Almost everyone has had a puzzling dream and passed it off as “just a dream” and nothing of significance. But dreams can actually be a good source of information about physical and emotional problems and often can alert us to those issues long before they manifest physically. Dreams almost always have a message to share.

Understanding dreams is comparable to seeing a doctor who speaks “medicalese” or a language you don’t understand. Clarification is required. By learning to decode the symbols in a dream we can understand the message.

While western cultures usually pass off this nocturnal entertainment as “nothing but a dream,” other cultures place significant importance on them. The Senoi in Malaysia are probably the best example of a culture that relies on dreams for guidance. They share their dreams with family and members of the tribe and use them to solve everyday problems and life situations.

Victimization is often a factor in dreams, not just for the Senoi but for people in general. Senoi children are taught how to react to dream situations and characters through lucid dreaming, and by the time they are adolescents they no longer have nightmares. 

Lucid dreams usually happen in early morning and are the kind of dreams where you know you’re dreaming. You can train yourself to react in these dreams and in doing so solve the problem in your waking life. The monster chasing you in the dream may represent someone or something in your life that is giving you a hard time. You can train yourself so in the dream you don’t run away but rather turn and ask the monster what it represents. Surprisingly you may get an answer. Training yourself to respond in lucid dreams is a whole other subject, but there are books available on how to do this.

Most dreams have messages to impart and often provide the answer to questions or the inspiration behind art, music and literature. The classic example of that is Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine. He was trying to make a machine that would sew and one day he was tired and decided to take a nap. He had a nightmare in which he was being chased by warriors. The strange thing was their spears had holes in the tips. Upon awakening, his idea for a machine with a needle having an eye at the point was born.

Dreams can call attention to physical problems as well. One woman who worked in a hospital dreamed of having a conversation with a doctor who said she had “too many white cells.” The woman felt perfectly healthy at the time and, being a person who paid attention to dreams, she crossed this one off as meaningless – until a few days later she developed an abscessed tooth.

In an example of the emotional side of dream interpretation, shortly before one woman’s husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she dreamed of walking with him around a courthouse and losing her wallet (representing financial security). She went back to look for it. Normally, she said, he would have helped her look, but in the dream she was on her own. In reality, at the time he was already very sick and his not helping in the dream indicated he would not be there to help her. Even the courthouse indicated she would be dealing with legal issues as a result of his death.

Dream dictionaries can be helpful, but the important thing to remember is what the symbol means to you. Seeing a snake in a dream would, for someone afraid of snakes, be fearful, but a person in the medical field might see it as the caduceus – a symbol of healing. Still another might see the snake as shedding its skin and moving on to something new. Also, a dream of death doesn’t usually indicate a death is happening but rather that an end to something had come and a new beginning lies ahead.

Many people say they never dream or don’t remember their dreams, but everyone dreams. Dreams are a way of relieving the stress of the day. Even if we don’t remember them they help alleviate stress, but when we actually remember them we have the benefit of putting that subconscious information into our conscious minds.

A good way to begin recalling dreams is to repeat a seven-syllable command to yourself before going to sleep. (A seven-syllable command is more readily accepted by the western mind.) Try telling yourself: I will re-mem-ber my dream.

Then immediately upon awakening, write down or record the dream with all the people, symbols, colors, etc. you can recall. You don’t need to figure it out on the spot. Having the list will jog your memory in the morning.

Next take each symbol and write it down like a shopping list. This is where a dream dictionary will help. If there is a person in the dream, what is it about that person that first comes to mind? Uncle Mike, for example, might represent success. Aunt Martha might be nurturing. Everyone in a dream is usually some aspect of yourself. Females represent the unconscious aspect of the self and males the conscious aspect. Dreams of having sex, getting married or signing a contract indicate something that has been on a subconscious level is now uniting with the conscious.

By making a list of symbols and what they mean you may not come up with a story line, but it will give you a pretty good clue as to what is going on in your life that you may not be consciously aware of yet.

Alcohol and some medications may have an adverse effect on dreams. So, too, does a full stomach, as you may remember from “The Christmas Story” when Scrooge blamed his dreams on what he ate.

This is just the tip of the iceberg if one is seriously interested in working with dreams. As with anything, the more you practice, the better you get at it. And one thing is certain, if you’re looking for something to do, it’s more fun than working crossword puzzles.

Arlene Shovald, Ph.D., is the author of “Let Your Dreams Be Your Doctor” and owns Fresh Start Therapies LLC, focusing on dream analysis, clinical hypnotherapy and past life regression therapy.

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