Of course, after I have so proudly announced in my previous blog that I never have any sleep issues, good old insomnia ironically came knocking at my door for a few nights in a row! Tossing and turning, overthinking, annoyance at myself for not sleeping, stressing about lack of rest, and tiredness the following day… the whole package. Since this blog follows on from the previous one on the topic of dreaming, I sincerely hope I won’t be plagued by nightmares galore after submitting this one!
Let me go back to the importance of dreams in therapy. Confession time: I love it when clients bring up the dreams they have had recently in a session! In the current culture of psychotherapy the emphasis often falls on shorter-term evidence-based interventions, occasionally with a “fix it as fast as possible” methodology to it. This is again where some difficulty comes in with the conceptualisation of psychology as purely a behavioural science, as fitting in neatly with the medical model of diagnose-and-treat. Of course, as I have written in one of the earlier blogs, psychology is a science. But it is certainly a complex and complicated one! Additionally, it is also an art, which requires flexibility, creativity, warmth and a deep sense of humanity from both clinician and client. Hence, when a client utters those magical words “I want to tell you about a dream I have had” I start wagging my metaphorical psychology tail like a keen-as-can-be labrador!
Let us go back for a minute to the wonderful excerpt from Irvin Yalom’s work that I have quoted in my previous blog:
“Following Freud, I often imagined the dream weaver as a plump, jovial homunculus, living the good life amidst a forest of dendrites and axons. He sleeps by day, but at night, reclining on a cushion of buzzing synapses, he drinks honeyed nectar and lazily spins out dream sequences for his host…”
(Momma and the Meaning of Life, 1999, p. 87)
Of course there is no such thing as a minute mythical figure residing in our minds, spinning out dream videos for us to watch whilst fast asleep – but it certainly is a glorious image of a part of ourselves that stays active while the rest of our consciousness takes a break. The dream weaver is no external personae; on the contrary, the dream weaver is indeed I. Or at the very least a part of me – the part that is deeply observant, deeply feeling, deeply aware and mightily creative. I also like to believe that the dream weaver – even when a nightmare is spinned out – has my best interest at heart. In other words, my dreams are there to help me, not to destroy me.
The scientific function of dreaming is still not fully understood. Multiple theories abound, from dreams being instrumental in laying down memories when we are learning a new skill, to dreams helping with emotional regulation and problem-solving. According to Freudian psychology, dreams can give insight on fears, wishes and feelings that we would normally repress in our waking hours. And some theories say the complete opposite – that our dreams are just bizarre stories, completely fantastical and surreal, and fully devoid of any connection to our real lives.
When a client does bring a dream to work with, the first thing I usually do is to set the scene for our untangling of the dream material as a process that is explorative rather than definitive. In other words – there are no “right answers” or “correct interpretations”. We are just playing around with the contents of the dream, seeing what sits well, and what can be discarded as irrelevant and unimportant. I would say something along the lines of “Sometimes a dream is just a dream – we do not necessarily have to attach a lot of meaning to it… yet, the fact that you are putting this dream on the table in therapy indicates to me that it has at least some importance or meaning to you”. Then we would proceed to the following questions:
- What was the feeling in the dream?
- Does the dream remind you of anything else in your life?
- What are your associations to some of the dream images?
- Is the dream trying to tell you something?
It is of the utmost importance that the therapist does not dive into dream interpretation according to a general manual or dream symbol analysis book. The crux of the matter is what the dream images mean to the client. Not to the therapist. Not to a PhD student researching dream symbolism. Not to Dr Google. As a therapist I have often felt the temptation to jump in with a “this means that” interpretative style – and time and time again I have had to remind myself that this is not my dream, but my client’s. The fact that, for example, aeroplanes hold a certain meaning or connotation for me (e.g. connection, excitement, new adventures) does not mean that aeroplanes signify the same thing for someone else (e.g. loss, fear of the unknown, the end of an era, grief). Therefore it is of paramount importance to check in with the client: what does this mean to you?
Often exploring in this way can give valuable clues as to what is happening for the client: what feelings are prominent, what storylines come to front, what interpersonal dynamics are exposed. This insight does not necessarily fix a problem, but it often helps the dreamer grow in self-awareness and emotional maturity. Moreover, dream exploration can certainly be linked to other theoretical psychology paradigms: the dream images can give us the key to the core beliefs that are challenged in CBT, or the dominant storylines that are re-imagined in narrative therapy, or the unhelpful thoughts and feelings we have to grow around or make space for in ACT.
But what if I don’t dream, I can imagine someone asking. The answer is that you DO dream, you just do not remember it! In fact, dreams can be as slippery as a chunk of bath soap between your fingers – the moment you feel you’ve got it, it slips away out of reach as easily as a child’s helium-filled balloon drifting up in the air. We tend to dream mostly whilst in the REM phase of sleep, and will usually remember the dream only if we wake up while dreaming, which means that I probably won’t wake up in the morning and vividly remember a dream that happened at 2am. Interestingly enough, if we wake up with an alarm clock, we also tend not to remember our dreams. The reason is that the sound of the alarm makes our noradrenaline levels rise, attuning our brains to the sound of the alarm and taking the attention away from the dream. Therefore, waking up without an alarm clock might increase the chances of remembering dreams. Following from this, the seemingly old-wives-tales-ish suggestion that drinking 3 glasses of water just before bedtime will make you remember your dreams, makes sense: if you drink that much fluid, you will wake up more regularly in the night to go the toilet. These toilet wake-ups often happen just as we get out of the REM part of the cycle, making it more likely that the dream will be very fresh and not already disappearing into obscurity. Further suggestions to improve remembering dreams is to take it slowly when waking up (rather than dashing out of bed). Keeping your eyes closed a bit longer, or allowing yourself to drift in the twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness, or returning to your usual sleep position (e.g. on your right side) could be helpful. Interestingly, many people report that repeating to themselves just before drifting off “I will remember my dreams” improves their ability to recall their dream weaver’s stories the next morning. Jotting down some pictures from the dream on a piece of paper or in a journal the moment you wake up is also a good idea. All these techniques are versions of the same dynamic of limiting time and distance between the dream and trying to remember it: tie up the rope of the boat as fast as you can, because the moment your attention shifts elsewhere, the boat will inevitably drift away.
Dreaming can be unpredictable, surprising, sometimes entertaining, sometimes frightening. But most of all, it is a little bit magical. The dream weaver’s gifts – be they sweet or of the nightmarish type – usually reveal the secrets of our hearts, and can instruct us into deeper understanding of ourselves and the paths we choose.
Deciphering the message of the dream in therapy is a little bit magical too.
So… what did you dream last night?
Felix & Sage Psychology