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Nightmares are dreams whose contents are unpleasant or anxiety provoking and which, depending on their intensity, can awaken the sleeper. Also known as anxiety dreams, nightmares attracted the interest of Sigmund Freud, who refers to them for the first time in The Interpretation of Dreams. There, he shows how nightmares are not an exception to dream theory and, more specifically, that they are consistent with the theory that dreams are the fulfillment of a wish. The anxiety experienced during the nightmare can only be apparently explained by its content. Although intrinsically linked to its accompanying representations, the anxiety arises from a different source. In this sense the anxiety of the dream is identical to the anxiety experienced during neurosis.

Based on this analogy, Freud claims that nightmares are dreams with a sexual content whose libido is transformed into anxiety. The content is generally exempt from any form of distortion and represents the unveiled realization of a repressed desire that has shown itself to be stronger than censorship. The anxiety that accompanies the dream then takes the place of the censorship.

Nightmares can awaken the dreamer, and sleep can be interrupted before the dream's repressed desire has, faced with the censorship, reached its complete realization. In this case there is a failure to form the compromise that constitutes the dream, which then fails to fulfill its function as the guardian of sleep.

Although Freud did not change his dream theory, he updated it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). The repetitive anxiety dreams observed in people suffering from traumatic neuroses cannot be explained by the fulfillment of a repressed desire. In these nightmares a profoundly unpleasant and anxiety provoking event is repeated. To explain this, Freud introduces the hypothesis that the dream serves to bind the instinctual excitation to avoid overwhelming the psychic apparatus with traumatic material. In traumatic neurosis this binding function is disturbed.

Ernest Jones, in his book On the Nightmare, interpreted anxiety dreams as the fulfillment of a repressed wish associated with infantile sexuality. More recently, French authors, relying on experimental findings that reveal that through the different paradoxical sleep cycles the same dream matter becomes increasingly less comfortable as dreaming progresses, have hypothesized that this phenomenon may be the reflection of the dream's work of organization, integration, or binding. This would result in the gradual development of the most archaic signifiers, increasing their complexity, combining them, and dramatizing them in primary fantasies that have been relegated to secondary importance. According to this assumption, nightmares are the reflection of the failure of these binding processes, whereby anxiety occurs through the inability to repress archaic signifiers.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.