Ever wonder why you keep having the same dream over and over again, what your nightmares actually mean and why some dreams seem downright wacky?
For most of us, dreams are a mystery. They make little sense — if we can recall them in the first place. Heck, some of us don’t even think we dream (hint: we do).
Here, psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber, who studied global dream mythology at Harvard University and Jungian dream interpretation at the Jung Institute in Zurich, provides insight into some of the most common questions about dreams.
Does everyone dream?
A: While it is biologically the case that we all dream at some point in our sleep, there are those who adamantly claim they do not and have never before dreamed. It is true that there are those who have great difficulty remembering their dreams; however, this has more to do with other factors than simply “not” dreaming.
Some folks have resistance to facing the growth content offered by our unconscious through our dreams. Others simply do the work on a trickledown basis and prefer to grow at a much more subtle, drip, drip, drip basis. I believe that humans must dream as it is one of our body’s natural responses to stress, anxiety and fear.
Why do people have recurring dreams?
A: I believe we all have unique lessons to learn in our life and sometimes these lessons are lifelong. Recurring dreams tend to build upon a particular theme and typically change subtly as we grow into a different understanding of ourselves as well as the obstacles we face.
Careful scrutiny of the dream content tends to reveal tiny changes to the narrative we would at times like to believe is “exactly the same.” Recurring dreams can be a useful barometer for our own growth and development.
Pay attention to the nuances of your recurring dreams as these small changes can offer the greatest lessons.
What do nightmares mean?
A: Nightmares tend to suggest that we are needing to deal with something that generates fear in our self. They can also be a way to release these fears depending on how we respond to the dream itself.
If I have a terrible nightmare and I try to forget it as soon as I wake up because it was so traumatic, it is likely it will recur because I am not using the dream material to learn and grow. Nightmares are rarely prescriptive, meaning they are not signs that something bad will happen.
On the other hand, nightmares exist to shake us up so that we spring into action by confronting the root fear, addressing the anxiety, or finding a good therapist. ☺
Why do we have nightmares?
A: As I suggested, nightmares are a natural response to fear and anxiety and while they don’t feel very good in the moment, they are releasing pressure for our psyche to operate with less anxiety.
Nightmares are a call to action. Ask yourself: “What am I afraid of?” “What does this dream suggest about me right now?” “What can I do to learn more about the root fear that this nightmare reveals?”
Why is that our dreams rarely follow a logical pattern (e.g., familiar people take on different faces)?
A: Most of us do not think in linear patterns. If I did, then A+B will always = C, right? So, by that measure, if I am overweight and I can reduce excess body fat through diet and exercise, then I will automatically assume a rigorous detail of diet and exercise, correct? Not often the case!
This is largely due to the fact that the vast majority of humans think in abstract ways through nonlinear cycles. We like to believe we are logical beings; however, we spend most of our waking hours moving in illogical patterns.
Therefore, our dreams are a reflection of this unconscious splatter of thoughts and actions. If we were truly logical beings, we would move through life like robots and outside science fiction, robots don’t dream.
Can people control their dreams?
A: If you can control everything you do, say and think during your waking life then you have a great shot at controlling your dreams. There are, however, a number of people who have the ability to influence their dreams.
I can focus my thoughts and intentions surrounding my sleep to inject my consciousness with particular thoughts and ideas and therefore imprint my unconscious mind.
We can typically return to a favorable or curious dream from the past by lying in bed before sleep and replaying as much of the old dream as we remember. The key in this process, however, is to identify oneself with the feeling of the former dream and fall into a similar place before falling into sleep.
How often do we dream?
A: Most of us dream every night and most of us dream throughout our various sleep cycles; however, researchers have suggested that the most vivid and memorable dreams occur during the REM cycle.
What are common myths about dreaming?
A: The most common myth about dreaming is that some of us don’t dream. The next most common myth is that if I die in my sleep that I’ll never wake up. This death dream is more about our overall anxiety and confusion about death and less to do with any reality about dreaming.
When analyzing dreams, what should we pay attention to?
A: Always pay attention to how you are feeling before, during and after a significant dream. Also, take careful note of who are the main figures in a dream and ask yourself what your relationship with these figures are in the dream and outside of the dream.
Be careful when relying on dream books to interpret your own dreams as there are many misconceptions to be had with regard to the collective unconscious. Just because a dream book says that if you dream about a snake then you must be dealing with change or transformation it doesn’t necessarily mean that is exactly the reason you are dreaming about it tonight.
We have very personal associations and understandings with symbols in life and there are also some universal understandings to be had; however, they don’t always mesh.
For more on dream analysis, check out this article, where Sumber offers additional insight.