Resource type: Article

How can I make sense of the strange dreams and nightmares I had?

The dreams that patients have (no matter how “crazy”) can seem so real, can be remembered in such detail or can be recurring, that some patients feel compelled to try to make sense of them.

“You’re thinking, there’s no way that I’ve been on a sailing boat, on a whaler or stuck down a drain. So then you start thinking, “Well, okay then. That’s fine!” …but for all that you discount it, you still get it coming back into your head!” (Nigel, 60)

Some dreams appear to be misinterpretations of reality. Patients who have been cared for on a pressure relieving mattress can sometimes dream that they’ve been on a boat, for example, as the inflation and deflation of the mattress can bring about a wave like sensation.

“Some of it could be related to, for instance, putting the face mask on (CPAP mask, which fits very tightly on the face)…and getting lines put in and you think, “Well, fine. There’s a correlation between that and what I was thinking.” (Nigel, 60)

People make sense of these dreams in many different ways.

“My Father was seriously ill several years ago…he had septicaemia and was very, very ill. He came back with all these fantastic stories…some of them were terrifying as well. And I thought, “Ah, this is like what happened to Dad all those years ago.” And I can understand now what he was talking about, in terms of the dreams.” (John, 49)

One former patient consulted a book of dreams.

“My sister has a book of dreams. I tried looking it up but I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Some folk say dreams have got meanings, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s just your subconscious working overtime...” (Roy, 63)


Another was able to come to terms with his bad dreams by relating them to the use of LSD in his “misspent youth”

“Well, it was the 60’s…I took LSD, and you always knew you might have a bad trip….you just told yourself it was the LSD. And the next day, it was alright. So I suppose that background, although it was years ago, made me realise that it would all sort of sort itself out in the end.” (Frank, 60)

For some people, the dreams or experiences they had can have a spiritual or religious meaning.

“I was sitting in a chair outside what I thought was a church and it was beautiful and it was a lovely sunny day and it was heaven. I saw my sister…she’s been dead 10 years since. I don’t care what anyone says, that’s what I believe, and that’s when I started to get better.” (Robert, 74)

“It was a really, really strange experience. I know one thing… when it’s my time, put it that way…when I die, I know I’ll be looked after (long pause, tearful). I won’t be scared (long pause)” (Andy, 54)

From what other patients have told us, it can be helpful to talk about your dreams, nightmares or hallucinations with family and friends. It can sometimes be difficult to broach the subject because they can be hard to put into words, or for fear that family and friends might think you’re mad.


“I had a couple which were really unbelievable, and you can’t tell anyone about it because it’s so hard to put into words.” (Anne, 77)

“I’ve never even told my family… I’ve never told anybody, I swear to god I haven’t. They’d say, “You’re off your head. You’re a crazy man, you’re away with it”. (Andy, 49)

Talking with family and friends can help, however, to separate out dreams from reality.

“I spent a session with my parents where we went through each of the dreams that I had had, and we ticked them off one by one.  I’d tell them what I thought I’d dreamt but I wasn’t sure whether it was a dream or reality…and they would say, “No, that’s complete rubbish. That was obviously a dream.”” (Dave, 41)

Some people also find it helpful to make sense of their dreams by visiting the Intensive Care Unit.