How Dream Exploration can Positively Impact Emotional Health

Article Summary

This article illustrates the importance of dream exploration as a way to deepen self-awareness and self-discovery and highlights the positive effects dream insights have upon an individual’s emotional health. 

Preview of sections:

What is emotional health?

Emotional health measures an individual’s capacity to experience and manage a variety of naturally occurring emotions in a healthy way.

What are dreams and where do they come from?

Dreams are naturally occurring psychic processes that happen during sleep in the form of involuntary images, sensations and experiences.

How do these two concepts influence each other?

Because dreams emerge from the unconscious part of the human psyche, they carry important messages for the dreamer often expressed through powerful symbolic imagery. When this imagery is carefully considered and analyzed, it is often transformed into insightful and impactful messages that assist and support the dreamer’s emotional health.  Employing a combination of dream examples and methods of Jungian dream analysis, this article demonstrates the transformative and healing power of dreams while offering easily applicable ways of beginning and deepening dream work.

What is emotional health?

In order to properly begin an exploration of the positive impact of dream analysis on emotional health, it is first necessary to take a look at what is understood as emotional health. Emotional health is a concept used to describe and assess an individual’s levels of toxic versus functional interactions with naturally arising daily emotions. An individual with a relatively high emotional health level has the ability to assess and manage their emotional responses to daily internal and external emotional stimuli in a functional manner. This includes the ability to identify arising emotions, the resilience to experience them without resorting to numbing or evasive behaviors, as well as the capacity to tend to those emotions that may feel overpowering or excessive in an effective and self-compassionate way. Emotional health skills include emotional intelligence, emotional resilience, and conflict management. Each of these concepts is individually defined below. Emotional intelligence endows an individual with the capacity to be self and other aware, to adequately identify and recognize emotions in themselves as well as in others based on internal stimuli, verbal and non-verbal cues and to experience and show an empathic response. Emotional resilience involves an individual’s ability to self soothe, to ask for help, and to communicate challenges, wants, and desires. Conflict management includes non-violent communication skills, negotiating skills as well as creating, sharing, and navigating personal and internal boundaries. Because all such capabilities are fluid and vary throughout the course of life, they include the potential to be expanded and further developed. If, for example, someone who is using their self-awareness identifies challenges they are experiencing with negotiating skills they can choose to work on this aspect of their life and develop further. This is where dreams can be helpful. As it is shown below, dreams can not only draw attention to a personal issue that needs the dreamer’s attention but also offer a dreamer alternative perspectives regarding that issue that are new to the conscious mind. When mindfully engaged with through dreamwork, dreams can also be a way to practice dialogues, to brainstorm conflict solutions, and to mediate a more peaceful conscious relationship with challenging emotions. Lastly, dreams often reveal creative potential solutions and new ways of understanding and approaching waking life issues. In all these ways, dreams and dreamwork offer an accessible and highly personalized platform for tending to one’s emotional health. 

What are dreams and where do they come from?

Dreams are the things seen, felt, and experienced after falling asleep and while being in a dream state. They can be multisensory or singularly sensory: a voice, an image, a sensation, or a combination of them all. Most people have at least one vivid dream experience they remember. Because dreams are extremely personal and don’t always have a cohesive, logical, and immediately understandable nature, they are often dismissed as irrelevant. In order to better understand dreams in general and the benefits of analyzing them in particular,  an inquiry into their source is necessary. The two main scholars who first introduced the world of psychology to the importance of working with dreams were Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud began writing about the exploration of dreams and shared his beliefs that dreams originate in the personal unconscious and have a series of functions including extending our sleep, offering wish fulfillment, and satisfying immature sexual urges. He argued that dreams “satisfy wishes excited during the day which remained unrealised” (Freud, 2001, p. 11). Jung, who theorized that in addition to the personal unconscious there is also a collective unconscious, took Freud’s dream theory even further. He believed the unconscious part of the psyche speaks to each person through the symbolic images of their dreams. As Jung explained “dreams convey to us in figurative language—that is, in sensuous, concrete imagery—thoughts, judgments, views, directives, tendencies, which were unconscious either because of repression or through mere lack of realization. Precisely because they are the contents of the unconscious, and the dream is a derivative of unconscious processes, it contains a reflection of the unconscious contents”  (Jung, 2011, loc. 809) He also believed that the influence of the unconscious goes beyond night time and seeps into waking life situation: “dreams are not entirely cut off from the continuity of consciousness, for in almost every dream certain details can be found which have their origin in the impressions, thoughts, and moods of the preceding day or days” (Jung, 2011, loc. 616). Together with other brilliant minds of their time, Freud and Jung founded depth psychology- the branch of psychology that takes into consideration the unconscious and examines the relationships between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. The unconscious is the part of the psyche that stores what is unknown, repressed, denied or forgotten as well as all the possibilities that the conscious mind cannot conceive. Robert Johnson beautifully describes the unconscious in his book “Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth”:

We sometimes become aware of a memory, a pleasant association, an ideal, a belief that wells up unexpectedly from an unknown place. We sense that we have carried these elements somewhere inside us for a long time—but where? In an unknown part of the total psyche that lies outside the boundaries of the conscious mind. The unconscious is a marvelous universe of unseen energies, forces, forms of intelligence—even distinct personalities—that live within us. It is a much larger realm than most of us realize, one that has a complete life of its own running parallel to the ordinary life we live day today. The unconscious is the secret source of much of our thought, feeling, and behavior. It influences us in ways that are all the more powerful because it is unsuspected. (2009, p. 3)

 The unconscious plays a vital part in everyday attitudes, behaviors, and experiences, and dreams emerge from this place. Dreams represent a symbolic message constructed as a collection of elements from the unconscious, a message meant to assist the dreamer in becoming more aware and ultimately more functional.

How can dreams impact emotional health in a positive way?

Perhaps one of the most important ways that dreams contribute to emotional health is by arousing curiosity towards the source of their images: the unconscious. Particularly when powerful dreams take place and they strongly influence the mood and awareness of the dreamer, it becomes much harder for that dreamer to ignore the part of them that is asking for their attention in such a big way. As Johnson points out, “sometimes the unconscious generates a fantasy so full of vivid, symbolic images that it captures the conscious mind totally and holds our attention for a long time.” (2009, p. 1).  The unconscious is so vast that it is not possible to fully grasp all that it contains, much less become aware of it all. But just as the conscious part of the psyche, the unconscious plays a vital role in an individual’s perception, relationship to, and level of functioning in the world. When it comes to emotional health,  the main ways in which dreams improve it are related to their ability to deliver messages from the unconscious. Dreams, when remembered, bring the unconscious into consciousness, and thus they transform both. Jung explains that “the unconscious is the unknown at any given moment, so it is not surprising that dreams add to the conscious psychological situation of the moment all those aspects which are essential for a totally different point of view” (2011, loc. 748).

Dreams bring up unconscious content in the form of images, symbols, words, memories, or states of being. They provide dreamers insights about themselves that are both personal and relevant to them. As each dreamer begins to notice their emotional responses both in the dream and waking state, a personal emotional vocabulary begins to develop. Emotional stamina is increased. A-ha moments are experienced. New ways of seeing or understanding waking life issues are reviewed and considered. Life is seen and understood from a deeper inner level. As Whitmond and Perrera state: “each dream may be seen as aiming toward a widening of awareness” (1989, p. 7) In this way when dreams are considered and engaged with, the messages they carry actively contribute to the dreamer’s self-awareness.  

Jung believed dreams are also one of the ways in which the psyche attempts to balance what is consciously known and understood and what is still unconscious. Dreams do that by bringing up to the surface of the dreamer’s awareness of certain images, symbols, and scenes. This dream content, when analyzed and related to can reveal something new to the dreamer that can then be used to compensate or adjust the dreamer’s conscious way of operating and thinking. This compensation can assist the dreamer in resolving inner and outer conflicts by providing new ways of seeing the situation and offering solutions that may otherwise be inaccessible to the conscious mind. Jung states that “in the great majority of cases compensation aims at establishing a normal psychological balance and thus appears as a kind of self-regulation of the psychic system” (2011, loc. 1521).

The following example from an anonymous dreamer illustrates this process: 

I have had a series of dreams around being given rings that I later end up losing. Many times these rings are engagement rings that I am asked to safe keep and that I somehow end up dropping and misplacing in the course of the dream, only to later be frantically looking for them or trying to retrieve them from where they have fallen. To me, a ring is a circle and a symbol of the total integrated self. In a recent dream, “my therapist” held my hand and I noticed that she had a beautiful ring on her finger. I see her as someone who has accepted and integrated many parts of herself. A few days after this dream I finally realized what this series of dreams has been trying to tell me. The ring is a symbol of myself. I lose myself when it comes to romantic relationships (engagement rings). The dreams are showing me my current life reality, as I tend to sometimes lose myself or my sense of identity and become enmeshed in romantic relationships where I often end up feeling frantic and having a sense of loss. I lose my wholeness when I get “engaged” about another.

In this example, the dreamer is presented with a recurring dream symbol (the ring), as well as the repeated action of it being lost or misplaced. When analyzing this dream symbol, as portrayed through the aid of the dream series,  the dreamer is able to grasp a deeper perspective of their psychic reality that was not previously evident to them. As Jung explained: “the unconscious is the unknown at any given moment, so it is not surprising that dreams add to the conscious psychological situation of the moment all those aspects which are essential for a totally different point of view.” (2011, loc.748).  In this way even one single dream can dramatically shift a dreamer’s psychic balance. The purpose of working with dreams is to resolve the neurosis by reestablishing “an approximate harmony between conscious and unconscious.” (Jung, para 548)  This brilliant harmonizing feature is at the core of the positive influence dreams have upon emotional health.  For Jung this made it “evident that this function of dreams amounts to a psychological adjustment, a compensation absolutely necessary for properly balanced action.” (2011, loc. 749)

Jung further explains the way dreams bring balance to the dreamer’s conscious direction: “If the conscious attitude to the life situation is in large degree one-sided, then the dream takes the opposite side. (2011, loc. 1508)

As mentioned above, emotional intelligence is a skill that includes awareness and recognition of emotions that arise within. Dream analysis involves paying attention and taking note of the feelings and moods that show up in the dream state as well as in the waking hours after the dream has ended. In this way, dream work supports the development of emotional intelligence because it offers the dreamer the consistent practice in noticing, identifying and tending to their arising emotional states. Dreams can also facilitate both inner and outer conflict resolution by presenting the dreamer with relevant unconscious aspects of their psychic situation. 

“If a dream shows me what sort of mistake I am making, it gives me an opportunity to correct my attitude, which is always an advantage.” (Jung, 2011, loc. 1158 ). Because dreams can reveal something not yet evident or known by the dreamer, they often tap into the sort of knowledge that is often considered to be intuitive. It is as if a part of the presmer (the unconscious) knows something that the conscious part of the dreamer is not aware of. Dr. Jung offers an excellent example towards this claim:

I was working once with a young man who mentioned in his anamnesis that he was happily engaged, and to a girl of “good” family. In his dreams, she frequently appeared in a very unflattering guise. The context showed that the dreamer’s unconscious connected the figure of his bride with all kinds of scandalous stories from quite another source—which was incomprehensible to him and naturally also to me. But, from the constant repetition of such combinations, I had to conclude that, despite his conscious resistance, there existed in him an unconscious tendency to show his bride in this ambiguous light. He told me that if such a thing were true it would be a catastrophe. His acute neurosis had set in a short time after his engagement. Although it was something he could not bear to think about, this suspicion of his bride seemed to me a point of such capital importance that I advised him to instigate some inquiries. These showed the suspicion to be well-founded, and the shock of the unpleasant discovery did not kill the patient but, on the contrary, cured him of his neurosis and also of his bride. Thus, although the taking up of the context resulted in an “unthinkable” meaning and hence in an apparently nonsensical interpretation, it proved correct in the light of facts which were subsequently disclosed. (2011, loc. 1484)

As can be seen in this example, the conscious part of the dreamer was showing serious symptoms in the form of a neurosis. By working with the symbols of the unconscious messages delivered during his dream state, the dreamer was able to discover new information that was vital to restoring his wellbeing.

Working with Dreams

As discussed above, the main benefits of dreams come through their messages. Dreams don’t necessarily need to be understood to exert their positive influence upon the person having them. But dreams, when given their proper consideration and when deeply related to, will almost always offer a more profound and meaningful glance into the topic they uncover.  A message may be delivered from the unconscious through a dream but without the willingness to receive it, the tools to decode it, and the space to allow its impact to reach the dreamer, its effectiveness is diminished. Everybody dreams; however, not everyone remembers their dreams. The first step in working with dreams is beginning to remember them and make a note of them. This requires intention, a bit of effort, and discipline. Many times, a sincere intention of remembering dreams verbally uttered before falling asleep will be sufficient to begin remembering dreams in the morning: “I’m willing to remember my dreams” or “I will remember my dreams”. This may require repeating a few days in a row. Sometimes dreams cannot be recalled in their entirety so then the best practice is to pay attention to anything at all that lingers from the dream state. Perhaps it’s a flash, a name, a detail that pops into mind upon waking. Or maybe it’s a physical sensation or a mood or feeling that makes itself known throughout the first hours of the day. However much remains after the dream state, recording that in a consistent manner makes a big difference in the dreamer’s improving ability to connect with the contents of dreams.

It is important to record this content immediately after waking, whether that happens to be in the middle of the night or in the morning. For individuals with a daily high-stress load, remembering anything before the first cup of coffee is a difficult task. To assist with the dream recall, preparations can be made in advance by making the right recording tools (digital, pen and paper, voice recorder) readily available upon waking. It’s best to journal a dream in the present tense and to include as many details as possible about the opening scene, the place in which the dream is taking place, any unique features of the characters that show up (color, size, smell, texture) and the way the image behaves and moves the dream. It can be helpful to record a dream figure with as much detail as you would use to describe a figure to a sketch artist and a scene with as much information as you would offer a director for the making of a movie scene. Some questions that can be used to help this process are: Where are things taking place? What can be noticed about it? What is the season/weather, temperature/mood? What is the emotional tone of the dream? Is there a central image or figure? What can be noticed about its character? Has this dream image or figure visited before?  If describing the dream with words is simply not accessible then there are several alternative ways to bring something from the dream into consciousness. Such options involve using creativity to express the content delivered from the unconscious. For example, dream elements can be drawn, painted or acted out.
As dreams are recalled and recorded more consistently, it can become apparent that certain dream symbols can re-appear over time but that dreams can be collected in a dream series around the same central image that shows up repeatedly across the span of a lifetime. Jung pointed out how each episode of the dream series can offer a new and unique perspective on the particular symbol it is using:

At first, it seems that each compensation is a momentary adjustment of one-sidedness or an equalization of disturbed balance. But with deeper insight and experience, these apparently separate acts of compensation arrange themselves into a kind of plan. They seem to hang together and in the deepest sense to be subordinated to a common goal, so that a long dream-series no longer appears as a senseless string of incoherent and isolated happenings, but resembles the successive steps in a planned and orderly process of development. (2011, loc. 1540)

 For this reason, documenting dreams over longer periods of time can considerably expand on the meaning, complexity, and relevance of a dream.

Once remembering and recording dreams becomes a habit, there is a multitude of methods and techniques that can be used to begin the process of understanding them. Dreamwork in itself is very similar to an alchemical process or taking the raw material of the unconscious expressed through dreams and extracting precious and valuable conscious insights. 

The 3 A’s include the most common methods of beginning dream analysis. These are: association, amplification, animation, archetypes. Jung frequently used association and amplification to extract the symbolic meaning from dream content. Association implies the conscious consideration of dream images and figures and making note of anything they bring up for the dreamer. This is often the first step in dream work. Thinking about each of the core elements of the dream one by one will sometimes remind the dreamer of a person, place, or experience that is familiar in some way or that has already taken place at some point in their past.  To paraphrase Johnson, an association is anything that can be spontaneously connected with the image, including a feeling, a word, or a memory. (Johnson, p.52). Amplification is very much related to the archetypical or mythical nature of a particular dream figure or symbol. When using amplification the dream content is magnified, enhanced, and perceived through a more universal lens. A helpful question to consider here is: are there any myths, stories, legends or parables that include this symbol? Does this dream show any characteristics or patterns that can be recognized as universally old stories or popular characters? If so, what does this story have to teach about the dreamer’s life? As Dr. Steve Aizenstat shows “a single dream image, amplified through literature and mythology, can offer us tremendous insight into our lives. (Aizenstat, p. 17). Animation is a powerful way of processing dreams because it invites the conscious mind to experience the aliveness of the dream figures that visit at night through the physical body. In animation, the dreamer is invited to allow the figure from the dream to exist, move, express itself in a somatic way. For example, if the visiting dream figure is a wolf, a way to embody this dream is to use imagination and become the wolf temporarily, move like the wolf, howl like the wolf, look at the world as the wolf. Professor Jeanne Shul explains that “what may start out as a seemingly simple dream can lead to profound personal insights when feelings and physical reactions to the dream are worked with somatically.”  (Shul, p 181) Fully feeling a dream in the body offers insights that simply thinking about the dream or analyzing the dream does not.

Another important aspect of dreamwork is to approach it with curiosity and openness as opposed to a need and pressure to explain and make sense of everything in a dream. It can take many years before all of a dream’s aspects can be understood. Dreams have their own language and learning their vocabulary takes patience and conscientiousness. When working with dreams with a prominent or distinctive dream figure an important thing to keep in mind is that a relationship is much more effective than an interrogation. Observing, experiencing and relating to dream figures through conscious dialogue and somatic work is much more important than understanding exactly what they mean and why they are visiting. Aizenstat offers two simple questions to begin analyzing a dream in his book Dream Tending. Those questions are: “Who is visiting now?” And “What is Happening Here?” (Aizenstat, p 35). He further urges to “gather information by allowing the figure itself to unfold in front of you. Your work is to observe like a naturalist would, noticing the activity and particularity of the figure itself. What is he doing now? What is he up to? How is he moving about in the room?”. Aizenstat further encouraged that “we tend our relationship with a dream figure as we tend our relationship with a friend. The figure is engaged in his own activity in the here and now. Our curiosity is about him as a person and what he is up to, not about what he signifies about our own ego.” (Aizenstat, p 35)

Finally, a useful tool for dreamwork can be through participation in a dream group. Working a dream with a partner or in a group setting can offer the benefit of renewed focus on the dream content and potentially new perspectives on elements of the dream. Most importantly dream and partner dream work can open the doors to embodying the dream or seeing it acted out.  

Conclusion -The Importance of Dream Exploration

As shown above, dreams are symbolic messages created by the unconscious part of the psyche and delivered during sleep, in a dream state. They often have a virtual reality type quality that contains both familiar and unfamiliar images and sensations. Dreams impact the dreamer in ways that are not always evident or consciously desired. There are many ways in which dreams can impact the waking life of the dreamer, mainly by offering an image or experience that balances the thoughts and feelings of the dreamer upon waking. These influences can be positive even without the dreamer being aware of it. But when dreams are actively considered and investigated through introspection, journaling, and embodiment, their positive impact can be dramatically increased.  When consciously remembered, recorded, and considered, their impact and transformative power is enhanced. Taking dream images and processing them through journaling, inquiry or embodiment turns them into useful tools for supporting the process of becoming a more whole and complete person. They encourage the dreamer’s individuality and psychic integration. Lastly, dreams facilitate the dreamer’s healing by increasing self-awareness, by creating more inner balance, and by bringing new possibilities into the light of consciousness. Dreamwork turns what may at first appear as a random collection of images and sensations into a vital reflection of the dreamer’s mental, emotional, and physical health. As Jung suggested, significant dreams “prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience.” (Jung, OnThe Nature of Dreams, para 554). Consistent dreamwork offers a safe space where challenging emotions can be engaged with, dialogues can be practiced and conflicts can be worked out in new and creative ways. Dreams are expressions of the psychic energy that, “for the sake of our health, we need to be in more conscious relationship” with (Whitmond & Perrera, p. 3). As Jung suggests, “the investigation of dreams, in general, is a life-work in itself”. The results of this work can be seen as a personal psychic dictionary, meant to facilitate connection between the known and not yet known inner aspects of the dreamer. While the value of dream analysis has only fairly recently been recognized by psychology, perhaps, in time, dream consideration and analysis will become a more commonly known, recognized and employed tool for psychological development.

References

Aizenstat, S. (2011). Dream tending: awakening to the healing power of dreams. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal.

Freud, S. (2001). On Dreams (Dover Thrift Editions). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Johnson, R. A. (2009). Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth. New York: HarperOne.

Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F. C., & Shamdasani, S. (2011). Dreams. [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Shul, J. (2015) “Embodied Dreams.” In Fraleigh, Sondra Fraleigh’s (Ed.). Moving consciously: somatic transformations through dance, yoga, and touch. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Whitmont, E. C., & Perera, S. B. (1989). Dreams: a portal to the source: a clinical guide for therapists. Routledge.