Dreamwork for Insight, Creativity, and Growth
The dream is an untapped resource for insight, problem-solving, and self-improvement.
Dreams an Untapped Resource
Dreamwork is a valuable resource and aid in self-help and therapy work. It is a practical and always available tool that supports personal growth, productivity, and mental and emotional health.
Most take dreaming and sleep for granted. Dreams are often forgotten or thought of as silly concoctions fabricated during sleep. If a scary or threatening dream occurs, as the notorious nightmare, it feels like a sleep nuisance and sometimes frightening. When associated with a flashback, recall, or re-experiencing of past trauma, as in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it can terrify and interfere with restorative sleep and awake functioning the next day. If persistent, it could require mental health and medical intervention.
Realizing the Essential Nature of the Dream and Sleep
After a recent surgery, the pain and discomfort terribly disrupted my sleep and dreaming. The experience reminded me of the essential things we often take for granted. I was sleep deprived for at least five days due to pain and other issues after surgery. I could only get small bits of sleep in 5–15-minute spurts thought out the night. I was fearful about whether I would survive the ordeal. The limited, brief episodic periods of sleep never went deep enough to dream. I usually know I have slept when I experience or wake up from a dream. I wanted to reach out for emergency help and to the surgeon responsible for my post-op care. After discharge from the hospital, I understood I could return to the emergency room or contact the doctor or physician assistant the next day during their regular office hours. I knew that the E.R. had a 5-6 hour wait to be seen and treated with no possibility of being readmitted to the then full hospital. Each night, I always thought I could make it through to the next day.
I was dehydrated and looked terrible when I finally got to see the physician monitoring my post-surgery treatment and the urethral catheter left in me after my prostate surgery. He briefly evaluated me, thought I was too ill for office care, and sent me to the emergency room. I arrived, and my evaluation and care took over six hours, with all tests returning okay. Adjustments to the catheter relieved my discomfort, and I was given an IV for dehydration. There was a promise from the urologist that the catheter would come out in a few days. I received some medication for bladder spasms caused by the catheter and was discharged home. The medication helped some, and I could get some sleep the night before returning to the urologist to have my catheter removed. After the removal, I slowly returned to relatively normal sleep and the wonderment of dreaming again.
In reflecting on the post-operative experience, I remember my attention was super focused and hypervigilant in anticipation of the frequent spasms of pain. My body was always in a preparatory state to brace or alter its position to defend against the intense pain. I was exquisitely aware of time, as the torment was cycling and recurring about every 15 to 20. If I fell briefly off to sleep, I would awaken myself in anticipation of the next cycle of pain. It reminded me of when I wanted to sleep well before an important event; I would sometimes wake up multiple times during the night, fearing I would oversleep. Or amazingly, on some planned occasions, I would wonderfully sleep through the night and, like clockwork, would awake at the right time, as if I had magically programmed an internal alarm.
The Contributor to Poor Sleep
The anxious or frightened mind is often super-alert, focused, or hypervigilant, scanning the environment for a threat. It is a reason the sleep quality is so poor. If dreams arise, they can be nightmarish that wake one up when the luxury of sound sleep comes. Disruptive dreams interfere with our need for restorative sleep to recharge the body and mind.
When there are experiences and memories of trauma and the body-mind in a hyper-aroused, preparatory state, panic attacks can occur. A panic attack’s intense physiologic arousal prepares the body for combat or attack, to run or fight. Episodes are usually brief, 5 to 30 minutes, with a pounding heart, rapid pulse, sweating, racing thoughts, and fearful dread of impending loss of control, death, or physical harm.1
In some situations, people, as seen in some animals, will alternatively have a freeze response, become immobilized, and can’t move, as frozen in fear. In walking today, I passed a little rabbit who froze when I walked past it, as an instinctual reaction or maybe sensing I wouldn’t see it.2
Disruptive dreaming with impairment of restorative sleep occurs in some more often than others, especially if there are problems with anxiety or past trauma.3
The Dream and Dreamwork
Dreamwork4 and its framework are a resource if needed in the journey for growth, wisdom, and well-being. Hopefully, most will have the resilience and inner strengths to heal from stress or illnesses with their inborn natural tools and given strengths of the body and mind.
People with severe or life-threatening trauma experience can develop persistent problems. Anxiety, sleep disturbance, hypervigilance, and hyperreactive responses can occur. Often the body adapts in preparation for a future stressful or dangerous situation. You can imagine the nighttime life of people living in war zones, as in Ukraine.
A child with early childhood trauma carries memories and reactivity into adulthood, sometimes later showing up as panic disorder and panic attacks. The panic feels like it came from nowhere but is usually related to memory.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)5 are traumatic occurrences that may affect a child’s later growth and development. ACEs can originate from childhood exposure to trauma, violence, abuse, or living with a family with mental health or substance use problems. Future problems are more prevalent as difficulties managing stress, physical and psychological health problems, and substance use disorders.
In childhood, I had been traumatized on several occasions by a pediatrician forcefully giving me a penicillin shot. Once, the doctor had my two older brothers and father sit on me while I was screaming and squirming so the doctor could give me the injection with what appeared to be a gigantic needle. Around the same age, I was hospitalized for suspected polio, and one of the first things done to me was a spinal tap, also with what seemed like a giant needle. I was an easy submissive target, as I was already exhausted from crying, screaming, and waiting in anticipation of what to expect.
Later, when I began medical school, it was no wonder I had a panic attack and passed out while watching a patient get a needle injection. I was more capable of doing things the further I got into training, acclimating my mind-bodies, adjusting, and reeducating myself. By the time I had been in medicine for a while, I could give injections or draw blood on myself, when necessary, without a panic attack or fainting. People with diabetes can get adept at doing finger sticks to measure blood sugar levels and giving themselves insulin shots.
Dreamwork and Adverse Child or Adult Experiences
Adults and children can experience significant traumatic events affecting their mental and emotional health. Problems are more prone to arise if the memories of the terrorizing and threatening experiences get held in the memory storage areas of the brain. They remain a nidus for possible future disturbance when stored and incompletely worked through or processed. The nervous system’s filing away of disturbing sensory and emotional material related to traumatic events helps the person better carry on daily essential tasks and priority things without interference. There are, however, releases of the memory material when dreaming in the forms of dreams and nightmares that allow the opportunity for further processing and working through so as not to be a future disruptive influence as past remembered material.
Occasionally in waking hours, some release of unfinished materials embedded in memory might appear as a period of nervousness, anxiety, or panic attacks without a clear notion of when they arise or what triggers the anxiety-related occurrence.
When heightened anxiety or arousal occurs, a person becomes hyper-focused on the things of immediate concern. Everything else gets pushed to the background with much less priority. So, the usual internal mental reasoning and dialogue either get shut down or overrun by racing thoughts or hyper-awareness and scanning the internal or external environment for sensed warnings of a threat. The anxious mental and emotional occurrences may cause a disruptive sleep nightmare or keep one out of or on the edge of any beneficial sleep.
Dialogue as a Key to Finding Perspective and Wisdom
The usual internal mental dialogue or reasoning during our wakeful hours helps us find perspective and guidance in making choices about life activities and relationships. External exchanges in a social context with others, including significant relationships, are vital in getting us out of the stuck or locked-in perspectives of our closed-in internal reasoning, belief, and rigid ideas.
For some, getting out of locked perspectives and rigid thinking only becomes possible in a psychotherapy relationship with a psychotherapist. The therapist is often a skilled facilitator of dialogue that can help transition one out of the self-imposed isolation of their thinking and cognitive processing.
Dreamwork provides an opportunity to develop a self-dialogue between your waking mind with remembered dream material on which you can reflect for insight and perspective on your life and activities.
Right, Left Brain and Some Speculation about Dreaming and the Brain’s Working and Dreamwork
The initial phase of dreams may originate in the right part of the brain, which experiences an array of impressions or residues of incompletely processed material from previous days and times. The left brain, selection, and abstraction functions create a more sensible working story. As the dreamer gets closer to waking state, as in REM sleep, the narrative gets more reasonable, and your presence in the dream becomes more defined. Trying to control or take control of the dreams is analogous to your efforts in your awake state.
Neuroscience has tried to study and figure out what all the various areas of the brain do in the awake and dream state. The right and left brains communicate differently in wakefulness and dreaming. The differences contribute to the uniqueness of what happens in dreaming and its different stages. Though specialized in their own way, the divided left and right brains continuously interact and communicate for optimal functioning, understanding, and awareness of yourself and the external environment, but probably do so much differently during sleep and dreaming.
The right brain operates in waking life to create more context for awareness and experiencing the external world, threats, or pleasures. It gathers information for the left brain to abstract the data in its more task-oriented work, solves problems, and organizes and carries out activities. In receiving and processing data, the right brain contributes more information to give depth and context. Still, with its specialized function, it sends the left brain to narrow down information selectively and makes it into workable units for building a practical framework for intellectual and cognitive functioning. In the dream state, the left-brain activity is less influenced by the right brain’s contextual, information-providing function.
Another way of looking at it is that the right brain is perhaps more present in the earlier phases of dreaming. As waking nears, more activity gets oriented towards defining and controlling and shifts to more left-brain dominance. In the waking state, the right brain provides a broader array of information, which aids the left brain in its abstraction and selections for problems solving and creating more specific workable units for applications and actions. The left brain focuses on and selects data to construct a framework to get things done. The left brain inhibits, at times, the right brain’s gathering of environmental data, sensory input, and contextual providing information, so it can better focus and get things done. For a better explanation and understanding of the neuroscience involved, see the detailed and scholarly work by Iain McGilchrist.6
A key point here is that dreamwork is helpful when people get stuck in places of imbalance where the right and left brain seems to not be in optimal communicative interaction and flow, causing mental and emotional problems. For various reasons, a person gets caught in the over-domination of the left brain’s narrowed task orientation with the loss of perspective. The contextual input from the right brain is lost, leading to inflexible thinking and action, sometimes destructive and potentially dangerous. Being too “left brain” stifles creativity, empathy, and relating to others for constructive activities. Dreamwork is a tool to help to see, understand and restore more flexibility and communicative balance to our brain system, improving understanding and perspective.
The Art of Dream Journaling and Dreamwork
Dream journaling and dreamwork are avenues for use alone by yourself, with a teacher of the art of dreamwork or a trained psychotherapist knowledgeable in doing dreamwork. Dreamwork is a great help to gain perspective, new ideas for your work, insight into your relationships, and deep-help beliefs about yourself.
With attention to healthy sleep habits, dreams can be harnessed to witness the informative interaction of your dream persona with dream events somewhat analogous to what is happening in your awake life or in relating to events or dramas of the day: anything from a relationship with a significant other, a boss, or a person on the street, or in a movie seen on T.V. The dream journaling becomes a revealing inner dialogue with yourself which can bring insight and precious perspective on life issues which can enhance growth and creativity.
The Senoia dream people7 did dream sharing in a family circle every morning to guide everyone in their daily life activities and relationships.
I get aggravated at funnel marketing, where people lead you into buying stuff by cleverly building up a case of why you need or can’t live without something you probably don’t need. I especially am irritated when I fall for it and end up buying something and regretting it afterward. So, no wonder that it will occasionally come up in my dreams.
Last night I dreamed that the “I” in my dream, what I call, my dream persona was at an event where there were a couple of salespeople selling their new apps that would operate on a new type of smartwatch to let you know where you were in terms of maps and direction. Another product for sale by another sales agent monitored your health and vital signs and would warn of an early vertigo attack when swimming. I am a swimmer who has had vertigo—a loss of balance and a spinning sensation. So, this one definitely got my attention. With either of these apps, if you paid about $10 per month, each sales agent would give you a free smartwatch on which the apps worked. Towards morning in lighter dreaming. I could not decide if I wanted to get one or both. When I realized, in the dream, that perhaps I didn’t need either, I worried that I had already paid for them and, if so, how I would get out of it.
There are many variations in the dreaming and the stories that unfold or the fragments that appear. Most have significance and meaning if you can unravel or discover them. As my usual practice, I recorded the dream in a dream journal soon after waking up. I keep my recording brief and end the passage with a reflection on the meaning and relevance to the self I identify in my daily awake life and activities. I often see that the persona in the dream story has a lot of similarities to the waking life “I” and usually appears as the leading character in the dream story. Sometimes the lead character could be someone else or an object, or my persona presence in the dream may be as an observer.
My reflection on the above dream was constructive as it got me in touch with how vulnerable I am sometimes to the sales funnel and the need to be more cautious before hitting the buy button. Also, it brought me closer to that part of me that always feels some lack or insecurity.
Reflection on Dreamwork, Dream Interpretation, and Benefits
Dreams prompt some linked memories from the past that help me understand my present life experience. When helpful, dreams may be of benefit for better clarity and wiser informed choices. The above dream gave me the insight and fortitude to cancel orders for a couple of programs I was considering purchasing. My brief morning dreamwork was a valuable aid in my decision-making.
Dreamwork is a helpful tool for enhancing awareness and recognizing anxiety, conflict, or indecision that may need attention. It offers a reflective time to tap into a resource that benefits emotional and mental health—it is like your own handy personal tool, therapist, or resource when required.
Interpretation of dreams is an art best accomplished by you, as the dreamer can best make associations with the variety and complexities of their unique life experiences and memories. With time, self-study, and practice, one can self-learn and improve their skills. Others may need or benefit from a teacher or therapist that can teach them about dreamwork until the individual is confident and motivated to do it on their own. It can become a path for getting closer to understanding oneself, potentialities, and the realities of life. It can be a journey towards self-actualization, as Carl Jung, the renowned writer, and psychiatrist, discussed in some of his classic writings.8
For dream journaling,9 I use the Evernote app on my mobile phone, where I can open the app and dictate it into my dream note section in my Evernote app.
My interest in dreamwork comes from a long personal history, probably starting when I began my psychiatry residency and my mentoring by people with whom I studied. I used to run a dream group with 8-10 people meeting weekly in the earlier years of my medical practice, which was very interesting and informative to all. Also helpful were colleagues and friends that were students of Freud’s psychoanalytic work and Jung’s work on dreaming, who had applied it in their daily lives. Later in my residency and early career, I could do some Jungian analysis with some very talented people and students of dreamwork.
Most of what I learned about dreamwork came from periods when I consistently did dream journaling and personal reflection about the meaning and the relevance of dreams to my daily awake life. The seeking and journey toward wisdom and knowledge is always an essential mission and goal for us, just as it is for philosophers, teachers, and spiritual seekers. We often seek a closer understanding of reality and truth but accept that as we’re only human, and the impossibility of knowing all about who we are and the true meaning of things.
The attempt to get into the dream and control it, lucid dreaming, is often a challenge many seek to do. Many struggle to control things in their daily life, so I guess if it were possible in dreams, it would be a pleasurable and rewarding experience, at least while dreaming. Some coaches of athletes try to get their trainees to use daydreams and imagination to practice their performance skills. Some may advocate for mastering lucid dreaming to practice for events if possible. Still, the daydream is perhaps closer to the waking state and more open to one’s influence.
Dreams and sleep are phenomena we don’t entirely understand, even with all the advances in neuroscience and academia. One frustration is the attempt to control things we can’t, as often occurs when trying to control sleep and dreaming, similar to the attempts to control things in our waking lives that we can’t. The harder we try, the more elusive it sometimes becomes, especially with sleep and dreaming.
A myriad of books and courses are available on sleep and dreaming. However, the perfect way to successfully manage sleep and dreaming for many remains elusive. There are many skills, however, from which one can benefit in the quest for enhanced sleep and dreaming.
Sleep is the gateway to dreams and is essential for health maintenance and recovery from illness. Learn the skill to enhance or get consistent restorative sleep. Always be the caretaker of the body-mind sleep and dream function.10,11
Consult your healthcare provider if you have disruptive, disturbed sleep, don’t feel restored the next day, or have excessive daytime sleepiness. There are often correctible underlying causes, and resources are always available.
Likewise, if your sleep is often disturbed by severe anxiety, dreams, and nightmares, get help from your primary healthcare person, a sleep specialist, or mental health provider.
If sleep problems are associated with emotional states such as fear, anxiety, panic, depression, mood swings, residual upset after severe loss or trauma, or a major disruptive life event, consult or get support from a mental provider.
Dreamwork can be an invaluable tool that you can use to support yourself in your daily life activities. It can provide a better understanding to help resolve inner turmoil, conflicts, and indecision. It also is a gateway and path towards greater understanding and awareness about yourself and others. It can be a tool to support your creativity and benefit you in your life management and relationships. Your interest, further study, and skill-building in dreamwork can be enriching and valuable.
#dreamwork #dreams #selfhelp #mentalhealth #productivity #conflictresolution #anxiety #panicattacks #ACEs #luciddreaming #PTSD #sleephelp #trauma
Anxiety is very common in the population and one of the most common mental health problems in the U.S., with an estimated more than15 percent of the population being affected, according to a 2019 CDC study. Untreated anxiety leads to depression and many health issues as high blood pressure, gastrointestinal disturbances, pain and sleep problems, obesity, cognitive impairment, and diabetes. Screening for anxiety is an important thing for all healthcare providers to do
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western, World Paperback – illustrated, March 26, 2019, by Iain McGilchrist
Sleep Scientist Tip. Article from the NYTimes, 2022/08/05 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/08/05/well/sleep-scientist-tips.html