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Stern, M.M. (1951). Pavor Nocturnus. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 32:302-309.

(1951). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 32:302-309

Pavor Nocturnus

Max M. Stern, M.D.

The problem of neurosis is the problem of anxiety. It is all the more remarkable that pavor nocturnus, which is one of the most striking manifestations of anxiety in human life, has been treated with some neglect in the literature. The anxiety experienced in pavor nocturnus—especially in its fully developed form, the nightmare—has been described as an agonizing experience of almost unimaginable intensity. 'Imagination cannot conceive the horrors and the incomprehensible dread of this experience' (Jones, 8). It rocks the foundations of psychic existence; it undermines the narcissistic belief in the permanence of one's own physical existence, and the confidence in the constancy of reality which is indispensable if capacity for action is to be maintained.

The tendency to repress the traumatic experience inherent in pavor nocturnus—a kind of retrograde amnesia—explains the meagreness of the patient's description, which is in striking contrast to the intensity of the anxiety he obviously has experienced. This repressive tendency corresponds to a similar attitude in the analyst: pavor nocturnus frequently tends to be overlooked. Yet pavor nocturnus is a universal and typical experience. This paper is based on the contention that it plays a central rôle in the psychic life. In children it represents the infantile trauma, which according to our clinical experience encompasses the triad of infantile masturbation, primal scene and pavor nocturnus.

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