Emotional Health

While You Are Sleeping and Dreaming

The part that Freud may have gotten wrong is the idea that all dreams represent “wishes,” although they are always disguised. So if you dream that you have a fight with X, it might not mean that you are angry with X, but it might mean that you have conflicts with someone who resembles X. Here is an example:

A middle-aged woman remembers only a fragment of a dream: she is with Snidely Whiplash, the cartoon character who is always seen doing things like tying young maidens to railroad tracks. They are fighting, and she is very angry and a little scared.

While I may have many things that come to mind about the image of the Snidely Whiplash character (distrust of men?), I asked the patient to “free associate” to the dream images. She said that nothing much came up and then she began to talk about a fight she had with her friend, Alice. I asked, “Didn’t you tell me last week that she was in a car accident?” In fact she did, and Alice had suffered whiplash in the accident. The dream was not about men at all, but about her relationships with female friends.

I agree with Walker that dreams are more likely reflections of different emotional states rather than simply examples of “wish fulfillment.” Some dreams are clearly wishes, but others, like nightmares or recurrent dreams are harder to see that way.

Granted it’s hard to find the “wish” in a nightmare, but they do serve a function. Nightmares take us to the darkest places, and in them we confront our worst fears. Some think their purpose is both to help us work through those fears but providing the relief we feel when we awaken. We are saying to ourselves, literally, “you don’t have to be afraid of this:it’s just a dream.”

Also necessarily maladaptive are negative recurrent dreams. For example, students that dream often of failing an exam may perform better than those that don’t. Even though the dreams generally were negative and ended poorly, researchers saw the results “as showing that dreaming of the exam, even negatively, reflects a stronger desire and motivation to succeed. Further, the dream could even work towards consolidation of memory traces relevant to the learning material, similar to prior findings that dreaming of a learning task is associated with improved performance (Wamsley et. al 2010). Thus, negative recurrent dreams may still serve an adaptive function.”

“In general, recurring dreams indicate the presence of an unresolved and persistent conflict in an individual’s life, and the theme or central image of the dream provides a stage for this conflict to play out. The cessation of a recurrent dream may indicate that the conflict has been successfully resolved. Thus, being aware of and working with recurring dreams in your personal life or in therapy is a useful tool for resolving conflicts and improving well-being.”

Clearly, a lot goes on when you are sleeping, much of it important work for maintaining physical and mental health. People who boast about how little sleep they can get by with are being unwise–they may be jeopardizing their health. Do yourself a favor, and work towards the most restful sleep you can manage.

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