By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Healthy & Green Living
Were you being chased in a dream last night? Did you find your teeth falling out, or worse, find yourself falling out of something? So maybe that wasn’t much fun, but if you remembered your dreams last night, good for you–you’re one step ahead in learning how to maximize the health benefits of dreaming.
Experts claim that our brains’ midnight shenanigans can give us insight to help heal emotional trauma and stress, improve our sleep, increase happiness and even help figure out problems in our lives. New studies suggest that dreams are part of a healthy emotional coping process–the thoughts that happen when we sleep combine recent events, hidden memories, hopes, and fears into a new mix, forging neural connections that might be impossible to attain while awake.
Along with basic emotional housekeeping, dreaming can help alleviate depression. In sleep studies of recently divorced women with untreated clinical depression, scientists found that patients who recalled dreams and incorporated the ex-spouse or relationship into their dreams scored better on tests of mood in the morning. And they were much more likely to recover from depression than others who either did not dream about the marriage or could not recall their dreams.
According to a report at MSNBC, recent brain scan studies show that regions active during dreaming are the same ones responsible for processing memories and emotions when we’re awake. Dreams, the new thinking goes, shape your self-image by helping you work through unresolved emotions from waking life. (For this reason, even unpleasant nightmares can be beneficial.) In fact, for a day or two after a significant life event—and again about a week later—hints of it show up in your dreams, according to a study at Canada’s University of Alberta. “Revisiting events in dreams helps reshape your understanding of them,” says study author Don Kuiken, PhD.
But the health benefits of dreams don’t just happen by themselves. You need to pitch in a bit–here are six tips that experts recommend to help you use your dreams to their full potential.
Next: Hold that thought!
1. Wake up Slowly
According to Sigmund Freud, the reason you struggle to remember your dreams is because the superego is at work protecting the conscious mind from the disturbing images and desires conjured by the unconscious. Sounds good in theory, but only by remembering dreams can we use them to help ourselves.
As soon as you wake up, stay in the same position, keep you eyes closed, and don’t let your mind start thinking about the day. You can wipe away memories of a dream in minutes (90 seconds, dream experts say)–and when you lose the dream, you lose the potential insight. When you’ve remembered everything you can, even if it’s just snippet, write down the dream’s details in a journal by your bed. Return to the journal later to reflect on what the dream might have meant, and pay attention to patterns, recurring themes, places and people over time.
Another quick tip for remembering your dreams? Each night when you are falling asleep, simply tell your self that you will remember your dreams.
Next: Reading the dream
2. Don’t Read Dreams Literally
Taking a dream literally doesn’t often help to gain insight–a dream about your partner cheating on you doesn’t mean your partner is cheating on you, or even that you are worried about it. Although often times it does indicate that your partner is spending too much time at work or might be otherwise distracted. Be loose in intrepeting your dreams, look for symbolic significance rather than literal.
Here are some of the most common themes in dreams, and possible interpretations:
Flying and Falling
Flying is usually a sign that you’re in control. The more adept you are at controlling your flight, the higher the chances are that you are feeling in control when awake. But if the flying turns to falling, or if the dream is all about falling, a loss of control is indicated. Falling is a sign that something is not going well–job, relationship, finances, etc. It is a good time to reflect upon what’s feeling slippery to you. Falling dreams are also common for people who suffer from depression.
Dream therapist Patrick Andries says that because teeth “process” food just as the brain digests new knowledge, losing your teeth can mean you’ve come across information that you aren’t quite ready to accept yet. Other dream specialists suggest that losing teeth signifies that you have been talking too freely, like gossipping or using blunt language.
Failing An Exam
This dream often takes places when you are feeling challenged by a life circumstance. Look at how you are being challenged or judged, and what you can do to relax and effectively prepare for what (or whom) you’re facing.
Next: Slay that Dragon!
3. Practice Dream Intervention
I mastered this one after too many nights of a recurring nightmare. Rather than letting that sinister little red race car chase me anymore (yes, a toy car, I think I was about 6 years old), I turned on my heels and told it to go away–at which point it slowed down, lost its menace, and became just another inert and stagnant toy car. Ever since I’ve been able to turn the tides on many a boogie man and turn falling into flying–although I only do it when things are getting too intense, otherwise I fear I may be losing out on some potent messages.
As it turns out, people who experience trauma–or even mild distress–in their lives often relive it while asleep. Many eventually acquire the ability to intervene in their own dreams. They can find a way to take charge of unpleasant subconscious images. You can learn to change the course of the dream, and can even ask the dream what it is telling you. To develop a similar mastery mindset, try “dream intervention”–before falling asleep think about the recurring dream or theme, think about ways to change it’s course or think about plans you can enact in your life to combat that which might be showing up as a nightmare.
Next: Be the star
4. Play all the Roles
Freud claimed that we represent each character in our dreams. One way this theory can be useful is to imagine yourself as each of the characters in the dream. For example, if a giant tree blowing in the wind is a predominant image in a dream, imagine yourself as that tree. What is your role as the tree? What is your purpose? How does it feel? What are the limitations? The joys? You might find that you relate to feelings of being rooted, strong, erect–but also might find that you feel stuck or limited somehow.
Next: Give it a title
5. Summarize your Dream
One way to summarize your dream is to quickly give it a title as if it were a movie or a book. Then hone in on what that exercise tells you, what aspect was important enough that it defines the whole dream?
Dream interpretation expert Reneau Peurifoy has another exercise in which you imagine that your were talking to someone new to Earth (yes, an alien). How would you describe your dream so that it made sense? Which parts would you emphasize and why? Write down your answers. Peurifoy suggests that this can help you recall details, zero in on unlikely but important aspects, and better interpret dream symbols.
Next: Make a plan
6. Let the Dreams Guide You
After you start remembering and understanding more of your dreams, you can work on identifying events and emotions from your life that may have inspired a dream. Then you can chart out ways in which to deal with those parts of your life. If your dream was inconclusive or ended in a way that you aren’t happy with, think about what ending you might like to see and how you can go about implementing that type of solution. Think about the resolutions you come up with in your dreams, or in response to your dreams, and ask yourself if the solution is healthy and practical? Listen to your dreams, use them to show you connections you hadn’t considered, let them guide you in making positive change in your waking life.