Could the secret to solving your problems be as simple as going to sleep? Dream expert Theresa Cheung tells Hanna Woodside how we can harness the power of our ‘nocturnal therapist’.
Your dreaming mind is your best friend. It is always trying to help you. It is your internal therapist. Dreams are powerful. Dreams can change your life!’ bestselling author Theresa Cheung tells me, before apologising for getting overexcited. ‘I’m just passionate about dreams – they are an incredible resource, but we neglect them.’
Theresa has spent the past 25 years researching and writing about dreams, and in her latest book, Night Vision, she argues that tuning in to our dreams can be an incredible tool for self-development. ‘There’s so much distraction during the day, we don’t have time to process everything that happens to us or reflect on our feelings. But our dreaming mind can do this work of self-discovery and send us messages that lead to greater self-awareness. And when you have a clearer idea of who you are and what you want, you start to make positive choices that take you in the right direction.’
Like an inner alarm bell, ‘dreams often highlight areas of your life that you need to work on’, says Theresa. ‘So if you are in an unhappy relationship you might dream of being imprisoned or being unable to speak or move. If you feel you are being ignored, you may dream you are invisible.
‘Dreams aren’t trying to tell you what to do – they’re trying to empower you,’ stresses Theresa. ‘When we’re in REM sleep (the period of sleep where we are most likely to dream), we don’t release stress hormones, so we can be or do anything we want, without any fear. So if there are things we want to do – but are frightened of – we can safely “role-play” in our dreams. Often, if you have the confidence to do something in a dream, it carries over into your waking life.’
So just how do we make the most of this internal therapist?
Tune in to your night vision
The first step in harnessing your dreams for self-growth is to get better at remembering them. (Science has shown that everybody dreams. If you think you don’t, it’s because you aren’t recalling them, not that you aren’t having any.) ‘During the day, start looking around and thinking: am I awake now, or am I asleep?’ advises Theresa. ‘The more you think about the act of dreaming, the more likely it is you will remember your dreams.’
Before you sleep, set an intention to dream. Simply say to yourself: I will dream tonight. I will remember my dream when I wake up. ‘You can’t force it but looking at beautiful, dream-like pictures – such as the surrealist artwork of Salvador Dalí – can be good “dream food”,’ says Theresa.
Start a dream journal
Keep a pen and notebook by your bed. When you wake, lie still with your eyes closed for a few minutes. See what images surface and then write them down straight away, using the present tense, so it is more vivid. ‘If you can’t remember anything, don’t worry. Just write: “I didn’t dream last night, but maybe tonight I will.” Sometimes nothing comes through, but you can jot down how you feel – sad, excited, gloomy – as those feelings are the product of the dream and can help trigger your recall.’
Eventually you should start remembering more details. ‘Disconnected fragments are OK. Resist making sense of them. Sometimes you will get a clear story, but most of the time it will be like a music video: just flashes of things. Don’t try to impose logic; that belongs to waking life.’
Decode your symbols
Theresa firmly believes that what you see, feel and experience in a dream is not random. ‘It is always commenting on your waking life. Every feeling, person and object offers you clues,’ she says. ‘Dreams talk in symbols and that’s where people stumble. They think: it doesn’t make sense, it’s nonsense. But everything in your dream represents an aspect of you and your life.’
While dream dictionaries will provide you with common meanings associated with certain symbols – and can be helpful to get you thinking along the right lines – every dream symbol is intensely personal and will mean something specific to you. ‘For example, a dog often represents companionship and loyalty, but if you are afraid of dogs it may mean the opposite. Dreaming of sailing can indicate a desire to go with the flow, unless you suffer from seasickness.’
Theresa recommends using basic word association to get started. ‘Choose a symbol from your dream and simply write down the first thing that comes into your head. If nothing comes to mind, focus on the emotion it inspires in you.’
Don’t ignore the hidden messages
It may feel tricky at first, but by practising every day, deciphering your dream language will come more naturally, says Theresa. ‘Ask yourself what parts of you, or your life, each dream represents. What is the central message or resolution of the dream? If you have a childhood memory in a dream, what part of your life is that bringing you back to? What issues do you need to face?’
As your dream journal fills up, you should spot patterns and connections. ‘Recurring dreams should never be ignored. Your unconscious has got so fed up with you avoiding an issue that it’s going to keep throwing the same dream at you again and again. Is there something in your waking life that you’re pretending doesn’t exist? As soon as you sort out the issue that is triggering this recurring dream, it will go.’
Be your dream’s star… and director
Once you are more confident in interpreting your dreams, you can ask your dreaming mind to consider particular situations and challenges. ‘In that period just before you fall asleep, when your brain is in a slow-wave state, disengaging from the outside world, say to yourself: I’d like to have a dream to help me figure out how to earn more cash. Or: I’d like to have a dream about how I can talk to this person. Keep doing it for a week or so and see what symbols and suggestions your dream provides,’ says Theresa.
Spending the first five to ten minutes of your day thinking about your dreams and what they might be trying to tell you is invaluable, she adds. ‘The journey of our lives is to understand ourselves better. Understanding is the beginning of wisdom and self-confidence. And that’s what dreams are trying to give you.’
What your dreams are telling you
Theresa analyses the classic dreams that point to something we need to address.
In dreams, water typically represents our emotions. Drowning, flooding and tidal waves can be a sign that your emotions are overwhelming you and that you need to find an outlet for your feelings.
This suggests that your life is heading off course in some way. Are you driving or a passenger? Is someone else dictating what you do? Or do you need to take control of your path?
This is about facing your fears – there is something you aren’t confronting. It can be external but more likely an inner fear or hidden desire you have repressed. Try to identify what or who is pursuing you, and what aspect of yourself it represents.
People worry this is a bad omen but it’s really about change and new beginnings. Your dreaming mind wants to prepare you for this new start, or shock you into making a change in your waking life. When you see death symbols – funerals, executions, graveyards – consider what you need to lay to rest so that new opportunities can manifest.
Falling in love
The person you are falling in love with in your dream is an aspect of you, or an aspect of yourself that you need to cultivate to improve your chances of happiness in relationships.
Finding a secret room
This is common and it’s about discovering parts of yourself that you didn’t realise existed. The question to ask is: do you have the courage to enter the room and explore it?
Any dream that provokes feelings of unease, frustration or distress is a clear sign that you need to set aside time to rethink your approach to an issue and perhaps discuss your fears with others. Anxiety dreams have a habit of recurring to get their point across, so pay close attention to them; they’re trying to help you deal with anxious feelings you may be avoiding in your waking life.
Night Vision: A Field Guide to Your Dreams by Theresa Cheung is published by Laurence King, price £14.99. To order a copy for £12.74 until 15 November go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.