Are dreams just a series of bizarre, amusing, or disturbing images that our sleeping minds create arbitrarily? Certainly not. While dreams can be as mysterious as the deep ocean or outer space, they definitely have meaning. When we go to sleep, our real world problems are still very much present and the unconscious mind explores them on a deeper level. The unconscious mind helps us to cope with our innermost conflicts represented through its own symbolic language. This valuable information about ourselves can change our lives for the better.
When interpreting dreams, one must consider two things: the latent meaning and the manifest meaning. The manifest meaning is the imagery and literal events of the dream. The latent meaning is the dream's true meaning that the unconscious mind is attempting to relay to the conscious mind. Everything is in symbols because that is the language of the unconscious mind. Many symbols have fixed meanings. How can this be? Well there are simply things that everybody dreams about. For example, dreams of falling, flying, riding the bus, weddings, teeth (mine always fall out in my dreams or go back to being crooked). Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung called these dream motifs. These motifs are part of the collective unconscious, which is the working ground for all human minds. Of course, one must also analyze the dream in the context of the dreamer's private life.
For instance, yellow can symbolize sunshine, intuition, or happiness to come among other things but the dreamer may not particularly like the color yellow so a dream dominated by this color may indicate negative feelings about the dream's subject matter. In order to get a good grasp on what your dreams mean, I encourage you to invest in a dream dictionary, which should contain a vast list of dream motifs and their ascribed meanings. A good one is Dreams and What They Mean to You by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler.
Have you heard the myth that eating ice cream before bed leads to nightmares? Well that's just what it is: a myth. However, overeating right before sleep can lead to a nightmare according to scientists. This may be because you go to sleep with negative feelings such as guilt or perhaps it is a way of the unconscious mind getting back at you for leaving a huge workload on the body during a time meant for rest. Drug abuse and sudden drug withdrawal can also lead to some particularly frightening nightmares. In some cases but not all, recurring nightmares are one of the first symptoms of an impending nervous breakdown, according to psychiatrists. Death by drowning in dreams can indicate mental health problems since deep water usually symbolizes the unconscious mind. Sidenote: I've had depression since a young age and remember as a child having recurrent dreams of drowning and waking up from them sobbing. If you experience any of this, it doesn't hurt to see a psychiatrist or therapist and talk about these issues.
What You can do about Nightmares
You can avoid disagreeable subjects such as morbid or scary films, books, etc before sleep so that the imagery does not appear in your dreams. Excessive worrying and anxiety will also cause nightmares. Try meditating or quieting the mind for at least 10 minutes before sleep. Meditation is a topic for another post but here are some quick tips:
- Lay or sit down comfortably with your hands at your sides and focus on your breath (Optional: pretend there is a mouth on your forehead and exhale through that)
- Quieting the mind is hard. If a thought appears, acknowledge it but try not to interact with it. Just watch it pass by from a distance.
- You can listen to binaural beats or use a guided meditation app if you are having trouble but try not to use them as a crutch.
Meditation can enhance your dreams, as well as many other aspects of life.
There is one more way to combat nightmares and that is to literally fight back. This requires some degree of control in your dreams though and by control I mean lucidity. A lucid dream is one in which you know you are dreaming during the dream and have free will as opposed to watching the dream unfold as if it were a movie.
There are various ways to train to become lucid in your dreams but the easiest method, in my opinion, and that does not involve sleep paralysis (more of a waking nightmare) is questioning your reality. Constantly ask yourself, "Am I dreaming?".
There are also certain things you can do in real life which don't really work in the dream world. These are called reality checks. 1. You can count your fingers because in the dream world you will usually have more or less.
- You can be extra aware of your surroundings; signs or any words you may find in a dream will read something different every time you look at them.
- You can also press your thumb into the palm of your opposite hand. This one is cool because in the dream world, your thumb will go through your hand!
- The last one is my favorite and preferred method. Hold your nose while simultaneously trying to inhale through your nose. It sounds silly but in the dream world you can still breathe while doing this because your dream self cannot stop your physical body from breathing.
Remember to do all/some of these things randomly throughout the day and ask yourself if you are dreaming. The trick is to turn it into a habit during your waking life so that it may carry over to your dream life. This is the passive method of lucid dreaming.
Now that you can lucid dream, you will inevitably someday have a lucid nightmare. Don't worry because it's not as scary as it sounds. Just fight back. Literally. If a dog bites you, bite it back! If you find yourself being chased by an ogre, turn around and chase it back! I took a different approach. I was being chased by a gang of robbers in a scary lucid dream once. All I did was stop running, turn around, and shouted, "I love you!" This actually confused the robbers and they stopped chasing me and left me alone.
Before I learned about this, I would just close my eyes (in the dream, which effectively ends it) if anything frightening began to happen. This escape is not recommended because the nightmare might come back to haunt you. That is why it is important to fight these demons because they represent all the problems that you fear and the negative qualities about yourself that you wish to overcome. Whenever you vanquish a threatening figure in a dream, you have successfully integrated a negative part of yourself and you can be sure that figure won't attack you again.
Lucid dreams can also be used to conquer your fears. You can use the dreamscape as a sort of testing ground. Maybe you have a fear of heights, fear of falling, fear of speaking in public. In the dream, and with a bit of practice, the possibilities are endless.
Let this be the beginning of your personal journal to interpret and even create your own dreams. Be sure to keep a dream journal so that you can look back on your experiences. This can help you better learn from them. Maybe there are commonalities. Maybe a motif keeps reoccurring. Dream journaling also improves dream quality by making them more vivid. Don't be discouraged if you can't remember most of your dreams; journaling will help with that as well.
I believe that in order to have a healthy mind, you must nurture all parts of it, including the unconscious mind. It's like trying to grow a plant by only focusing on the foliage. You must also take into account the unseen yet essential root structure in order to foster a completely healthy plant. Don't take my word for it, try some of these techniques yourself. Dive into the world of dreams tonight for a better and more sound mind tomorrow.