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Dreams & nightmares explored – purpose, meaning, interpretation

"Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives"
~ William Dement
Dreams are images and narratives produced by the mind while we sleep. We can experience dreams in vivid reality, though most often they vanish like mist as we wake. There are different theories about why we dream. Sigmund Freud believed dreams were projections of the subconscious mind, revealing our innermost thoughts, fears and desires. Some neuroscientists think dreams are a means of processing and sorting the vast intake of information that our brains receive every day. Memory consolidation and emotional regulation may be enhanced by the dreaming process.
Whatever the truth may be, studies have demonstrated the importance of dreams to our wellbeing. Dreams generally occur during REM sleep. When people are consistently deprived of the REM sleep stage, they become tense, anxious, depressed, struggle to concentrate, and gain weight. It is not uncommon to dream 4 – 6 times per night.
Nightmares are frightening dreams. They can be a response to trauma, such as being the victim of a crime. Nightmares can also be caused by stress, fear and anxiety. Depressed people may be more prone to nightmares. Certain medications which act on brain chemicals can also cause nightmares, including L-dopa which is prescribed for Parkinson’s disease, antidepressants and narcotics.
Withdrawal from alcohol, drugs and some prescription medications can also cause nightmares. Sleep deprivation can be another trigger. Nightmares are more frequent in the early hours of the morning, when REM sleep cycles are at their longest. Common nightmares include trying unsuccessfully to outrun a threat of some description or falling from a great height. For people who have survived a traumatic event, they may relive it in recurring nightmares, adding to their distress.
Regular exercise and relaxation exercises may help reduce the incidence and frequency of nightmares. Avoiding late night snacks is also advisable, as the metabolic activity they stimulate may be another cause of nightmares.
What can dreams mean?
There are many different theories about what dreams may mean, interpretations influenced by culture, religion and beliefs.
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was one of the most influential figures in twentieth century psychology, and his theories of dream analysis provide an enduring narrative as to the form and content of dreams. To Freud, dreams were repressed thoughts and feelings projected in a warped, funhouse mirror version of their pure and literal form. He would interpret dreams in accordance with this theory. Freud believed the literal, or manifest content of a dream shrouded a symbolic, inner meaning (latent content) which related to a wish or desire. Freud examined the idea of symbols in dreams, objects which were linked to specific meanings. Many were sexual, in keeping with the idea of phallic symbols: swords, guns and poles. Sigmund Freud perceived the unconscious mind as animalistic, a place where base instincts lay dormant, reaching out into the conscious mind through the medium of dreams.

Carl Jung
Carl Jung was a protégé of Freud who shared many of his ideas about the unconscious mind. Jung’s interpretation of the phenomenon was spiritual rather than primal and sexual. This divergence of beliefs led Jung to branch out alone, leaving his own legacy of dream interpretation theory. Jung’s view of dreams was perhaps less cynical than Freud’s. Rather than repression released, he viewed dreams as windows to inner thoughts and feelings, a way of connecting with the essence of self to achieve peace and harmony. Jung believed that the literal or manifest content of the dream could be as important as the latent or symbolic meaning. Jung recognised archetypal characters or symbols which he believed represented universal concepts common to all people. Jung also believed the dreamer could interpret their own dreams.

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