PSYCHOTHERAPY BLOG

Having trained as a yoga teacher and as a psychotherapist and counsellor, I’ve been particularly interested in the growing […] Read more...

Dream Interpretation

 

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.

Sigmund Freud

 

How could this strange, nonsensical, sometimes deeply disturbing night-time world from our sleep be significant for psychotherapy?

From a classical Freudian perspective, our dreams are disguises for hidden desires, primitive needs, forbidden urges – things that are too unpleasant or difficult for us to countenance. These dark feelings are buried deep in the unconscious where without the light of our awareness they may have a debilitating effect on our waking lives causing us to react in certain ways. For example, these unacknowledged drives may make us feel extremely uncomfortable or lose our nerve in particular situations or when we are in the company of particular people.

The interpretation of dreams renders these energies available for conscious examination. Through increased self-awareness of our unconscious motivations we are better able to ‘see through’ our reactions in our day to day living and hence loosen the grip of the unconscious forces, which may be blocking our capacity to engage with life.

Carl Jung, originally Freud’s disciple built substantially on Freud’s original theory. For Jung, the unconscious was not only a ‘seething cauldron of excitations and primitive desires’ but also a treasure trove of collective and personal experience. Dreams were not disguises but had both a purposeful and positive function – firstly to give the dreamer a picture of what was really going on in their psyche and sometimes to suggest the direction in which they could travel to become more fully themselves.

Jung believed that dreams were often compensatory to a way we are leading our waking lives and may have a prospective function. For example, someone who is very sure of themselves has a disturbing dream that they have lost their passport and cannot get to the place they were travelling. The dream may suggest that underlying what may appear to be outwardly a confident person hides someone who has lost their identity – perhaps as a result of over-identifying and ‘losing themselves’ to their outer confidence. To get to a ‘new place’ the dream may be demanding the dreamer address this issue.

In keeping with Jung’s ideas, contemporary research rather modestly suggests that the purpose of dreams may be to problem solve. Experience of many people supports this perspective – for example there are numerous reports of people trying to work out a problem or an issue and then having fallen asleep awake to find they have solution. More significantly, from a psychotherapeutic perspective, there is considerable evidence that dreams are also key to our emotional processing.

Research has shown time and again that dreaming mostly takes place during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Furthermore, PET Scans show that dreaming takes place in very specific areas of the brain, namely the limbic system and crucially the amygdala. It is here that implicit, unconscious, emotional ‘memories’ of earliest experiences are stored. These form the early patterning which underpins our deeply held ways of being and behaving which form our emotional repertoire. According to leading neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, “Perhaps the dream theories of Freud and Jung, which suggested dreams reflect unconscious and symbolic forces affecting an individual may still hold some basic truths.” He concludes that REM sleep may help,

“to solidify the many unconscious habits that are the very foundation of our personality. In the final accounting dreams may construct the powerful subconscious or preconscious affective (emotional) psychological patterns that make us…the people that we are. They may help construct the many emotional myths and beliefs around which our lives revolve.”

While reporting and interpreting dreams is by no means a pre-requisite for psychotherapy, it can be a useful tool to help us explore what may be going behind some of the issues we face. Furthermore, they may give us insight into what needs addressing or our inner potential.

Dream interpretation was a significant part of my own therapy process for 10 years. While there is no expectation to bring dreams to therapy, it is an avenue, which could be explored if it feels appropriate as part of my counselling service. Please get in touch to discuss dream therapy further.