Dreams Can Offer Insights into Daily Life

I’ve dreamt of the war almost every night since it started. The dreams are never alike, but the theme of war is part of my sleep sonata.

“I wonder if I’ll have to go to war again tonight?” I mention to Sarah, 17, as we drive home, late, from a lecture.

“A lot of my friends tell me they are dreaming about war, too,” she said.

“What about you?” I asked.

“Sure. I dream about war – and my Spanish homework,” she said.

War has also crept into my patients’ dreams, and into their psychotherapy sessions, more than any other event since Sept. 11. I ask teens and adults what their dreams mean to them. We try to use that material in the context of what else they are going through. But my dream work with them is pretty basic.

When it comes to my own dreams, I hardly pay attention to them. I may wake up in the morning and tell my husband, in vivid detail, about a dream I’ve just had. He listens. But he’s not a dream interpreter. His typical, sleepy response: “Wow. You’re disturbed.”

He’s being sarcastic. But some of my dreams of late have been disturbing. I suspect that many of us are dreaming about combat and other conflict.

I called dream expert Layne Dalfen, 50, author of “Have a Great Dream: Decoding Your Dreams to Discover Your Full Potential” (Adams Media, $12.95 in paperback). Dalfen, who is not a psychotherapist, has been doing dream interpretation with private clients in Montreal for 30 years. She’s also a regular guest on more than 75 radio programs. She has extensively studied the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

“When I do the radio shows, it’s fascinating,” she said from her home in Montreal. “I decode dreams for people as they drive to work. Dreams are a metaphor for something very current in your life.

“If we pay attention to them, they can help us solve problems and show us our strengths. We are sophisticated thinkers who can uncover parts of our personalities that may have gone to sleep.”

Dalfen makes a good point, one that psychotherapists have known for years: Once we have insight, with new, perhaps, unconscious, knowledge, it gives us strength to move forward. Dreams may be a valuable tool to that insight. But how do we make our dreams more clear and then make sense out of them?

Some suggestions from Dalfen:

Keep a pad of paper at the bedside and write down every single detail from the dream upon waking. The goal is to attach the dream to a current issue that you are trying to problem-solve.

Ask yourself these questions: How did I feel during the dream? What’s going on in my life today, this week, that is causing these feelings? Sometimes we lie to ourselves during the day, but the dream will never lie. Dalfen says you can always depend on your unconscious to tell the truth.

Say the dream out loud and look for images or plays on words. (“I dreamt that there were snakes all over the floor and I couldn’t put my foot down.”)

Isolate the symbols: people, places, objects. Then ask yourself, what are the first two or three things that come to mind when you think of these objects. Is there a connection to your waking life?

Go back to the dream and look for solutions within the metaphors or ideas that have come from your own dream analysis. This dream exercise takes some effort. The meanings are difficult because there is no correct answer. But the night before I was to interview Dalfen, I had yet another dream about war. This time, it ended with the image of an old college friend – one I hadn’t seen in 20 years. The last time I had seen her, she was coping with arthritis, something she had been diagnosed with at 16. But in the dream, she looked beautiful, refreshed and healthy.

“The war is chaotic and frightening, much like your friend’s battle with her illness,” Dalfen said. “But amid adversity, there is always calm and beauty.”

Dreams offer us an intimate pathway into our unconscious. And calmness amid adversity is a welcome way to start any day.


The Milwakee Journal, by Polly Drew