What Do Dreams Mean?

From the boulevard of broken dreams to California dreamin’, the Savvy Psychologist tackles the psychology and physiology behind your dreams. What does it all mean? Find out.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 25, 2016
Episode #063

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It has been said there are two types of people in this world:  those who believe dreams hold special meaning and those who believe they’re just a coincidental mash-up of thoughts and experiences.  

Those who think dreams hold special meaning, it turns out, are in the majority: an international study found that up to 74% of people around the world believe that dreams reveal hidden truths.  

In addition, more people reported they would change their travel plans after a dream about a plane crash than after an actual plane crash on the same route.  What’s more, more people said they would change their travel plans due to a dream than after an actual Code Orange from Homeland Security.  Superstitious?  Or just having good sense?  The debate continues.

One thing everyone agrees upon is how we dream.  Most dreams occur in a stage of sleep called REM, or rapid eye movement sleep.  As we sleep, we cycle in and out of REM, resulting in about 5 dreams per night, ranging anywhere from 5-40 minutes each.  

Additionally, dreams are surprisingly similar across cultures.  Dr. Calvin S. Hall was a psychologist who, starting in the 1940s, collected more than 50,000 dream reports from around the world.  He discovered that people everywhere dream of being chased, being unable to move, falling, and losing teeth, among others.  

What might some of these and other dreams mean?  The jury is still out on specific symbolism, but here are 5 dream interpretations with scientific backing.  I do have to live up to my “evidence-based research” tagline, after all.

Dream #1: The Falling Dream

There are two themes of falling dreams.  In one, you step off something low, like a curb or a stair, and land with a jolt.  This dream actually incorporates a muscle twitch, called a hypnic jerk, which occurs when muscles relax during the transition to sleep.  The second theme of the falling dream is the long version: falling through thin air.  This is more often a sign of…

Dream #2: The Anxiety Dream

In dreams, negative emotions are much more common than positive emotions.  And of the negative emotions, anxiety is by far the most prevalent.

Dreams such as falling headlong, being chased, being late, finding yourself naked in public, or being unprepared for an exam all signify anxiety.  More specifically, causes may include feeling overwhelmed, uncertainty brought on by life changes or decisions, or plain old stress.

Dream #3: The Nightmare

Everyone has nightmares from time to time.  While they’re scary, occasional nightmares are nothing to worry about.  Recurrent nightmares, however, especially after a life-threatening situation, violation, or other trauma, are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.  

About 71% of individuals diagnosed with PTSD experience nightmares related to their trauma.  Some researchers believe nightmares mean the brain is trying to process the experience and make sense of the situation.  But others believe it’s just the brain stuck in a neural rut.  For the latter, a promising therapy called Image Rehearsal Therapy, or IRT, has been proven to reduce the frequency and intensity of PTSD-related nightmares.  

The short version of IRT is this: Nightmare sufferers, while awake, write down their nightmare.  Then they write a new, safe ending to the nightmare and rehearse the doctored version, repeating it over and over with the intent of diminishing the original nightmare.  

For more on IRT check out episode #55, How to Stop Nightmares and Night Terrors.


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