Two years ago when I first started my Believe mental health blog, I posted some random thoughts about recurring dreams I had and how I'd learned to understand what the content, and context, of them meant. Even now a few years on, this post is still one of the most popular of the almost 100 articles I've written, still averaging at least 30-50 views per week, mostly through search engines. As such, I've decided to repost it here for more to enjoy.
The Big Cats of the Conscious and Subconscious Mind
The conscious mind is powerful, as we all know. The subconscious mind is also very powerful. My own mind has proved the latter to me time and again, not least in the form of nightmares - although in the present day I usually refer to them as dreams rather than nightmares. What once was a nightmare is now referred to as a dream, despite the content ultimately being the same.
What do these nightmares/dreams consist of? They involve big cats: lions, tigers, panthers, pumas, cheetahs, leopards. Always on the loose, always nearby, looking me in the eye. Highly predatory. I have nowhere to hide; those big cats are guaranteed to outrun me, to catch up with me and kill me. I used to be terrified in my nightmare and I would wake from it hiding under the bedcovers, too frightened to even look out into the room in case there was a big cat there, and when I eventually trusted that it was safe to get out of bed, I would still spend the entire day on alert for big cats in real life, terrified of one crossing my path. "How unrealistic is that?" you may be thinking. Of course where we live in England it is entirely unrealistic, bordering on ridiculous - but I'm going to stick my neck out and say that now I understand those big cats, it's entirely realistic. Those big cats are always around the corner.
The big cats represent my 'demons', as it were. They represent the state of my mental health; symbolising something I am struggling with consciously. For years, from childhood and through to my very early twenties, these dreaded big cats would look me in the eye and chase me as I slept. Without fail, I would be running for my life. They never caught me - I always awoke just at the point before they outran me - but they were hunting me down. Which is essentially what was happening consciously: battling just to get through each day, fighting to ignore or avoid my anxiety and fears, running for my life, trying to escape them. Except there was no ignoring or avoiding something as big as those big cats. The eye contact was inevitably made in each nightmare despite my attempts to avoid it, and my anxiety would do the same each day, it would make sure it was noticed, one way or another. They chased me, I ran - the same as with my fears; typical avoidance behaviour.
I only made this connection a couple of years ago, and what a revelation it was! I figured it out myself, dream interpretation was never an interest of mine so I had never looked up what the dreams might mean, but through my counselling sessions I started to see correlations between my state of mind and these nightmares and the exact events in them, and suddenly it made sense. Since this discovery, I rarely refer to them as nightmares. They are dreams as, in a most unusual way, they are a gift. Sure, they still frighten me, and I'm still not keen on big cats in real life. But the dreams are accurate indicators of the state of my mental health regardless of how conscious I am of anything I'm struggling with. If I'm avoiding something that is troubling me, the big cats will make an appearance as I sleep, and I then know I have issues to address. Even if consciously I believe all is going well, after the appearance of the big cats I always find something, no matter how minor, that I had tried to bury or ignore without acknowledging or addressing it. There truly is no escape in my mind!
Interestingly, throughout my recovery journey, not only have the big cat dreams decreased in frequency, but a subtle and consistent shift in the way the dreams panned out developed. They still chased me at first. But the more I faced up to my difficulties consciously, the more I challenged myself in my dreams not to be as frightened of the big cats. I would calmly maintain eye contact sooner, instead of desperately trying to avoid it. I would stand still for as long as I could before turning and walking shakily, but slowly, away. Looking over my shoulder all the time, the cats following, but as I was in control, so were the cats. They shadowed me and were around corners, but we were getting to know each other and warily extending an olive branch of sorts.
The last time I had a big cat dream must have been many months ago now, and in it I stayed with the big cat. It was loose, not in an enclosure, and although uncomfortable I stayed with it. I didn't turn and run or even walk away. This was parallel to what I was doing consciously in my approach to dealing with agoraphobia. I was starting to test out "staying with the anxiety and fear" just a little bit, rather than getting into the fear-inducing situation and then running back to safety.
I've since developed more interest in dream interpretation, although I 'work' more on intuition and logic than actively researching or studying it. Thus far it's proved pretty accurate, and always fascinating for myself and others. However I admit to being a touch concerned about the latest dreams I've been having, where I've dreamt that I'm pregnant and have a baby kicking its limbs out and moving around in utero...development of a new idea or phase of my life, perhaps?
Originally posted here.