Dreams and nightmares have always been a fascinating yet perplexing subject to study in psychology.
While the majority of our dreams may have no real underlying meaning or purpose behind them (what I sometimes call “brain vomit”) that doesn’t mean that our dreams never have anything important to say or teach us about our lives.
If you wake up from a dream and it sticks with you and leaves a lasting impression on you, then that dream must be resonating with you in some way (even if it’s just a raw feeling).
For example, if I have a dream about an old friend who I haven’t spoke to in awhile, that may influence me to want to contact that person and see how they are doing.
Was it my brain trying to send me a specific message to contact them? Not necessarily, but that doesn’t mean we can’t interpret our dreams as we see fit and find some meaning in them.
If a dream is meaningful to you, then it’s meaningful to you. There’s no science that can take that away from you, even if on a neurological level dreams may just be random processing.
Nightmares can be even more interesting. In fact, in a new study published in the scientific journal Motivation and Emotion, researchers analyzed participants dream diaries to find re-occurring dreams and nightmares.
They discovered that individuals who had re-occurring nightmares were more likely to report that they were also feeling more powerless, anxious, or frustrated with their lives.
The common types of nightmares they experienced included:
- Nightmares about being attacked by something
- Nightmares about being chased by something
- Nightmares about falling from great heights
Of course, there are many different types of nightmares. A nightmare is any unpleasant dream that we associate with negative emotions like fear, anxiety, helplessness, or lack of control.
The fact that nightmares are associated with problems in our real world lives makes sense. If you have strong feelings of disappointment, anxiety, or frustration throughout your day, then that will likely lead to your brain needing to further process those feelings in the form of negative dreams.
A nightmare every now and then is nothing to worry about and completely normal for most people. But if you have frequent re-occurring nightmares (and re-occurring themes), that may be an important sign that you are experiencing mental health issues or you need to change something that’s currently going in your life.
If our minds keep naturally traveling to certain thoughts, feelings, and ideas, that is often a sign that there is something there that we need to dig deeper into before we can move past it – this holds especially true for dreams or nightmares that keep popping up.
It may be valuable to keep a dream diary to help you pay more attention to your inner world and what it may be signaling to you. Even just taking a small moment every morning to reflect on what you may remember from your dreams can be a beneficial exercise in introspection.
Our brains often think in symbols – and certain images or themes may resonate with us in specific and personal ways that only we can understand (this is why “dream interpretation” dictionaries can often be useless).
For example, if you follow a religious, spiritual, or philosophical tradition, then a particular symbol or theme from that tradition may only make sense in a dream if you understand the context behind it.
It can also be true that your brain is creating symbols out of your past experiences.
For example, if you got attacked by a dog at a very young age and you’ve always feared dogs, then a dream of a dog may symbolize a broader message about facing your fears.
With dreams and nightmares, it’s most important that you focus on what the meaning is to you, because only you can truly understand the context behind your dreams and their content.
This is not to say that you should obsess over every dream or nightmare you have. Of course, sometimes dreams are literally just “brain vomit,” where your mind is just playing with new ideas and seeing what happens.
However, if you wake up feeling particularly moved by a dream or nightmare, it may be worth giving it some time to reflect on. Nightmares especially seem to be important indicators of mental health and life problems that aren’t being properly addressed.
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