anxiety depression Individual Counseling

Do Dreams have Meaning?

Is there some significance to our dreams?  Actually, yes.  However, from my experience dreams are not about wish fulfillment as Freud postulated.  Our dreams represent an unconscious attempt to work on concerns we are having at the present time. 

One of my clients has been having nightmares lately after a stressful life event. The fact that he kept having nightmares with the same themes was becoming distressing on its own. We decided to try to do some dream analysis to try to understand what the dream was really about so he could put it aside and stop stressing about it. Doing this work made me want to write an article about it, so here goes.

Why Do We Dream?

When we are stressed, our brains tend to work on the problem even during sleep.  Sometimes we will dream about something rather ordinary that doesn’t have any big meaning other than representing our mind continuing to think about an event that happened.  Other times, and especially if we have a dream that repeats, such as a nightmare, it is our brain’s way of processing an event to make sense of something that happened.  Quite often, when the issue is resolved in real life, the dream goes away as well.

What Do Dreams Mean?

Much of our dream content is symbolic so if you want to understand the meaning of your dream, think about the imagery in the dream– objects, colors, places, people and figures in the dream often represent specific things that have unique meaning to us.   Sometimes the symbolism can be from something we are not even consciously aware of.  For example, when I was a child, my parents had been arguing a lot and it was very distressing for me.  I had a nightmare where I was surrounded by hundreds of scorpions and crabs.  I later learned that the crab and scorpion were my parents’ astrological signs, but I couldn’t have told you what their signs were if you had asked me at that time of the dream. Somehow, I knew this information unconsciously.

Quite often our dreams include shadowy figures who seem faceless, sometimes it could seem like a monster of some sort, chasing us.  Often, these figures don’t represent a specific person, but perhaps a situation we are dealing with at the time.  When we dream about specific people, the dream isn’t necessarily about that person but what they represent to us in our life.  For example, dreaming about your ex boyfriend may not be about them specifically, it may represent relationships in general and something you’re trying to understand about them.

What Can I Do with Dreams?

I’ve had clients who have nightmares (sometimes called anxiety dreams) that have the same theme to them, but often the content is quite similar from one dream to the next.  Although I’m no expert on dream analysis (are there any experts on this?), it can be useful to talk about the dream and do a little free association about the various things represented in the dream.  For example, one woman’s dream included a horse that was being neglected in a pasture.  She loved horses in real life.  When asked what color the horse was, it was brown.  This woman had long brown hair.  She came to realize the horse represented herself and that she was feeling abandoned or neglected in real life.  

Another person had a dream when they were a child that they were in a small rowboat in the middle of the ocean, on a stormy night.  Their mother was in the boat but they were the one doing the rowing.  In the dream, they stopped the boat and had to get out a huge ship’s anchor and throw it overboard while their mother sat in the back of the boat silently and not doing anything.  The dream went on but there was a lot of symbolism in the dream.  We talked about the possible representation of being on the ocean. Why was the child rowing and not the mother? What did the mother represent? Why was the anchor so large and what was the meaning of the child having to lift the anchor by themselves?  Lots of things to unpack in that dream.

Sometimes, there is action or inaction in our dreams.  We are running away from something, falling, flying, sinking, etc.  We’ve all had dreams about finding ourselves in class and then remember it’s final exam day and we forgot to study for it.  These dreams can represent a feeling of powerlessness we are feeling about a current situation.

How Do I Analyze My Dream Content?

One useful thing that can come from dreams is they can highlight something we’ve been struggling with in real life.  When we realize something has been weighing on us so heavily that we even dream about it, we can pay more attention to it in our waking hours.  For example, maybe you keep having a dream about running away from monsters but your feet are like cement. It may be you’re feeling overwhelmed about a situation and feeling you have little power to change things.  You might start to realize there is more you can do about it than you at first thought.

One problem with dreams is that they often fade from conscious thought rapidly once we wake up.  Keep a journal next to your bed. Write down as many details as you can when you first wake up.  The more you write, you’ll  remember other details from the dream.  Take each significant item from the dream and write down what thoughts come to mind when you think about it. 

For example, dreaming about a bee scaring you might make you think about the bright colors red and yellow.  Thinking about those colors might make you think of caution signs that are always those same bright colors.  You might decide the bee was meant to bring your attention to what was happening in the dream at that moment.  Dreaming about your childhood home could call to mind happier times, or perhaps stressful times, maybe something else.

Usually, when you hit on the correct meaning of dream items, you’ll experience a kind of “eureka” moment. If you do this enough, you may get some meaning that is useful to apply to your real life.

Gary Watson is a Solution Focused Therapist in Grand Rapids Michigan and Ada, Michigan.  He provides counseling for couples, counseling for teenagers, and adults.  He can help with anxiety, depression, stress, college and work stress, relationship problems, and more.  For more information, please visit the website at