Anxiety Dream

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A dream may be so charged with anxiety that the dreamer can escape only through waking. Sometimes the dreamer is then amazed by the disparity between the intensity of emotion and the apparent banality of the dream itself. This is the classic "anxiety dream." Freud offered a detailed analysis of such a dream in his case history of the "Wolf Man" (1918b [1914]).

Freud often returned to the problem of anxiety dreams, because, as he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, "It does in fact look as though [they] make it impossible to assert as a general proposition . . . that dreams are wish fulfillment; indeed they seem to stamp any such proposition as an absurdity" (1900a, p. 135). Freud's answer to the puzzle about anxiety dreams holds fast to the basic principle of dream-formation: that even when the content of the dream is clearly distressing, its latent content involves fulfillment of a wish.

From this point of view, Freud analyzed one of Dora's dreams (1905e [1901]), a dream of Norbert Hanold in Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva" (1907a [1906]), a dream of "Little Hans" (1909b), and most noteworthy, the wolf dream of Sergeï Pankejeff, the "Wolf Man" (1918b [1914]). Freud returned at length to this thesis in the chapter on wish fulfillment in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-1917a [1915-1917]).

With respect to recurrent anxiety dreams in cases of traumatic neuroses, Freud altered his views somewhat in "Revision of Dream Theory," chapter 29 of New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a [1932]), where he asserted, "A dream is an attempt at the fulfillment of a wish. . . . In certain circumstances a dream is only able to put its intention into effect very incompletely, or must abandon it entirely. . . . While the sleeper is obliged to dream, because the relaxation of repression at night allows the upward pressure of the traumatic fixation to become active, there is a failure in the functioning of his dream work, which would like to transform the memory-traces of the traumatic event into the fulfillment of a wish" (p. 29). Although Freud did not highlight the change in this text, the fundamental revision to his theory of dreams perhaps came earlier, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g [1914]).

Roger Perron

See also: Anxiety; Dream.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

. (1905e [1901]). Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. SE, 7: 1-122.

. (1907a [1906]). Delusions and dreams in Jensen's "Gradiva." SE, 9: 1-95.

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

. (1916-1917a [1915-1917]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.

. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Further Reading

Eissler, Kurt R. (1966). A note on trauma, dream, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 21, 17-50.