Dream analysis has been something talked about for, well, ever. Much of it is tied to the metaphysical, as with the prophets of old—something you see a lot of in many mythologies. And, of course, growing up you might have taken to Google to find out if there was any meaning to dreaming about certain animals, numbers, and so forth.
While that can be a fun activity, more often than not, it won’t provide you with much insight. That’s not to say, however, that analyzing your dreams can’t be a helpful tool when trying to figure out any underlying issues that might be plaguing your psyche.
In fact, dream analysis is often used in psychiatry, alongside other treatments, as a way to help treat many mental health diagnoses. We spoke to Jacques Jospitre, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and the co-founder of SohoMD, an online platform for mental health, about the real-life applications of dream analysis. Read on to discover how it can help people understand themselves better and even work through trauma—and what you can do if you can’t remember your dreams at all.
When most people think about dream analysis and interpretation, they tend to think of the more esoteric approach. How does the psychology behind it work, and how is it different?
The approach I take to analyzing people’s dreams is similar to my general process of understanding how they think. My goal is to understand the emotional tapestry of the patient. Early life events and meaningful milestones that have shaped their perception of self and their place in the world. Taking note of sources of shame and guilt serves as the fuel for the self-deception that happens within the dream landscape.
When a person describes a dream, the way they express it is as important as the dream content. There are typically patterns and symbolic meaning that is unique to the patient, and the goal is to guide the discussion to interpret the underlying message behind the visions and stories. At times, the underlying meaning is clear as day and other times it takes further discussion to get to the root thoughts. In the psychological approach, the safe environment and the freeflow thought process are used to unlock the meanings of the dreams. At times, it could be spiritual and transcendent, but that is left up to the patient to decide if it resonates with them. The goal is to be pragmatic in a way that the patients gain meaningful insights into themselves.
How can dreams provide insight into people’s emotions and thoughts?
The dream state allows an ideal setting for the free flow of thoughts and emotions. Charged material is packaged up in palatable ways that allow many things to come to light. It is like an emotional tell, where the patient reveals things they were not only hiding from the therapy process but more importantly, from themselves. The dream materials become great feedback for the work being done in the therapy and can also serve as a guide of what to focus on in future work.
The dream state allows an ideal setting for the free flow of thoughts and emotions.
Can analyzing dreams help people understand and work through mental illness, past traumas, or difficult experiences? Similarly, how can people apply that awareness to self-improvement?
There is a transcendent nature to dreams that goes beyond the world of psychiatric treatment. I stay away from that part, but heed the information as being connected to a person’s inner wisdom and acknowledge the words. That being said, my approach to mental illness starts with the biology, then the psychology and then the dream. In terms of biology, it’s getting the nutrition and endocrine right with patients along with possible psychopharmacology right for patients. Then it’s looking at therapy approaches that effectively address past trauma. We have good approaches for both of those steps and I do not think the dream analysis is a good substitute for either.
The dream information is really powerful, but there is a reality framework that must be addressed for efficient improvements in cases. In terms of awareness, I think that dreams or intuition can point people in the right direction to make those improvements. Not that the dream itself makes the change, but it can provide direction and insight into choices people might make in their care. The only challenge there is knowing when the direction is healthy and productive vs. unhealthy and self-destructive. This is where having a relationship with a therapist can help make sense of the dream material to sort out the source and potential benefit of the insights.
Are there any patterns or recurring themes in dreams that could indicate underlying issues or concerns? I think most of us have heard of naked dreams or teeth falling out being indicative of stress, but how much of that is true/useful?
There are patterns in dreams, especially among people from the same cultures. At the same time, the most important area to focus on is the unique perspective of the patients vs. trying to define an absolute meaning to their dream landscape. The subjective information is a rich area to work with while the objective interpretation is more hit-or-miss.
What if someone doesn’t remember their dreams at all, or forgets them very quickly? Is that any cause for concern?
B vitamin supplementation can be helpful to make dreams more vivid and easier to recall. Having the intention to remember your dreams can also help, where you place a notebook and pen by your bedside to take notes whenever you wake up. It is normal to also not remember your dreams and quickly forget them upon awakening. It would not be a cause for concern. Also, making sure you get enough sleep is important to helping you have your dream time in the first place.
Should dream analysis be used in conjunction with other therapeutic techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or mindfulness practices?
Dream analysis is just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to addressing your mental health. The information adds richness to the other talk therapy approaches that are being used to help you gain insights into yourself and make changes in your emotions and behaviors. At the same time, the starting point for all psychiatric treatment is looking at the biology first, then the psychology and finally adding the dream information. Dreams are powerful and analyzing them is a great way to augment best practices in mental health treatment.