Freud called them ‘the royal road to the unconscious’, but what do our dreams really mean, and can they help to manage our mental health?
I’m walking around a labyrinth of a building, looking for a bathroom, but when I finally find it the cubicles either don’t have doors or the toilets are so dirty I can’t use them. Thankfully, I’m not talking about real life – I’m talking about a recurrent dream I have.
Dreams have fascinated us for centuries. In 1900, founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud released The Interpretation of Dreams, detailing the meaning of dreams and how they relate to mental health. Opinions vary, but many psychotherapists continue to see value in working with dreams, believing they’re crucial for our emotional health.
One theory suggests that anxiety-inducing dreams can help us deal with real-world issues. A study carried out in October 2019 asked participants to track their dreams, and tested their reactions to emotionally-jarring images. Researchers found that those reporting a higher incidence of fear in their dreams showed “reduced emotional arousal” while awake.
A separate study found a connection between the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep we get and our ability to cope with anxiety. Researchers concluded that the more REM sleep subjects got, “the weaker the fear-related effect”. Getting good quality REM sleep could be a key tool in managing anxiety and stress.
What can our dreams tell us?
So we know a little more about the potential reasons why we dream, but what do the dreams themselves actually mean? I spoke to counsellor Will Leifer to find out what our dreams can mean, and their link to mental health.
“Quite simply, dreams tell us the emotional truth of our lives. How we are experiencing life.”
Not a subscriber of Freud’s ideas surrounding dream interpretation, Will explains that he does agree with his famous quote, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious” – if the ‘unconscious’ means deep feelings we have about the situations in our lives that we struggle to pay attention to. Paying attention to our dreams, then, could help us connect with our unconscious.
There are certain dreams many of us share, from my recurring toilet nightmare to dreaming that your teeth are falling out. Google these dreams and you’ll find long lists of interpretations, but Will warns us that generic definitions aren’t always useful.
“I think, to understand what a dream means you always have to ask the dreamer themselves some questions, it’s very individual.
“Imagine someone dreamt of an alsatian, for example. If you ask people about alsatians, one will tell you: ‘They are fearsome, terrifying dogs. I don’t go near them.’ But another will say: ‘Alsatians, are the most wonderful, loyal dogs. I had an alsatian when I was a teenager.’ Now, if both these people dream of alsatians, the meaning would clearly be totally different.”
Asking yourself what you believe the dream means may be more valuable than Googling symbolism. Will also highlights that if you’re having regular nightmares, you might want to consider if something needs changing in your life. “A nightmare is the dreaming brain’s way of screaming at you ‘Hey, this problem really needs attention’ if it feels you haven’t been listening!”
If you’re having ongoing nightmares about something that really happened to you, this could be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and is worth checking with a mental health professional.
How can our dreams support our mental health?
Seeing as our dreams can tell us so much, it makes sense that we use this knowledge to support our mental health. Building self-awareness, recording our dreams can help us get in touch with our emotional life.
A simple technique Will suggests is tracking the ‘feeling journey’ of your dream. For example, do you start the dream feeling happy, become bored, then anxious as the dream ends? Or do you start feeling sad, progress through worry, and end with a sense of love?
Consider the week you’ve had, and whether the same sequence of feelings takes place in your waking life. “If it does, the connection between that situation and what happened in the dream is often immediately obvious,” Will says. “Dreams help us connect more deeply to the emotional meanings behind the events of our daily lives.”
Another avenue to explore is lucid dreaming; when you know you’re dreaming and can take control of what happens. Will says this offers us a chance to get to know parts of ourselves we normally avoid. If you’re running away from someone in your dream for example, you could take the opportunity to turn around and talk.
“As a therapist, I often think therapy can be described as ‘making friends with yourself’. I can’t think of many more profound opportunities to do that than in this scenario. Dreams can become a crucial part of any journey towards emotional health and wholeness, for anyone who wants to explore them.”
Right, with all that in mind… who else is feeling ready for bed?