Fighting the Fear of Bad Dreams

This column, written by Dr. Heath Lambert, originally appeared in the print edition of the Florida Baptist Witness.

Over the last several weeks I’ve noticed that a common theme in many of my conversations with troubled people has to do with recurrent nightmares they have been having. For reasons that are not clear to me I have encountered many people from vastly different walks of life who are struggling with the terrorizing fear of recurrent bad dreams.

While the backgrounds of the people and the contents of the dreams are always quite different, many commonalities exist: the person dreams of some terrible reality like being pursued by someone they are afraid of or facing the death of someone they love, and then they awake in a panic—sometimes crying—and struggle to go back to sleep. The problem is not limited to the dream. The loss of sleep makes it hard to function through the day. Then, when the opportunity for sleep finally presents itself again, they are apprehensive because they do not want to deal with the nightmare again. How can biblical Christians help in such a scary and frustrating circumstance?

It helps to remember that our dreams—whether pleasant or nightmarish—are thoughts that we have while we are sleeping. Those thoughts come from our hearts (Mark 7:21), and our hearts can be shaped and guarded (Proverbs 4:23). The apostle Paul tells us that one of the ways we can do this is by thinking on things that are true (Philippians 4:8). It is possible for Christians to use this reality to craft a three-fold strategy to help us deal with nightmares.

First, think on what is true: hide God’s Word in your heart before bed.

Since Jesus says that our thoughts spring from our hearts—even when we are asleep—one of the best things we can do to shape our heart is to inform it with the Word of God. Psalm 119:16 says, “I shall delight in your statutes; I shall not forget your Word.” If you struggle with recurrent nightmares try reading the Bible as the last thing you do before bed. You could read a passage like Psalm 119:16, or you could read a passage that speaks specifically into the concrete fears of the nightmare causing you struggle. But whatever you do read the Bible and pray. Ask the Lord for his help in delighting in his Word, not forgetting it even while you’re asleep. Praying about the Word of God as the last thing you do before bed will, over time, shape the thoughts of your heart.

Second, think on what is true: flee to God when you wake and are afraid.

I have known a number of people whose nightmares went away after practicing just the first step. But if yours do not then, sooner or later, you will awaken afraid from another nightmare. When that happens shape your thoughts again with the truth of the Word of God. Work on memorizing a passage of Scripture that reminds you of God’s care for you and that comforts you when you are in pain. Memorization helps to keep you from turning on your light or your phone which may make it harder to calm down and fall asleep. Remind yourself of the truth that God is present with you to protect you even from the nightmare you just had. Ask him for his gift of peace, and for sleep.

Finally, think on what is true: trust Christ in persistent struggle.

Most people I know have found that those first two steps make the nightmares go away eventually. If that does not happen for you, then keep trusting Christ. Keep storing God’s Word in your heart. Keep asking God for the grace of a night’s rest that is not characterized by fear, but by peace. But persist knowing that our great God is able work all things for good (Romans 8:28), that often he blesses us—not by taking hardship away—but by being with us in the hard time (Hebrews 13:5), and that ultimately even the suffering of nightmares is not worth comparing with the perfect peace that is the destiny for every Christian (Romans 8:18).

Heath Lambert
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  • Clay
    November 8, 2017

    Dr. Lambert, I’m an SBTS student who is very familiar w/ biblical counseling (mostly from SS and JP). For a while now, my dentist has been telling me that I’m grinding/clinching my teeth at night (aka “bruxism”), which is causing enamel loss, tooth decay, poor sleep quality, and facial tension. Now it’s getting to the point that my dentist is scared I’m going to crack my teeth. He suggested filling in the decay then getting a custom bite guard. While this sounds like a good start, it seems like a bandage only — an extremely EXPENSIVE bandage!!

    I realize I’m probably having some sort of anxiety and/or bad dreams during the night, so I’m going to try your first step (Bible intake before bed) as I seek to identify my specific spiritual causes of anxiety.

    Additionally, I’ve read where it’s a good idea to relax (ex: showering, etc.) and avoid stimulation (ex: caffeinated beverages, etc.) way before bed time in order to prepare the “outter man” (body and brain) for sleep. I believe this will also help significantly!

    What do you think? Also, do you have any additional insight, tips, resources, or suggestions for this condition..or know someone who does? Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance.

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