Do Dreams Play a Part in the Continuation of Maladaptive Human Behaviours?

Why do eighty year olds still feel pain for having been inadequately parented,  and this despite having been not-so-good parents themselves? Why does human nature not improve over generations? It seems to me that human nature, unlike science and technology, is repeating itself. This led me to wonder – do dreams play a part in this? Let me hasten to add that I fully appreciate the healing and spiritual dimensions that dreams can express [1], but this is about a different question. I will write about the positive aspects in a follow-up piece.

A six-year old girl was brought to me by her parents. The mother was having a relationship with another, and was considering divorce. The parents whispered arguments behind their bedroom door. When their daughter asked them about this, they replied that it was adult business; she must not worry; they will sort things out. When I mentioned the whisperings to the six-year old, she looked at me with wide-eyed fear, and asked,But what does it mean? Does it mean murder?

I am reminded of this incident when a client brings a nightmare to a session, and asks, with trepidation: But what does it mean?

What does it do to the human psyche to regularly experience anxiety and fear during dreaming? Similarly, what does it mean to be exposed, night after night, to our own fears and failures? Content analysis of dreams shows that a significantly high percentage of dreams express negative experiences (failures, misfortunes, threats, self-negativity, and aggressive acts) (Domhoff, 2002). Darwinian aetiology has dominated our thinking, including our search for meaning, over the past century. Because we have such a firm belief that, for behaviours to continue to exist, they must have a (positive) adaptive function, the search for the meaning of dreams has been consistently characterised by the search for the constructive intent and/or adaptive function of dreaming.  

Dreams have, for example, been explained as compensatory or potential healing messages from the unconscious (Jung, 1964), sleep preserving or wish-fulfillment (Freud), guiding messages from God or the ancestors (for the function of religion see Bulkeley, for an overview of ancestral dream interpretation see my book (Frank, 2004), a biological necessity as yet to be clarified (Hadfield, Holmes, Jouvet), memory preservation (and more recently, as a somewhat contrived function between Freudian concepts and neurology (Solms).

In this article I would like to highlight a different feature of dreaming – one which does not appear to be benign, nor positively adaptive, but instead seems to reinforce negative memory, non-constructive coping styles and the continuation of  negative associations.

The three dreams below highlight different responses to anxiety-provoking events, and reflect the possibility that our coping styles in our dreams will be consistent with our habitual ways of coping in real life. This would be consistent with the finding that the actions that occur in dreams are usually not bizarre, but could occur in real life.  It is also consistent with the hypothesis that the actions of the I-figure in the dream are consistent with the dreamer’s actions in real life. At the end of the article I ask the question whether our dreams can serve the function of keeping our anxieties, and by implication, our existing maladaptive responses, in place.

When I began working with dreams I tried my best to have an open mind. Looking at my own dreams I was surprised to recognize all my own faults. Night after night, it seemed, there I was in my full incompetence, shame and fear – and with my typical style of coping.  The actions of the I in the dream responded, albeit often in an exaggerated form, in ways that were clearly recognizable in my everyday life. So I took my cues from my dreams and began to act more constructively, less neurotically in real life. How did my dreams respond? To my surprise my dreams continued for an extended period of time to reflect the old (more) neurotic self. This made me wonder – do our dreams tend to be resistant to change, to confirm neuroticism, to have a tendency for repetition compulsion, and in this way work against constructive change?

Dream one

The dream of a woman in her mid-fifties who comes to see me because of recurrent panic attacks. As she recounts the dream she looks terrified, and it seems to me that it feels very real to her, as if it represents a living nightmare.

 I am in a car with some people, they seem faintly familiar.  I think they are distant relations. The people at the back seem to be making out; when I look I realize to my horror that they are eating each other and somehow enjoying it. Then someone starts chewing on my arm. I wake up severely shaken. I cannot fall asleep again. After about an hour I take a tranquilizer. In the morning when I have to get up for work I am groggy and still disturbed by the dream. What does it mean?

The woman recounts a history of severe physical abuse during a marriage of twenty-two years. At the age of 45 she fled to a town 2000 miles away. She appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress, and it becomes increasingly clear that her nightly dreams are not helping to alleviate her distress, but instead are keeping her traumatic state of mind alert. The dreams also contribute to keep hyper-activating strategies in place. We have to tell the dream consciousness that it is OK; that the danger is over. Some time on we have to take an assertive stance towards her dream-mind, and during a similar nightmare the woman manages to become conscious during the nightmare and to take a stand in the midst of a dream. Slowly but surely, the nightmares become more benign, and she, in real life, can begin to relax her petrified state of mind. 

Dream two

A middle-aged professional man, who emigrated to England from South Africa eight years ago, still experiences difficulties with adapting to his new country. He tells me that he is still struggling to find his place, to feel familiar and to make good friends in England. He recounts this recurring dream:

I have been sent back to boarding-school. Everything is strange and I do not recognise  anybody. I feel panicky. I cannot find my room and am lost in the corridors, which all seem strangely unfamiliar to me. Surely I should be able to find my way? I can not understand why there are no familiar faces or recognisable scenery.

The dream reinforces the dreamer’s sense of alienation. By doing so, his feelings of distress are reinforced. This acts to keep negative associations (of having been “sent back to boarding school”), and his pervading sense of “unfamiliarity”  in place. The dreams also points to another ‘truth’: “I have been sent back to boarding school. This had clearly been a negative experience of being out of control in his own life, a time when he was not consulted and was forced to stay in a place where he was miserable. He is in the UK however, out of his own volition. The fact that he is responding as if he is back in boarding school, needs to be challenged and his overwhelming sense of powerlessness then, has to be addressed in the here and now.

Dream three

The dream of a 17-year old adolescent who lived in a children’s home. She was part of a small group that I ran at the home. Group members were encouraged to bring dreams.

I find myself in a zone where there are many skeletons. The skeletons want to kill me. They want to turn me into a skeleton. I fight the skeletons as hard as I can. It is an enormous battle. One skeleton manages to get me into a coffin, where he lies on top of me to prevent me from getting out. The dream shifts and I have managed, somehow, to magically get out. I stand outside the coffin. The dream ends there.

This girl is known for her fighting stance. She tends to respond to any sign of rejection or injury with a fighting response. When a new social worker failed to return her greeting, she verbalized aggression towards her, stating, “I don’t care, I will fuck her over, you will see.” When her younger sister was sent to a home for troubled youth (they are all aware that this is usually a dead-end solution), she denied feeling sad or troubled, but stated defiantly, “She deserves this, she was looking for it (meaning trouble), this will teach her.”  Her dreams confirm her view of the world as an adversarial, life-threatening space, where one has to fight and deny vulnerability to survive. The solution is magical, and has the effect of supporting her fantasies of magical rescue as opposed to constructive self-determined action.

Could it be that in our frequent and repetitive dreams, we link past and current concerns, re-experience past fears,  and reinforce maladaptive responses? Do dreams in this way keep our habituated cognitions, our coping styles – as well as our psychological complexes – in place? To speculate rather wildly; could this be the reason why childhood injuries follow us into old age? Why humans find change so difficult? If I have inherited distrust from my childhood, and my dreams keep reinforcing this at night, why would I believe differently? I find this way of thinking startling, but also helpful: Once we keep in mind that our regular anxiety dreams can also serve the function of reinforcing past injuries and fear-based response patterns[2], we can move to a position of alternative consciousness towards the dream. We can take into consideration that our dreams, as much as they can heal, can also keep old wounds festering. And boy, can they exaggerate!

“Thanks to you I had the most horrific nightmare last night”.

This is the remark of my friend Jan. I had been staying with them to write a book on dreams. Jan had declared on my arrival that, “I never dream.” Our daily discussions on the nature of dreams had, I surmise, lead to the breaking through of the dream contents into his consciousness.

Why did I laugh? Because it was no surprize that it was a nightmare.

[1] Dreams appear to be truthful, and to be experienced as independently generated: features that allow for trust where distrust has become the norm. This is especially true in work with high-risk adolescents and traumatized individuals. Dreams can be of great value at times of grief, when known reality is not sufficient to provide relief.   

[2] Recently I asked  a class of grade 9 learners (14-15 year old girls) to write down a most recent dream. 52.4% of the dreams depict assault or the threat of assault. 28.6% Depicted ‘ominous’ content (e.g. “bubbling green stuff” that explodes in the science room, starts to flow down the corridor, and threatens the whole school). South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. The majority of the girls seemed to carry fear, which was illustrated vividly at night. This would serve to keep their fears alive, and maybe even to embed them. 


Bulkeley, K.

Domhoff, G.W. (2003) The Scientific Study of Dreams. Washington: APA

Frank, E. (2004) The book of dreams. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau

Freud, S.  (1953) The Interpretation Of Dreams. London: Penguin Books

Jung, C.G. (1963) Memories,Dreams, Reflections. London: Random House

Payne, J. D & Nadel, L. “Sleep, dreams, and memory consolidation: The role of the stress hormone cortisol”. In Learning & Memory. 2004 Nov; 11(6): 671–678.

Solms, M.

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