Dream On
by Deborahann Smith

Here's how interpreting your dreams can enhance your physical and emotional well-being

collageWhile the assessment of dreams for health is just beginning to be recognized in scientific realms, tapping into our dreams — often called dream work — to understand more about ourselves is nothing new. In fact, the science of dream study for creative problem-solving and enhancing physical, psychological and spiritual health has been documented for centuries in cultures around the world.

Physicians in early Egypt and ancient Greece encouraged people to recall their dreams when seeking medical advice. Mexican and Native American shamans have long considered dream interpretation important for both healing and spiritual awareness. Tibetan medicine views dream work as a path to self-discovery, an awareness that can help create an inner balance — and inner balance contributes to good health.

The Stuff Dreams are Made Of
Everyone dreams. Research shows that our most vivid dreams occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a time when our brains are active, our eyes move back and forth rapidly beneath our lids and the large muscles of our body are relaxed. We experience REM sleep every 90­100 minutes — three or four times a night — with each subsequent REM period becoming longer as the night progresses. The last REM period of the evening can continue for as long as 45 minutes, after which is the easiest time to recall your dreams.

According to the Association for the Study of Dreams (ASD), based in McLean, Va., recalling and understanding dreams can be useful in learning about the dreamer's feelings, thoughts, behavior, motives and values. Montague Ullman, M.D., suggests that dream interpretation also taps into the dreamer's capacity to heal him- or herself. "Dreams present us with a unique therapeutic opportunity," he writes in Dreaming (1994, vol. 4). "To catch a glimpse of the self-healing potential of dream imagery ... comes the realization that self-healing occurs in the emotional as well as in the physical realm."

The Dream-Health Connection
Indeed, the study of dreams in relation to health is gaining acceptance in the scientific community. One study reveals that the role of REM sleep and noting dream variables may be significant in helping patients gain quicker remission from marital separation-related depression (Psychiatry Research, 1998, vol. 80). Other research finds that dream content reflects waking life stressors in people with insomnia. Several studies tracked cancer patients' dream series and reported that their dreams may have pointed to early cues for the presence of the disease process.

Katherine O'Connell, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, dream analyst and founder of the Dream Institute in Santa Cruz, Calif., says that "listening to dreams can save your life." She notes that dreams not only reveal symbols for health issues that need to be resolved, but they often reveal the herbal remedy for the problem — a method of medical dream work that dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece. For example, O'Connell finds that her clients often dream of flowers or herbs that are traditionally used to treat the ailments their physicians diagnose.

In her dream-work journey, O'Connell has studied dream medicine with Tibetan lamas and researched 3,500-year-old Egyptian homeopathic remedies used for dream recall. Through the process, she has also collected more than 5,000 dreams — her own and those of clients — for analysis.

O'Connell believes that viewing your dreams as a series is the best way to understand the complete picture of your physical and psychological health. She suggests writing your dreams down, then reviewing common threads that run through them. "I see dream work as a good mystery story with many chapters," she says. "With each chapter, we gain more clues along the way."

Cultivating Dream Awareness
To access the clues in your dreams, start with your knowledge of yourself. While dream symbol books can serve as loose guides, dream interpretation is really an individual matter. For example, the color green may represent money to your spouse but symbolize healing energy to you. Likewise, a spider can be your personal symbol of creativity whereas it may signal a venomous threat to someone else; similar dream images often have different interpretations for different people. So it's important to tap into your own associations, feelings and intuition about your dream symbols. "We have such innate wisdom. We must remember to trust ourselves," O'Connell says.

Want to be more in touch with your dreams? ASD offers the following tips:

  • Remind yourself to remember your dreams before you fall asleep.
  • Keep a pad of paper and pen or tape recorder by your bedside. As you awaken, try to move as little as possible and try not to think right away about your upcoming day. Instead, immediately write down your dreams and dream images, as they can fade quickly if not recorded.
  • Influence your dreams by giving yourself pre-sleep suggestions. Before going to bed, write down your agenda. Or say aloud what you want to know to strengthen the conscious-subconscious dream connection.
  • Forgo taking alcohol or stimulants such as coffee or caffeinated tea before bed, as these substances interfere with REM sleep. Also, try taking a warm bath with a few drops of chamomile or cedar essential oil (first diluted in a carrier oil such as almond or walnut), or try practicing a few minutes of meditation to clear your mind for restful sleep and clearer dreams.

    Dreams not only have the potential to enhance your health but, as Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz says, "Dreams show us how to find meaning in our lives, how to fulfill our own destiny and how to realize the greater potential of life within us."

Sweet dreams.

Deborahann Smith is the author of several books, including Work With What You Have: Ways to Creative & Meaningful Livelihood (Shambhala).

Illustration by: Keri Smith