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Understanding Dreams

What are dreams?

Dreams are images and stories that appear to all of us as we sleep, much like the thoughts and daydreams that we have during the day. Everyone dreams. The dreams we are likely to remember occur during periods of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which we have several times each night.

What are the major characteristics of dreams?

  • Most dreams have in them several people familiar to the dreamer.
  • Most dreams have as their setting a building, home, or recreational area. Few take place at work.
  • Strong feelings (like fear or anger) may occur in dreams.
  • Dreams feel very real to the dreamer, who may be watching them or acting in them.
  • Things that happened the previous day often show up in dreams.

Why is it useful to understand dreams?

Since dreams contain thoughts that we are not usually aware of, some therapists believe that remembering our dreams can be useful in understanding ourselves better and even in solving our problems.

You may discover you have mixed feelings about a particular situation you thought you were sure about. For example, a man nearing retirement had a dream in which he went to his office and discovered it was completely empty. He was very angry and sad. Before he had the dream, he thought he had only happy feelings about retirement. Afterward, he realized retirement felt like a loss as well.

Dreams are not reality, but they provide important clues about how each of us sees reality. They also tell us about complicated parts of ourselves of which we may not otherwise be aware. Dreams can contain symbols of internal conflict. For example, the dreamer may have questions about his or her feelings or what to do about a situation. Most feelings in dreams are negative (dread, fear, confusion, anger, or sadness). Happy dreams are less frequent for most people.

Many psychotherapists agree with the following ideas about dreams:

  • The content of a dream may be related to the waking life of the dreamer.
  • Dreams may have important meaning.
  • Dreams may help resolve psychological conflicts.
  • Dreams help us stay asleep.

Why do some people forget their dreams?

Some people remember more dreams than others. Some people keep a dream journal and write in it each morning. Some people have trouble remembering dreams because they do not think they are important and do not pay attention to them. Others try to forget their dreams because they fear that remembering them might leave them with disturbing feelings. Or they worry that the angry or sad feelings the dreams stir up might linger on during their waking hours. Some people feel embarrassed about their dreams and would prefer not to think about them.

How can dreams best be understood?

In order to understand and learn from dreams, it is important not to take them too literally. The images and actions in dreams are often unrealistic and logically impossible. A therapist may be able to help you understand your dreams, but you are the expert on what they may mean because the symbols come from your mind.

To increase your chances of understanding a dream, follow these steps:

  • When you wake up, try to remember if you dreamed. Immediately write down the details of any dream you can remember.
  • Go over each part of the dream and write down any details you forgot to include the first time.
  • Relax and try to think of anything the dream reminds you of. This may be a memory from years ago or it may be something that happened recently.
  • Write down the memory or event that the dream reminds you of. What happened, where did it happen, how did you feel, who else was there?
  • Read over what you have written about the dream as many times as you wish, thinking about its message to you. Consider its relationship to other dreams you may have had recently, even dreams you may have had during the same night.
  • Allow the dream to speak for itself. If you try too hard to understand it, you will no longer be relaxed.

Sometimes understanding the meaning of a dream may come only after several days, or after you have had another dream that is clearer.

What is a lucid dream?

In some dreams, the dreamer is aware that she or he is dreaming, and may even attempt to influence what happens in the dream. These are called lucid dreams. People who dream in this way are more likely to recall their dreams.

When can dreams signal a problem?

It may be time to consult a therapist or healthcare provider when:

  • Your dreams are often nightmares which awaken you.
  • You have sleep problems related to your dreams.
  • You have a recurring dream that you do not understand.
  • You also have symptoms of anxiety or depression, such as loss of appetite, trouble concentrating, or loss of pleasure in usual activities.
Written by Lee Scheingold, MSW.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2009-01-29
Last reviewed: 2011-07-15
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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