Kyle has been waking up in a cold sweat for the past month, only to dread going to sleep the next evening because of being terrified that he’ll go through it all over again. His dreams — nightmares to be exact — feel so real, and even though he knows its irrational, he is scared that he won’t wake up. His girlfriend tells him that he needs to meditate before bed and stop watching horror films. Kyle has tried that for the past two weeks, but the dreams are still there.
Marisol has had consistent and recurring dreams involving the beach and water for as long as she can remember. At times she and her husband and their two children are simply playing oceanside, at the beach enjoying one another’s company. Other times she is trying to get to the beach but is obstructed by something — she can’t find her keys, she forgets the way, or, ironically, the street she needs take to get there is blocked…by water from a flood. In her particularly troubling dreams, Marisol is alone in a house by the ocean, and the water is slamming into the house threatening to overtake it and her. She’s certain that all of these are meaningfully connected both to her present and historical struggles, but she’s just not sure how.
Jenna used to have wonderful dreams before she gave birth to her son. Now, some 3 months post-partum, every night she’s plagued by dreams about someone hurting her little boy. Each time she wakes up, she runs to his crib to make sure he is okay, only to find him safe and fast asleep. Sadly, in the past few dreams, the person hurting her son was actually her. She is mortified by the thought of hurting him and would never actually do it. But she can’t help but wonder whether her dreams are trying to tell her something.
Raj feels hopeless. Last month he returned from his last deployment overseas with the United States Army. Even though he witnesses quite a lot of death and feared for his life, people seem to think he’s adjusting well . In fact, upon returning to the U.S., a mental health practitioner gave him a clean bill of mental health and reported no signs of PTSD. And while it’s true he’s not having flashbacks or ongoing anxiety, he didn’t tell the practitioner the whole story. Three or four nights a week, Raj’s dream life is filled with the same panic and fear for his life he experienced in the Middle East, complete with the sound of bullets whizzing past his head and bombs going off nearby. Last night, he even dreamed he was holding his Captain’s throat to stop it from bleeding after he’d been hit by a piece of shrapnel. When he woke up, he was sure he’d have blood on his hands, but they were just covered in sweat. He keeps telling himself the dreams will go away, but even he isn’t convinced.
What are dreams?
Dreams are images, smells, thoughts, etc. that we have while sleeping. They usually occur during the active REM stage of sleep. Many people can remember their dreams, while others seem to have a harder time. Science shows that if a person wakes up during their REM cycle, they will have a better recollection of their dreams.
Are Dreams Important? Do I Need to Interpret My Dreams?
The simple answer is yes! This isn’t to say that too much late night pizza and mountain dew can never produce a stray, meaningless dream, but simply that humans have been focusing on their dreams for quite some time. History and literature are replete with examples of important figures or characters who interacted with their dreams such as the biblical portrayals of King Nebuchadnezzar, and Joseph, Agamemnon in Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens‘ work, A Christmas Carol, and Winston Smith in George Orwell‘s novel, 1984, who is afraid that he’ll be in trouble with the Thought Police because of his dreams.
Even before dream interpretation was commonplace in therapy, humans believed that dreams were helpful on a cognitive and spiritual level. Dream analysis (or interpretation) has been used in psychotherapy since the time of Freud, and is still utilized today.
What are the Benefits of Understanding My Dreams?
Interestingly, research has shown that people who interpret their dreams have better self-awareness. The higher the person’s self-awareness, the higher their willingness to alter their behaviors, which may ultimately lead to more satisfying life outcomes. By interpreting their dreams, people connect to certain emotional states that they are consciously and unconsciously repressing. More importantly, approximately 70% of clients who work with dream analysis experienced life improvements!
What’s more, researchers have found that persons with severe trauma and eating disorders actually enjoy working with their dreams! This may be at least partially informed by the fact that dreams are…well, dreams. Because they aren’t actually “reality,” some persons are more quickly able to connect with negative emotions they experience in dreams, whereas if they experienced these same emotions in real-life, they’d tend to distance themselves from them. In other words, the emotional dream state is easier to grapple with than the person’s actual present real-life emotional state. Once people comfortable connecting with dream-state emotions, they can transfer to their present moment emotions.
What are the different approaches to working with dreams?
Many different kinds of therapists believe that working with dreams is important. Following is a list of some fairly typical approaches, depending on the kind of therapist you go to. This is not an exhaustive list, but it does detail the most widely used dream interpretation techniques:
Psychodynamic therapists ask their clients to begin talking about the dream and then enter into a state of free association, a process where the says everything that enters into their mind as they describe the dream, without filter and without worrying about whether it seems connected. To the untrained eye, what comes out may seem like a maze of unassociated words, but psychodynamic therapists help clients to discern the underlying emotions, thoughts, and meanings of the dream become present.
Cognitive therapists connect dream images to the clients’ schemas (patterns of thought) about themselves, their worlds, and their futures. Additionally, they look at the ways clients’ dreams display patterns that may be present in every day life, and collaborate with clients to understand how people, situations, objects, and feelings evoked in dreams may be representative of the way the think about important matters in their waking worlds. Because dreams may reveal things that clients don’t know, or don’t wish others to know, this process may unearth thought patterns that had not been discussed in therapy previously.
Gestalt therapists link clients’ present-moment bodily sensations to the dream. By talking about the images, smells, emotions, etc. in clients’ dreams, while at the same time focusing on clients’ present bodily sensations, a dream’s metaphorical meaning can appear. Many Gestalt therapists also view dreams as representations of how the client is rejecting aspects of themselves, giving clients an opportunity to begin work at accepting themselves more fully.
Integrative therapists use a number of different approaches with dreams. Among them the Dream Interview Model (DMI) and the Cognitive-Experiential Model of Dream Interpretation. DMI has three stages: 1) It connects the clients’ dream images to their present behavior, and the client explains major dream themes. 2) From there, the client and therapist work together to formulate how these major dream themes correlate with the clients’ problem as they presented it at the outset of therapy. 3) The client then takes this new-found information into the real world and attempts to apply its insights maladaptive behavior patterns.
The Cognitive-Experiential Model of Dream Interpretation asks the client to recount the dream in the present, rather than the past, tense. In so doing, clients more fully connect with emotions that arise as they speak about the dream in real-time. The therapist helps the client explore the meaning behind the emotions, and what components of their waking lives those emotions and meanings seem to be pointing to. Finally, the client takes the new information and uses it to rework their way of thinking about themselves and their situations.
Practical Suggestions for Right Now
Many people in St. Louis wonder whether it’s worth going through the effort of therapy simply to examine dreams, and whether they really need help interpreting dreams. We understand! In fact, some dreams are so ridiculously straightforward that you certainly don’t need outside help. On the other hand, more complex dream patterns, long-standing or recurring dreams, and particularly frightening or otherwise troubling dreams may in fact need the help of a St. Louis counselor. While you’re trying to determine where you fit, here are some steps to try on your own.
- Create a dream log. The moment you wake up, take a few moments to jot down anything you remember from your dream. If you don’t remember much, record that in the log as well. You may discover that during certain seasons, days of the week, or other times of the year, your dreams are more vivid.
- Buy a dream interpretation book for the fun of it. There are so many dream analysis books available, and it’s hard to know whether you can trust the individual doing the interpreting. One fun book is The Ultimate Dictionary of Dream Language (by Briceida Ryan). NOTE: Remember that the book will give you suggestions as to what your dreams may mean — don’t take it as a sole indicator of the truth!
- Sit down with a friend and talk through your dreams. At times, dream images can be very vivid and scary. Many people may believe that they are the only ones who experiences uncomfortable dream imagery. By discussing dreams with friends, we often discover that we are not alone. That realization in itself can go along way to reducing dream-related discomfort, let alone if our friends have any helpful bits of insight based on their knowledge of us.
- Have items next to your bed that reduce your anxiety. If you’re feeling particularly troubled by your dreams to the extent that it causes you anxiety, there are a number of things you do to reduce that, simply by way of association. Keep things nearby that provide you comfort — maybe it’s your favorite scent, a small stuffed animal, or your favorite music. Other people find pictures, books (such as books of poetry or sacred or religious texts), religious icons, etc. comforting. By connecting with these items to your sleep area and your efforts to sleep themselves, you can help reduce the discomfort you may feel upon attempting to go sleep or on waking.
- Meditate before bed. There are many guided sleep meditations available online and in smart phone apps that could help reduce your anxiety before you fall into a dream state. One of our favorites at Change, Inc. St. Louis counseling is the app, Simply Being. By being in a relaxed state before you fall asleep, your dreams may become less intense.
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