You’ve probably heard that sleep is essential.
The CDC points out that a good night’s sleep could reduce your risk for:
- heart disease
A lesser cited benefit of sleep is that it offers a window into the subconscious realm. It allows you to tap into what some experts call your “inner therapist.”
In other words: your dreams.
“I like to refer to our dreams as our second brain,” says Lauri Loewenberg, a certified dream analyst, author, and member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD). “It’s a brain that’s much wiser and much more brutally honest than our [daytime] brain.”
The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates that we spend about 2 hours dreaming each night, but we only remember a select few.
“The dreams you tend to remember are the ones where you wake up during the dream,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, a California-based psychiatrist, sleep medicine specialist, and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.
Dimitriu adds that people wake up during dreams for two main reasons: something external, like an alarm, or the impact of the dream itself. External factors often wake people up during REM sleep, because it isn’t as deep as other stages of sleep.
The dreams we remember may hold a key that uncovers aspects of our well-being.
“Our dreams force us to look at issues that we ignore during the day… [and] tell us what we need to know right now,” Loewenberg says. “They’re our built-in GPS.”
But some dreams that seem real during the night feel implausible when we wake up.
For example, pregnancy is a common dream image. But if there’s no way you could be pregnant, it might feel confusing or irrelevant at best.
Similarly, you probably wouldn’t forget to put clothes on before heading out to go grocery shopping, but people often dream that they’re naked in public.
“Our dreams are a continuation of our thoughts during the day… but instead of talking to ourselves and thinking in words, we’re thinking in symbols,” Loewenberg says.
Interpreting what those symbols mean can help us figure out where we are mentally and emotionally and what areas need extra attention.
Read on to learn what the experts say about the common meanings behind popular dream images, plus the pros and cons of using dream analysis as a mental health tool.
Dream images have common meanings, but there’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all interpretation.
“Dream images only have useful meanings when they’re understood within the context of a person’s life,” says John Machalaba, PsyD, a Philadelphia-based clinical psychologist who uses dream analysis with his clients.
For example, if you’re trying to get pregnant, a pregnancy dream may represent your hopes or something you’re thinking about constantly. But, if you’re not trying to conceive, it may have a more symbolic interpretation.
The way a dream makes you feel matters as much as the content, Machalaba says. Thinking about your emotional state during and after the dream can help you better delve into what your “inner-therapist” is trying to tell you about your well-being.
“Let your mind freely associate on the components of a dream,” Machalaba says. “Why are you trying to get to a train? Are you excited to get to [your] destination or dreading it?”
Though there’s no black-and-white interpretation of every dream, there are some widely accepted meanings behind some common images, Loewenberg says. While these generalizations can be a jumping-off point for reflection, they aren’t based on scientific evidence.
Some commone dream images include:
- tidal waves
- teeth falling out
- being naked in public
- job or school panic
- being cheated on
- marrying your first love
- being chased
- being pregnant
Analysis: If your dream beach day takes a tsunami-style turn, it may be your subconscious asking you to reckon with the fact that life hasn’t been smooth sailing of late.
“A tidal wave dream will show up when you’re feeling very overwhelmed emotionally — to the point that you could be allowing yourself to be swept away from your daily routine,” Loewenberg says. “Your dream is bringing that to life to show you that you’re on the verge of losing focus.”
Teeth falling out
Analysis: Loewenberg says that dreams involving the mouth are typically connected to communication during waking hours.
“[Teeth falling out] tends to happen when we said something we wish we could take back,” Loewenberg says, adding that these dreams may symbolize the regret you may feel for oversharing or hurting someone.
Naked in public
Analysis: Loewenberg says she had this dream herself before she went on television for the first time. Some people may have it before dinner with their significant other’s family.
“The naked-in-public dream happens when we’re feeling vulnerable [and concerned] about how others see us,” she says.
But specifics matter. This oft-talked-about dream image is an opportunity to take a step back and evaluate the full context and content of the dream.
“Usually, the biggest concern is that people are looking at you,” Loewenberg says. “You hide. You notice that no one in the dream seems to care. This is the way that our wiser second brain is telling us, ‘You have a lot of anxiety about how you may appear to others, but no one else is giving it the energy you are.’”
Analysis: School dreams often have one or two major dilemmas. Most commonly, they involve forgetting about a major test or assignment or not being able to find your way around.
These dreams can occur, even if you haven’t been in a classroom setting in quite some time. School typically represents your career.
“School is your first job, and it’s where you learn what a job takes,” Loewenberg says.
If you’re not prepared for a test, Loewenberg notes you might feel overwhelmed by a big task at work. Feeling lost may symbolize your current feelings about your job.
“Odds are good that, in real life, you don’t feel like you’re where you are supposed to be in your job or career,” Loewenberg says. “You’re still searching, just like you are in your dream.”
Analysis: Loewenberg says this is probably the most common dream she hears about from her clients.
“It’s that rapid downward feeling that’s important to pay attention to,” Loewenberg says. “You’ll get that dream when something in your own life feels to be rapidly going in the wrong direction.”
Loewenberg says relationship issues or a big let-down in life, such as losing a job, can bring on this dream.
Significant other is cheating
Analysis: The context of your relationship is important when interpreting this one. It matters if there’s been a history of infidelity.
“If [you or your partner cheated] and you’re getting this dream, it’s an indication that some healing needs to happen,” Loewenberg says, adding that infidelity in previous relationships can also bring on this dream.
But what if neither of you is the cheating type?
“It’s shining a light on something that’s going to help your current relationship,” Loewenberg says. “Something is causing you to feel left out. There’s a third-wheel in the relationship.”
For example, perhaps your current partner is working overtime at their job, but you’re craving more time together. Loewenberg says it’s an indication you two may need to work through these feelings.
You married your first love
Analysis: The first person we love tends to show up in our dreams decades later, even if we haven’t spoken to them in years.
“[Your ex] is no longer playing themselves [in these dreams] but rather represents those feelings of passion and excitement,” Loewenberg says. “If you’re marrying this person in your dreams, that’s your subconscious saying it’s time to bring these feelings back.”
Loewenberg notes that it might be your second brain encouraging you to get back out there and date if you’re not currently in a relationship.
If you are, it may be an indication to reignite a spark with your partner.
You’re being chased
Analysis: Dreaming about being chased can be anxiety-provoking, even though it’s not literally happening. Figuratively speaking, you might be trying to outrun something while you’re awake.
“In real life, what are you avoiding? What are you trying to get away from?” Loewenberg asks clients who come to her after having this dream. “This dream is really common… for people who have the recurring behavior problem of avoidance or procrastination. They’ll get the dream when they need to have a confrontation, but they don’t because they don’t want to deal with it.”
Loewenberg also says sometimes trauma survivors who have not fully processed their emotions may also have this dream.
Analysis: Even if you don’t want to get pregnant in real life, Loewenberg notes this dream is typically a sign of positive things to come.
“The pregnancy symbolizes something in your life or self that’s growing or in the development stage,” she says. “Maybe you’re working on a degree or experiencing spiritual growth… This growth is happening and will result in new life for you.”
There may be multiple benefits to using dream analysis to evaluate and work on your well-being. Dreams can:
- complement therapy
- help you understand your feelings
- reveal hidden needs
- point to issues that need addressing
Dreams are a renewable, free resource
Dreams are free, and they’re constantly happening.
“You’re getting new information every night,” Loewenberg says. “Dreams are messages from you, to you, about you, in order to improve you.”
Therapy can be highly beneficial in helping people assess and work on their mental health. But it costs money, and sessions don’t happen every day.
Dream interpretation should never replace therapy with a licensed professional. Seeking therapy is an important part of a well-rounded mental healthcare plan.
There are multiple options available, so you can find therapy that’s right for you and in your budget. There are also options for online therapy.
Dreams help you understand your feelings
Sometimes, life gets in the way of allowing us to evaluate our feelings. Perhaps you’re swamped at work or constantly on the go.
“We’re so busy in the day-to-day minutia, and we lose track of our emotional states,” Machalaba says. “Dreams build better emotional awareness and help you understand what you’re feeling and when you’re feeling it.”
Dreams uncover needs
As you better understand your feelings and why you’re experiencing them, you may also unearth some things you didn’t know about your well-being.
“Dreams can help us triage things in our life that need attending to,” Machalaba says. “Perhaps there’s a big deadline coming up, but you find yourself constantly dreaming about your relationship. Perhaps that deadline isn’t quite as important as what’s happening in your relationship.”
Dreams encourage us to address issues
Our nighttime thoughts can serve as a wake-up call.
Dreams can be our subconscious telling us about things we need to confront during the day. These issues can be for the good of our mental health, such as career dissatisfaction.
“Sweeping things under the rug results in a big pile of things, until you can’t close the door anymore,” Dimitriu says. “Therapy and dreams work in the same way. It’s good to understand yourself and not run from something scary.”
As with anything, there are some drawbacks to using dream analysis to boost your mental health. Dream analysis:
- doesn’t replace therapy
- can be too literal
- can bring up challenging emotions
Dream analysis doesn’t replace therapy
All three experts agree: Dream analysis alone is not a replacement for speaking with a licensed mental health professional. But talking about your dreams with a therapist might help.
“You’re going to get answers way quicker if you use dream analysis,” Dimitriu says. “The best way to get to the meat of the dream… is with a professional.”
Dream analysis can be too literal
Dreaming your significant other is cheating on you or marrying your ex doesn’t mean you need to end your current relationship if you’re in one.
“If you take it too literally, it can do more harm than good,” Machalaba says.
Machalaba says working with a dream analyst or therapist, rather than simply turning to books and Google, can help mitigate this risk.
He recommends taking this step, particularly if you’ll use dream analysis as a regular way to evaluate your mental health and make decisions.
Dreams can bring up challenging emotions
Therapy may involve confronting painful emotions or past trauma to move forward, even without dream analysis.
On top of that, dreams can unveil emotions we’ve buried during the day — and there may be a reason for that.
“You might not be thinking about it in your waking moments, because it’s really hard emotionally,” Machalaba says. “By analyzing dreams, you may intensify a negative emotion for a period of time.”
But the ultimate objective is to come to a solution that helps you feel better mentally.
“It can help you gain insights into emotions and inspire change,” Machalaba says.
If this happens, it’s best to get the support of a trained mental health professional.
The bottom line
Exploring your dream content can bring up powerful emotions and even repressed memories. Do so with the support of a licensed mental health professional.
Even when we sleep, our mind is at work. Though we may not remember every dream, the ones we do remember can unearth clues into how we’re feeling emotionally.
Dream analysis is not a replacement for traditional therapy, and doing it on your own can lead to misinterpretation, particularly if you take the dream too literally.
When it’s done in conjunction with traditional therapy, dream analysis can inspire change and help us solve problems that prevent us from feeling our best mentally.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.