Do you value your dreams? I’m not talking about your life goals and aspirations—which are extremely important—I’m talking about the artistic production of your subconscious mind after you fall asleep. In this article, I want to push back against the notion that dreams are meaningless, forgettable phenomenon, and share some pro tips for using them to promote physical and emotional healing via dream therapy.
The view that dreams represent no more than random electrical activity could only be proposed by people who have never remembered any of their emotionally significant ones. Most normal people are generally able to see the relevance of at least some of their nocturnal dramas. As stated above, while dreaming, the limbic region will usually be highly active. If we are dreaming about something unpleasant or threatening, this can be associated with feelings of anger which go with fight, the anxiety associated with flight, or the despair associated with freezing.James Alexander, “The Hidden Psychology of Pain”
Have you ever noticed that dreams almost always carry an emotional charge? And I’m talking about the dreams that you remember. We all dream whether or not we remember. Dreams are an attempt by the subconscious mind to process our lived experiences. This is partially why sleep is so vital. When we don’t get adequate sleep, we are deprived of the healing power of dreams.
Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.Austrian Neurologist Sigmund Freud
Dream therapy is a healing modality dedicated to dream exploration and analysis. The idea is that by consciously remembering, writing down, and analyzing our dreams we can gain valuable insight into the emotional and physical stressors of our lives, thereby enabling us to better address unresolved issues. It helps to keep a journal or notepad close to the bed for this purpose because many dreams are forgotten after going back to sleep or proceeding with the day. There are also dream journal smart phone apps expressly for this purpose. If you don’t currently remember your dreams, start paying attention. Many people, including myself, have found that when they start paying attention to their dreams they are able to remember them with greater frequency.
People will often report that with this additional focus on dreams, their dream life becomes more active, emotionally alive, and vivid.James Alexander, “The Hidden Psychology of Pain.”
In “The Hidden Psychology of Pain” Australian psychologist James Alexander dedicated chapter 11 to the “Healing Power of Dreams.” In it, he talks about how we dream during the REM stage (rapid eye-movement) and how this stage is crucial for mental health and cognition. People deprived of REM sleep due to lack of sleep, drug use, etc. exhibit deterioration in cognitive and emotional faculties. Mindbody doctors, like James Alexander, routinely promote dream awareness to resolve the emotional issues that lie at the heart of physical pain and ailments.
It may be that as we become more conscious of what is going on in our dream state, the emotional pressure that can drive chronic pain is finding another outlet for expression.James Alexander, “The Hidden Psychology of Pain”
Alexander also dedicates a section of chapter 11 to “dream seeding.” Dream seeding is when we consciously bring unresolved issues to our mind before bed that we want our subconscious mind to work on as we sleep. We don’t try to solve the issues ourselves—we simply bring them to the fore.
[Dream seeding] is not so much telling your unconscious how to end a dream (resulting in a preferred outcome, or resolution), but is more about setting up the conditions for the dream to allow your natural healing capacities to come to the fore. Our mind/brain has an incredibly creative capacity for working out answers to emotional problems without our deliberate instruction. When preparing for bed, you can start the dream-seeding process by choosing to think about the situation or person, the place or incident which you feel is still unfinished or disturbing within you. There is no need to script or dictate what will happen in the dream, but you can think about key elements which you feel are highly relevant. Get a sense of what elements are the most important—people, places, situations, the time in your life, etc.James Alexander, “The Hidden Psychology of Pain
Another term for dream seeding is dream incubation. Dream incubation famously has been used not only for healing, but for problem-solving. Here is a fascinating excerpt on dream incubation from Wikipedia (link).
In a study at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Deirdre Barret had her students focus on a problem, such as an unsolved homework assignment or other objective problem, before going to sleep each night for a week. She found that it was certainly possible to come up with novel solutions in dreams that were both satisfactory to the dreamer and rated as objectively solving the problem by an outside observer. In her study, two-thirds of participants had dreams that addressed their chosen problem and one-third reached some form of solution within their dreams.
Chapter 11 is rather lengthy and insightful. If you want to read more about the connection between the mind, emotions, and physical health, I recommend grabbing a copy of The Hidden Psychology of Pain. It is a massive book (~500 pages) written for non-experts that I have benefited extensively from over the years. Here are a couple more memorable quotes that shed insight on dream therapy for those just getting started.
You may need to think creatively about the symbolism inherent in your dreams. Some of your dreams will be quite literal, but many will be symbolic representations of other experiences which may or may not be readily apparent. Try to look for what the dream is representing, and use the emotions which are generated in the dreams as a clue. . .James Alexander, “The Hidden Psychology of Pain”
When embarking on this process, it may also be that your dreams become more threatening or disturbing. With the help of the questions posed in the last chapter, there is a good chance that you are becoming more aware of past hurts and repressed emotions.James Alexander, “The Hidden Psychology of Pain”
My primary motivation for dream therapy is physical and emotional healing. If that weren’t enough, Psych Central identified 7 benefits of the discipline: 1) conscious and subconscious balancing; 2) insight into mood; 3) exploring symbolism; 4) sparks creativity; 5) addressing chronic nightmares; 6) positive self-care ritual; and 7) internal conflict awareness (link).
Take that for what it’s worth.