While a good dream can start the day blissfully, a bad one can leave you rattled for hours – wondering exactly why you dreamt about delivering a work presentation, stark naked, in front of an audience of your exes.
As unpleasant as bad ones can feel though, dream psychologists believe dreams can reveal a lot about our mental wellbeing – and ignoring the key psychological ‘clues’ our dreams are trying to tell us could have unhealthy consequences, preventing us from addressing anxieties and stresses in our waking life.
Why do we dream?
"Everyone dreams," says dream psychologist Ian Wallace. "It’s a biological necessity, and people who think they don’t dream are actually just not remembering their dreams when they wake up."
Wallace, whose work with dreams forms a fundamental part of his psychology practice, says he’s always been fascinated by their practical application, and how observing them can help us to achieve our waking life goals and ambitions.
"As humans, we sleep in 90 minute cycles – or so-called ultradian rhythms – and in each of those cycles we have one dream episode."
If you manage to sleep for seven-and-a-half hours per night, Wallace says you’ll have around five dream episodes in total. At the start of the night, those episodes are usually quite short and fragmented – maybe 10-15 minutes – but by the time you reach the morning, they might be more like 40 or 45 minutes long.
"We spend about two hours per night dreaming – a twelfth of our entire lives in total," says Wallace. "People often say, ‘Nobody knows why we dream’, but that’s nonsense. In the 1970s, experiments at UCSF California medical school found that when we’re awake, we’re only consciously aware of around 2% of what we’re actually experiencing.
"Most of that other 98% of unconscious awareness is emotional, so we’re absorbing a huge amount of emotional experiential information during the day," says Wallace. "Our brain has to do something with it.
"The fundamental function of dreaming is to process our emotions – understanding our sense of self, who we are, our needs and beliefs. We’re also using that time to consolidate our memories. People often think of dreams as a series of images, but they’re actually a flow of emotions."
What do frequent nightmares actually mean?
If you have a certain nightmare over and over again, your subconscious may be trying to tell you something important. "Nightmares are the brain working through emotions," says Wallace.
"Mental health is fundamentally emotional, so when you create something that’s a bit nightmarish or disturbing, you’re processing some really powerful emotions.
"In the same way that if we get caught in a stressful emotional situation in life, we might try to run away from it, we do exactly the same thing when we force ourselves to wake up from a nightmare."
What kind of dreams might indicate you need to pay attention to something?
"It really depends in the source of anxiety, stress or depression," says Wallace. "There will often will be a sense of being out of control, or having things happening that might be quite powerful, and often quite violent." He says that you might find yourself caught up in a thunderstorm, a tsunami or whirlwind, and the dream might also be quite dark and shadowy in appearance.
"One of the most common dream scenarios is someone trying to find their way home," says Wallace. "The number one dream image is the house, and the reason we so often see them in dreams is that we use the house as a symbol to represent the self; they have insides and outsides just like us.
"If you dream that you can’t find your way home, it might be that you’re trying to reconnect with who you are. Perhaps you’re adopting a persona on the outside world to fit in and make sure everyone likes you? This can cause a tremendous amount of hidden stress over time, contributing to nightmares," Wallace explains.
What other common dream themes might crop up?
"Dreams are often about identity, because we’re figuring out who we are and what we need, and the beliefs and perspectives we hold," says Wallace. "If you feel unfulfilled, undervalued or not the person you want to be in waking life, your dreams will often reflect that.
"For example, people who are very successful and real perfectionists often have dreams that they're unprepared for an exam. These are often the last people who would be unprepared for anything, but if you look at it as a symbol, an exam is essentially a way of judging something. People who have this type of dream are endlessly examining their abilities."
Wallace says being naked in public is the fourth most common dream people tend to have, and usually occurs when we feel exposed and vulnerable in an alien situation – like a new job or relationship.
"The reason the dreamer creates the vision of nakedness is because we use our clothing to present an image to other people about who we are. When you're naked, you feel like you’ve lost control of your self-image and people can see the real you."
In processing our emotions, Wallace says dreams are actually doing helpful work – helping reduce stress, anxiety and depression. "That said, because dreams are an overlooked strand of psychology, people just tend to think, 'Oh it’s a bad dream’, and they don’t actually engage with the imagery and do something proactive with it."
How can you be more in tune with your dreams?
So, how could we be proactive? "Dream journals can be helpful. When you wake up, you could scribble down some important things from the dream – or it might be easier to record yourself recounting the dream on your phone," says Wallace.
Over a period of time, you’ll generally start to see themes emerging. "Usually these will be in tandem with large emotional arcs in your life," adds Wallace.
What’s really important is that you take notice of any trends. "It’s no good just letting these dreams go by, because if you don’t listen to the messages, you’ll begin to have recurring dreams."
This is when you see the same symbols come back again and again, which can happen for months, years and even decades. "Essentially, in recurring dreams, you’ll keep sending yourself the same message until it gets through; until you take action in waking life."
How can you analyse your dreams?
"I always say the best person to analyse dreams is the dreamer," says Wallace. "People are very good at understanding the own imagery in their dreams – and it’s all about getting to grips with your own dream language and what it resembles."
A dream dictionary might help. Wallace has published a useful one called The Complete A To Z Dictionary of Dreams: Be Your Own Dream Expert, which can help you to decipher dream symbols and what they’re trying to tell you.
"There’s another really powerful thing you can do if you’re experiencing disturbing dreams. In the moment where you’re becoming aware you’re dreaming an uncomfortable dream and trying to wake yourself up, you can try to consciously change the image in that half-woken state," Wallace adds.
"For instance, if you’re being pursued by a scary monster, you can learn to make the monster smaller, or more comical, or brighter in your lucid state. Understanding your ability to work on your dream imagery can be really empowering.
"The main thing I tell my clients is not to be afraid of dreaming, even if you’re having nightmares," says Wallace. "Dreams can help you understand yourself better, set boundaries and realise you always have far more power and choice than you think to make changes in your life. That’s an uplifting thing to hold onto."