Nubia DuVall Wilson is in a frenzy. She’s packing up her entire home, and she needs to do it fast. She has only one suitcase, which she’s shoving all of her belongings into as quickly as possible. But as soon as one item goes in, new ones appear around her. It’s a relentless cycle of never being able to pack it all away. But Wilson frantically forces more and more into the suitcase anyway.
Then she wakes up.
Wilson has had this dream often, and it’s one of many that she’s brought to her therapist’s office to analyze. Together, the two mulled over this nocturnal upset until they came to a conclusion: The dream represented her attempt to bury her emotions. The more she tried to pack them away, the more they plagued her. Instead, she needed to pull them out and deal with them.
This kind of dream-led self-reflection isn’t uncommon for Wilson, a 36-year-old entrepreneur in New Jersey. She started seeing a therapist several years ago when long-repressed memories of her childhood sexual abuse came flooding back. In the process of dealing with the resulting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Wilson found relief in an unexpected way: interpreting her dreams. Today, these nightly visions guide her understanding of the underlying aspects of her waking life and help her come to terms with her trauma.
“Dream interpretation often gets lumped into the same kind of pop mysticism as tarot cards and astrology.”
“Tracking my dreams during the onset of PTSD and remembering my abuse was very cathartic,” Wilson says. “I was surprised how much I controlled my emotions throughout my life to cope.” But analyzing her dreams forced her to confront these buried feelings. Now, she says, “when I don’t remember my dreams, I am not connected to myself.”
Dream interpretation often gets lumped into the same kind of pop mysticism as tarot cards and astrology, deemed a useless attempt to assign meaning to what is widely believed to be nothing more than the random firing of neurons in the brain. But an increasing number of psychologists and neuroscientists are finding evidence that dreams are not just the brain’s way of recycling and cleaning up the images of the day; they’re actually important features of our psyches, responsible for things like memory retention, emotional regulation, deep sleep, and, as Wilson found, a deeper understanding of the self. And one way to tap into these benefits is through dream therapy — the loose method of using dream interpretation to understand and change deeply ingrained unconscious patterns.
“As soon as we start paying attention to our dreams, we begin to understand that there is an intelligence there,” says Rubin Naiman, PhD, a psychologist and sleep and dream expert with the the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “There’s a wisdom. There’s a compassion. There’s depth, and it can open our hearts to seeing life in a whole different way.”
Naiman is one of a burgeoning group of psychologists around the world modernizing the work of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud by incorporating dream therapy into his practice. But Naiman is more than just a dream therapist — he’s a dream crusader on a mission to fix the “epidemic of dream loss” he believes we’ve found ourselves in that has left us, well, psychically constipated.
“Dreaming digests. It metaphorically chews on, swallows, assimilates, filters through, and it decides what it’s going to excrete,” Naiman says. “We’re nourished by daily experiences, and if we’re no longer digesting new experiences, we become psychologically malnourished. People who don’t dream well are not receiving nourishment on a daily basis from new experiences.”
Okay, maybe your woo-woo alarm is sounding, but a growing body of research actually supports Naiman’s belief in the power of dreams — or at least their connection to other aspects of health. A recent small study from the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley found that a reduction in REM sleep — the deep-sleep state with the most dreaming and most intense dreams — reduces our ability to understand complex emotions in daily life, which is essential for social functioning.
Another study from the same lab found that vivid, bizarre, and emotionally intense dreams are linked to parts of the amygdala and hippocampus, the brain areas responsible for the processing and memory of emotional reactions, as well as the conversion of short-term memories to long-term ones. And a study by Naiman himself found that loss of REM sleep (aka dream loss) is linked to depression and “an erosion of consciousness.”
The solution? More dreaming. And, of course, dream therapy.
Like all therapy, working with dreams is an individual process — both for the patient and the therapist. The basic premise, however, involves the patient recording their dreams in a journal (ideally first thing in the morning) and bringing them into therapy sessions.
“As soon as we start paying attention to our dreams, we begin to understand that there is an intelligence there.”
Clare Johnson, PhD, president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and author of the book Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming, coaches people to help them gain lucidity in dreams — or the awareness of dreaming within the dream — to overcome phobias. She has also found creative ways to help people reenter dreams after they’ve woken up from them — including stream-of-consciousness writing — in order to experience them without fear and thus overcome them.
“Once things change on the unconscious level, we’ll discover that our waking life will change, because we can free ourselves from deep-rooted behavioral patterns that we’re set in,” Johnson says.
In fact, a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses supports Johnson’s theories. In the paper, researchers argue that lucid dreaming could be used to help “understand consciousness and its disturbances,” as well as provide an effective form of therapy for recurrent nightmares and PTSD.
Naiman takes a similar approach to Johnson when working through these subconscious disturbances. While he teaches some lucidity, he also encourages simply “opening a dialogue” with the underlying fears that plague dreams, both in waking life and the dream world, to push through the fear.
“What we’ve learned about nightmares [is] that we don’t need to run from the things that we fear,” Naiman says. “When that happens, the frightening images begin to morph. They begin to transpose, sometimes in very beautiful ways, sometimes in interesting ways.”
Wilson had another recurring dream that nagged at her for years: She and her high school friends are at an indoor swimming pool. Her friends are encouraging her to swim, but she doesn’t want to. Night after night, she refuses to get into the pool.
With the help of dream therapy, Wilson came to the conclusion that the dream represented her refusal to jump in and confront her repressed emotions. She also felt that the dream was telling her to find a community that understood what she was going though, which she did. She even started a virtual community for survivors like herself on Facebook, which is growing.
In other words, Wilson finally jumped in the pool. And the dream never came back.