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Are Dreams Essential to Mental Health?

Updated on October 30, 2013

Young and Old, We All Must Dream

Dreading and Anticipating Makes Us Dream

When we dream, it's about something coming up in the future.

For example, if someone knows he will have a certain type of job assignment next week, he may dream about what he imagines it will be like to do that work.

Because the setting of the dream probably will be something experienced in the past, which is like the work to be done next week, we sometimes think that we dream about the past. But the past usually is just something we know about the future we are anticipating.

Dreams do not predict the future, as some people believe. Most people do not believe in the ability of humans to know the future. But for those who do believe in this magic power, they deserve our respect because there is no harm in believing this. No one knows with certainty whether they are right or wrong.

But when we know we will have an exam next week, or we know we will graduate from college next month, this is a normal topic for a dream about the future. It's not a prediction of a future event because the event is already on the calendar set to happen.

Other dreams about the future are those about less certain events, but still events that logically can be expected to occur--we just don't know when.

The reason we dream about the future with imaginary settings based on familiar past experiences is that the future really is all we have to concentrate on productively inside our subconscious minds.

When we are driving we have to keep our eyes and minds on the road in front of us, unless we are driving in reverse. But our subconscious minds are on the exam coming up next week, or the fact we don't have a job yet and have to print up some resumes.

Certainly driving is the most important thing. It's in the present. If we don't concentrate there may be no future at all for us because we'll be in an accident. But the subconscious thoughts, barring any exceptional event in the present, are far more important. That's why we dream about our anxious anticipations of events that we are fairly sure will happen.

Because we don't know exactly what will take place, just a little about what the setting will be, we have to fall back on any similar past experiences to imagine the future that's occupying our subconscious.

By imagining something as we dream, we make it seem to happen. We get it over with. We don't have to worry anymore. We wake up relieved even if we had a nightmare.

But within a few minutes the anxiety and dread come back because we realize the event really has not occurred yet. It's still full of uncertainties. This is true for the scary future and happy anticipation as well. The only thing significant future events have in common is that they are important to us, otherwise they wouldn't occupy our minds enough to qualify for the big leagues of dream-level scenarios.

Dreams are like movies. They are always about significant things, whether we recognize them as such or not. They have to incorporate some familiar settings in order to be understood. Also, they have important endings, either happy, tragic, or mysterious.

The best thing about a dream however is that we wake up. It's like walking out of a movie theater and being able to converse, either with someone else or inside our imagination, about the show we just saw. We think about a dream if we remember it. If we don't, it's still there inside the subconscious, working invisibly like medicine in a wound.

As I recall my dreams, I feel more comfortable. A portion of my anxiety has left. Sleep has knit up the raveled sleeve of care (thank you Shakespeare) just enough to let me concentrate on shaving, dressing, and getting ready to work again. But still in the back of my mind dread and anticipation take over again. I'll have to wait for bedtime to have another dream and bring the anxiety down a notch for tomorrow hopefully.

Dreams are wonderful, scary or not. They help us deal with the only thing that really matters--the future. The past is gone. The present moves so fast we can't possess it. But the future always is there, on our calendars and in our imaginations. Thank goodness for dreams.

In ancient times, dreams were significant for interpreting what messages might have come to people from God or to give a glimpse into the future. Modernly, psychiatrists study dreams to try to cure mental illnesses.

The latest thinking on the subject of dreams among the experts is that we have freedom of choice, either to accept the dream as significant or reject it as meaningless. Many experts strongly advise that we should examine the good dreams closely to help us in our waking hours, but that we should reject and ignore any bad dreams that hinder us during the day.

Because everyone is free to interpret the meaning of his or her dreams, there is no harm in doing some analysis of a dream. Generally, dreams are thought to have a good, healthy effect on us. But we shouldn't take dreams too seriously and look for some profound meaning when in fact not every dream is significant to us in our daily lives.

Dreams can give us, however, a better understanding of ourselves, especially regarding our attitudes and emotional feelings toward important future events that we anticipate.

Dreaming Child

How to Analyze a Dream

Trying to find a connection or significance between a dream and daily living is a difficult task that practitioners in the mental health field often attempt, but that just about everyone tries to do on his or her own when a vivid dream is remembered.

The significance of dreams fascinates people because they feel their subconscious minds are trying to tell them something important, and they should pay attention to the message the dream might bear. In ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations, the interpretation of dreams was considered important enough to be the foundation of serious organizations and institutions of society. Today, however, there is not such an importance placed on dreams, but they still have a fascination for people, although analysis and interpretation of dreams are criticized by many people who consider this a waste of time or superstition.

Despite the many studies and opinions by mental health practitioners, including the great Freud, the interpretation and analysis of dreams still appears to be based only on opinion and not much scientifically provable foundation. Because psychiatrists seem to disagree so much, people are left to their own devices to interpret their own dreams. Websites or psychiatrists who purport to interpret dreams are lumped together with fortune tellers who've not inspired much confidence in the public. There's a prevailing fear of quackery in anyone who would consider letting another person interpret his or her dreams. People feel their dreams are too personal to be interpreted by anyone except themselves.

Dreams, in the end, are not nearly as important as the occurrences and responsibilities that shape our daily lives. Decisions have to be made by the conscious mind, not the subconscious. However, dreams can point to things that are in the back of people's minds, things that worry them and cause anxiety. In a sense, it's good to dream so as to confront one's own fears and worries. By so doing, people are honest with themselves and admit these things in keeping with the Shakespearean quotation, "To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, that thou canst not then be false to any man."


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