve also experienced a mix of shock and distress after a recurring dream that seems unfathomable—for example, to be completely candid, the one about being intimate with my husband who all of a sudden turns into my father. I’ve had lengthy dreams (or so they feel) about finding a dead body, and instead of reporting it to the police, working desperately to hide it and bury it far away where no one will find it.
Naturally, it can be hard to brush that kind of dream content away the second our eyes pop open. Sometimes I wake in a cold sweat, feeling panicked. I, too, have wondered if I’m a bad person because of the subject matter playing out in my dreams. And at times, I’ve found myself wondering if there is something deeper and darker lurking in my subconscious.
But the reason I’m able to write all these things openly today is because I also understand just how my mind—the OCD mind—really works, and I’m able to live with confidence in my values, no matter what my dreams would like me to believe. Let’s get to the bottom of things.
Dream interpretations through history
We’re not the only ones trying to figure out the hidden meaning in our dreams—everyone has them, and no one can ever be sure about what they mean. Throughout history, there have been many ways of thinking about dreams: ancient Greeks believed that dreams had the ability to foretell the future, while Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, used dream interpretation to uncover unconscious wants and desires. Then, there are more scientific explanations of what is happening when we dream. For instance, there’s the theory of dreaming called the “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” which posits that dreams don’t mean anything in particular; they’re simply electrical brain impulses that take in thoughts and imagery from our memories.
No matter what theory is used to interpret a dream, the fact remains that some people are more bothered by troublesome dreams than others. And when dreams feel especially real, threatening, or meaningful, theories alone aren’t often enough to make you feel better.
Why are some people more distraught by bad dreams than others?
Bad dreams can be present in many different anxiety disorders. Stress and anxiety is known to increase the presence of anxiety dreams in Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Nightmares can also be a feature in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); sometimes people have recurring nightmares about a traumatic event that they have been through and essentially relive the trauma through their dreams. There can also be a link between phobias and dreams. For example, a person with a fear of heights may have a recurring nightmare of falling off a high mountain ledge.
There’s also a link between bad dreams and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD dwell on certain unwanted thoughts or feelings (known as obsessions) and engage in compulsions, which are physical or mental behaviors done to alleviate the anxiety and distress that their obsessions provoke. If dreams are our brain’s way of continuing to process memory fragments, sensory input, and events that have happened during our waking hours, it makes sense that OCD thoughts can linger into our sleeping hours.
Some people with OCD have vivid and memorable dreams about their deepest fears. Then they fear that these dreams will come to pass in real life, or believe that there is a correlation between their dreams and reality. Here’s the important thing to understand: the dream is just an expression of their biggest fear. The dream does not represent a wish or a desire.
It’s not the dream that’s the problem; it’s the meaning that a person attaches to the intrusive dreams that becomes an issue. Why? Because the meaning that a person with OCD attaches to their bad dream may lead them to engage in compulsive behaviors in an attempt to quell their fears. In fact, this is the main distinction between someone who has anxiety and someone who has OCD.
If you have anxiety and you wake up disturbed by a bad dream, you will not engage in compulsions—you’ll feel uncomfortable, but you won’t urgently attempt to escape your discomfort. But when OCD is a factor, you’ll not only experience consistent intrusive thoughts/obsessions about your dreams, but you’ll also engage in compulsions.
Let’s consider, for example, someone who is having bad dreams about stabbing her husband.
Possible obsessions related to this dream:
- I have a deep down desire to hurt my husband.
- I might hurt my husband in my sleep.
- It might mean I am going crazy.
- There is something wrong with my brain
- My husband is not safe around me.
Possible compulsions related to this dream:
- Sleeping in a different room to avoid being in bed with her husband.
- Asking her husband to lock her in the guest bedroom at night.
- Locking all knives in the house in drawers.
- Using sleeping pills or other substances before bed.
- Attempting to avoid sleep altogether.
Clearly, someone who is experiencing similar distress as a result of their dreams will want to look for explanations and solutions. But what’s the best way to go about it?
How to cope with intrusive dreams
If you are struggling and thinking you are a bad person because of the content of your dreams, know you are not alone. Many people are disturbed by their dreams. And it’s important to know that this doesn’t always mean you have OCD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or another mental health disorder.
But let’s say you do meet the criteria for OCD—what next? If you’re thinking therapy, you’re partly right—but with an important distinction. The reason is that seeking general forms of talk therapy can make symptoms of OCD worse, not better. The therapy that is proven to work for OCD is called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). Let’s dig into what this entails.
ERP is a radically different approach from more traditional talk therapy, much of which tries to dig up the past for analysis of dreams. In ERP, a person is instead guided in confronting their obsessive thoughts and fears with the goal of actually habituating to their obsessions and resulting distress, without relying on compulsions to feel better temporarily.
And there’s a trickle-over effect that can help you with distressing dreams: when you’re taking the power away from your obsessions through ERP in your waking life, it impacts how your brain processes that information while you’re asleep. And when you wake up, your ERP practice can help you recognize that what you experienced is an intrusive dream, and has no bearing on your actual beliefs, values, or identity.
Undergoing ERP work involves working collaboratively with a trained therapist who guides you through certain exercises tailored to your specific fears and worries about your dreams. Over time, these dreams and thoughts will not contribute to so much fear and disruption in your waking life.
Where to get the help you need
If you’re struggling with OCD—or think you might be—you can schedule a free 15-minute call today with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.