Working with dreams in therapy

Emily Whitton
By Emily Whitton,
updated on Jan 11, 2024

Person shows a woman falling in her sleep with purple background.

Are you curious about what your dreams might be trying to tell you? We explore the use of dream work in psychotherapy

Dream analysis is having a bit of a moment right now. With 693 million views on the social media platform TikTok, the hashtag ‘#dreamtok’ sees people sharing their dreams, from the weird to the wonderful, as they try to decipher their meanings. But what exactly is dream analysis and what are the benefits of working with dreams in therapy? 

Understanding dreams

Did you know that the average person spends about two hours a night dreaming? We can also have multiple dreams each night – up to five or six, or perhaps even more! That might come as a surprise to many of us, given that we often struggle to recall what we’ve dreamt about when we wake up. 

According to the Sleep Foundation, the stage of sleep that we wake from can influence how likely we are to remember our dreams. For example, people who wake up immediately after REM (rapid eye movement) sleep are more likely to report dreams, and they’re likely to be more vivid during this sleep stage. On the other hand, it’s generally harder to remember our dreams if we’ve woken up from deep sleep. 

We’re all likely to have had at least one of those mornings where we wake up feeling confused or disorientated as we come to the realisation that our perceived reality was, in fact, a dream. For those of us who are perhaps less tuned into spirituality, it can be easy to pass these off as “just a dream,” but what if they were actually trying to tell us something? Whilst there’s still a lot of research to be done to evaluate the science behind dream work, many of us are, to some degree, curious about what it has to offer.

What is dream work? 

In summary, dream work or dream analysis is the process of unpacking the meaning behind a dream, no matter how odd it might seem on the surface. This can help us gain greater self-awareness, grow and find direction in life. Some people may wish to feel a stronger sense of control so much so that they try to actively influence their dreams, known as lucid or conscious dreaming

Many people interested in dream analysis find ways to try to understand the meaning of their dreams by keeping a dream journal and learning the various meanings behind common symbols. These are specific elements of a dream that are thought to have personal significance (for example, seeing a house or room is thought to be connected to unexplored aspects of yourself). However, sometimes dreams can appear alongside events that have occurred in our lives and, often, it can be incredibly therapeutic to work with a professional to help us move forward. 

Why work with dreams in therapy? 

Dream work is a technique that is more commonly being used in psychotherapy – also known as talk therapy – which helps people improve their mental health and overcome emotional challenges. For this reason, dream work can be an effective approach for people who might be facing a mental block, or need help in solving a problem or reaching a decision.

Analysing dreams was first used in psychotherapy by Sigmund Freud in his 1900 book, The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud argued that dreams are an attempt to fulfil a wish or bring repressed wishes to the subconscious mind. Since then, dream work has gone on to be used in a number of frameworks, particularly Gestalt therapy and Jungian analysis. 

Rather than trying to interpret dreams, many therapists will instead help their clients explore what their dream means to them. As the meanings start to come to the client’s awareness, it can help to shift their perspective and help them get unstuck. In many cases, as outlined in a Clinical Psychology Review article, dream work can provide a holistic approach to healing, offering the client guidance that they can then carry through day-to-day life. 

Used as a way to better connect with ourselves, dream work is thought to become the next big mental health trend. Identifying our needs allows us to be better equipt to deal with life, notes counsellor Alexandra Weir. In her article, ‘The importance of dream work in therapy,’ Alexandra talks about the benefits of working with dreams in counselling, including the facilitation of a safe space to explore these deep-rooted emotions. “I made space for these feelings within the counselling room. I actively chose to face my fears whilst being supported by a therapist.”

Many of us are still (quite literally) a little in the dark when it comes to understanding the significance of our dreams but it’s clear that it’s beginning to become more mainstream. So, with this in mind, why not get curious and see where your dreams take you?

If you’re interested in working through your dreams with a counsellor, head to Counselling Directory where you can find a list of dream work therapists.

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