The importance of dream work in therapy
For as long as I can remember, I have always had very vivid dreams. Some nights as a child, I’d long for sleep so that I could return to a favourite dream, where I’d soar across the night sky like a bird, feeling a true sense of freedom and weightlessness. Other times I might wake feeling very unsettled, sweating, feeling frightened believing I’d been followed and unable to run. Fearing for my life, I’d wake up shouting for my mother.
My parents were always in the background reassuringly whispering into my ear that "It’s all just a dream, ignore it, nothing is real – go back to sleep." My dreams though continued and it wasn’t until I started training to be a counsellor that I felt I needed to confront a reoccurring dream that I was having. It was starting to plague me night and day and I was beginning to feel weary and desperate. I’d wake in the night gasping for breath, floundering around the bedroom, trying to find something… feeling so fearful… the panic so unbearable.
In my therapist's room, however, I felt awkward, wondering whether this was appropriate material for the counselling hour. After all, I was paying for therapy – so why waste it on some made up dream?
My counsellor, however, was very intuitive and could tell that I was hiding something and she encouraged me to actively start exploring my unconscious. She offered me a non-judgemental, empathic and honest environment. She didn’t try to pretend to be an expert on dreams.
I was able to talk openly about my experience, and I could focus on the symbols, memorable smells and sense of feeling I had during the dreams. She didn’t try to interpret any of these elements for me. She didn’t try to shut me down or ignore the potential importance of the most seemingly innocuous parts. Ultimately, she just stayed with me.
We were able also to incorporate the dreams with elements of my childhood and present life and I was able to start making connections that I found to be very helpful. I was healing.
I managed to unravel a lot of unresolved grief that I was evidently holding for my mother who died 15 years previously and I realised that I also felt a lot of death anxiety. Talking about these issues alleviated the nightmares over time and I no longer wake up feeling frightened and delirious.
In order to cope with trauma, our minds can be very protective and they will bury difficult memories and feelings so that we can get by day to day. However, they don’t disappear completely and can manifest in very unhelpful ways. I made space for these feelings within the counselling room. I actively chose to face my fears whilst being supported by a therapist.
I believe that dreams, especially reoccurring themes, can indicate that there is something in our lives that needs attention, or perhaps a part of us that needs expression. Identifying a pattern can help us to be better equipped to deal with life and I can see how this can be just as important in our dream worlds as it is in our waking behaviours.
Dream work has been studied of course by many theorists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and I incorporate their ideas into my own counselling work. A lot of interesting themes, patterns and connections can be made even with the most bizarre material and clients are often left feeling a sense of relief and contentment after having utilised that area of their mind.
No dream is good or bad or right or wrong – they are merely the unique expressions of us as dreamers. As a counsellor, I would encourage you to remain curious about your own dreams and to find out what your dream world brings.