Dream Therapy Is A Thing & It’s Serious Business

Photographed by Jessica Garcia.
When a therapist first asked about her dreams, Tasha had been having trouble sleeping for years. Her insomnia would keep her awake for days at a time. During the half-hour stints of sleep she did manage, the images she saw often followed the same pattern. In each dream, Tasha noticed that she was the only person who had a face.
"I often dreamt about having wings and horns," the 26-year-old tells me. "Sometimes that was uplifting and empowering but, other times, I found myself feeling uneasy and they’d turn into nightmares where I was hurting or fighting with people." 
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A few months into a course of counselling, Tasha’s therapist told her she had experience of dream analysis and suggested that Tasha start keeping a dream journal. 
"I’m currently struggling with unmedicated depression, and she said my moods may be being played out in dreams," Tasha explains. "When I'm feeling low, nightmares are more common and the opposite on better days." 
Her therapist suggested that people without faces might represent the fact that others didn’t know about or understand her mental health issues. "She also drew on what we’d already gone over in sessions to find how it all links into my waking life," Tasha says, adding that they spoke about whether her dream self’s mix of feeling uplifted and behaving aggressively could represent an inner power struggle, and the uncertainty she felt about taking antidepressants.  

Dream interpretation is often seen as self-indulgent and non-scientific. But could our dreams be saying more about our mental health than we realise?

Dream interpretation is often seen as self-indulgent and non-scientific, a bit woo-woo, to be found next to the crystals in your local wellness emporium. Lengthy descriptions of last night's dreams (even the juicy one you had about your ex) are usually met with glazed expressions from only half-listening colleagues. 
But could our dreams be saying more about our mental health than we realise? Many professionals accredited by the British Council for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) or United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) advertise services in dream interpretation and analysis.
One such professional is psychotherapist Matthew Bowes. Since advertising dream interpretation on his website, he tells me he gets regular emails from people describing their dreams and asking him what they mean – but he chooses to keep these discussions within a therapeutic context.
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If a client wants to talk about a dream during a session, Matthew’s approach is first to ask them to describe it in detail and what it means to them. 
"You can draw out lots of different meanings from the same kind of imagery," he tells me, adding that the best insight comes from contextualising the dream according to what he knows about the client’s life and their conflicts.  
"We spend a lot of our lives protecting ourselves against things which are unpleasant, or bits of ourselves that we don’t like," says Matthew. He explains that when a client is "courageous enough" to bring a dream to a session, it can be an opportunity to gain insight into something that they aren’t confronting.
Many of us will be less familiar with dream analysis as an aspect of therapy but it has a long history and was a source of fascination for founding fathers of psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who believed dreams could teach us about the unconscious mind. Interest in the meaning of dreams can be traced back to ancient times; one of the earliest written references to dream interpretation is found in Babylonian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 1800 BC. 
Research around the purpose of dreams has accelerated rapidly since the second half of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists discovered rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, during which we have the most vivid dreams. In 2012, psychotherapists Melinda Powell and Nigel Hamilton founded the Dream Research Institute, a specialist hub within the Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy Education in London.    
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Research over the last 50 years – especially the last 20 – is revealing more and more purposes for dreams for our neurological health.

Melinda POWELL, author of The Hidden Lives of Dreams
"There is a kind of attitude out there that dreams are just random firings of the brain at night," Melinda, author of The Hidden Lives of Dreams, tells me. "Actually, the research over the last 50 years – especially the last 20 – is revealing more and more purposes for dreams for our neurological health."
Melinda points to the fact that infants spend around 50% of their sleep in the REM state, compared with adults’ 20%. "Something’s going on around their neurological development but scientists don’t know exactly what that is," she explains.
"Mindfulness is quite popular now but, when it started, there wasn't a lot of research on how it actually affected us in positive ways," Melinda continues. "Subsequently, there's been quite a body of research showing how slowing down the breathing affects circulation and the rhythm of the heart, how it calms people and reduces anxiety." 
For Emma*, 28, talking to her counsellor about her dreams became an important part of processing trauma after she witnessed a terrorist incident, then lost a friend in a separate terror attack.  
"Having nightmares about the incident and about future incidents was one of the worst symptoms of the trauma," she tells me. "I’d have dreams that I was with my friend on the day of the incident and I knew it was going to happen but I couldn’t stop him from going to where the attack took place."
Emma was concerned that her recurring dreams might be a warning sign that she was severely traumatised and worried what they could mean for her recovery. But when she spoke to her counsellor about the dreams for the first time, she found their insight reassuring. 
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"She said that dreams are a way of your mind processing what’s happened to you while you’re asleep, and so actually it’s helpful to have those dreams because it’s part of the healing process," she says.
Karen Dempsey, a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor at The Awareness Centre in London, agrees that unpleasant dreams can be a normal part of coming to terms with a traumatic event. She adds that some clients also find dreams a useful medium through which to explore past traumatic experiences that they’ve previously struggled to bring to therapy. 
"Any discussion has to happen in a climate of safety," she tells me. "If you're in a process of therapy, I think the dreams will probably come more frequently, because you're in a safe environment so you can then talk about and process them."
Karen is holding a workshop next month to train other therapists in how to work with clients’ dreams. She’ll be teaching what is known as the 'waking dream technique', a practice which involves the client talking about a dream, then closing their eyes and imagining they’re back in it, guided by a therapist. Karen caveats this by saying that she wouldn’t use this technique with people who are suffering nightmares in the aftermath of trauma, as going 'back in' may be detrimental to them.

Nearly a third of our life is spent asleep and, in that time, we are dreaming. It is part of our consciousness and it's active. So why wouldn't we pay attention to it?

DAVE BILLINGTON, DREAM RESEARCH INSTITUTE
The Dream Research Institute is currently examining whether using this method during therapy is beneficial to clients. 
"What that’s looking at is mental wellbeing measures that are used quite broadly – in the NHS and elsewhere," the institute’s director, psychotherapist Dave Billington, tells me of the study so far. "Over time, the general trend is that it does show improvement." 
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The institute is also working on an NHS-approved study into the vivid dreams experienced by people who are developing autoimmune disease, investigating whether dream exploration could help patients’ emotional wellbeing. Another project is exploring the personal and therapeutic benefits of lucid dreaming
Dave points to a study from the University of Swansea which found that talking about dreams increases empathy between people. If you rarely remember your dreams, he advises spending time thinking about the ones you can remember, writing them down and talking about them, as this tends to increase recall. 
"Nearly a third of our life is spent asleep and, in that time, we are dreaming," he says. "It is part of our consciousness and it's active and, to my mind, it's interesting and creative. It's really fascinating. So why wouldn't we pay attention to it?"
*Name has been changed
For information about mental health support visit Mind. You can also call 0300 123 3393, text 86463 or email info@mind.org.uk.

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