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Dream Therapy – Is it Still Used by Psychotherapists?

dream therapyby Andrea M. Darcy

Do therapists still ask about dreams? Can you find dream therapy if you feel your dreams or nightmares are telling you things?

The history of dreams and psychotherapy

The world of modern Western psychotherapy largely began with Freud and ‘psychoanalysis’ . And Freud relied on dreams in his work with patients.

His friend turned enemy and main challenger to the ‘therapy throne’ was Jung, who also made dreams an important part of his version of client work. 

This was carried even further by Adler, a psychotherapist who saw dreams as a positive tool, and the mind as a working whole that dreams were a part of. 

But what happened in the 21st century? Why is  dream interpretation and dreamwork no longer something the majority of new psychotherapists learn in their clinical training?

Freud and dream interpretation

For Freud, dreams were our unconscious mind’s way of sharing our repressed, unacceptable desires.

His book ‘the Interpretation of Dreams’ suggests we all have primitive, infantile wishes we can no longer fulfil in our adult waking lives where we must ‘repress’ such wishes. We can only live them out in dreams.

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Freud would have his patients tell them his dreams. He’d then have the client do ‘free association’ around the images from the dreams. Freud would offer his interpretation, combining his understanding of the patient, and his knowledge of symbolic meanings. This meant the power to decide what the dream meant lay with the therapist, not the client.

dream therapy

photo by Bruce Christianson

So a dream you were killing a bee that kept coming back to life might be interpreted as a repressed desire to destroy a colleague that keeps nagging you.

Carl Jung and dreamwork

Jung challenged the idea that our dreams were our unacceptable desires and neuroses. He suggested that dreams were a healthy and creative way for our unconscious to show us issues and feelings we needed to address.

More importantly, Jungian therapy doesn’t put the meaning of the dream in the hands of the therapist, but of the client. The therapists job is to help the client find ways of understanding their dreams that works best for them.

So while Jung did use free association like Freud, he also turned to archetypes and myths, and artistic expression.

So working with a Jungian therapist, a dream about a mean mother stopping you from taking a journey might be something you journal and draw about. Only to discover the mean mother is you, and the journey is your life. You are controlling yourself too much, and stopping yourself from moving forward in life.

Alfred Adler and dreams

Adler suggested the revolutionary idea that our conscious and unconscious minds are really the same, a working unit and not two warring entities.

He felt dreams were our mind’s way to help us solve problems and prepare for future challenges.

So if we dream of fighting off a bear, for example, our mind is preparing us to have confidence when we have to talk to our boss about needing a raise.

Modern day dreamwork and psychotherapy

Since Freud, Jung, and Adler, there has been an explosion of research on dreams, and of proposals for how to work with them.

And yet a survey of therapists found they discussed dreams with only 15 per cent of clients, and only spent five per cent of a given session to discuss such dreams. 

To be fair, most of these therapists were cognitive analytical based therapists, not from the school of psychoanalysis, which has dreams as a core concept. But another survey of modern day psychoanalysts found that even they only seem to spend about 50% of their time working with dreams these days. 

Have dreams gone out of vogue?

In the first of the studies mentioned above, clients who hadn’t bought up their dreams stated their reasons as not even thinking to do so, or just thinking there were more pressing things to discuss than dreams. 

We live in a society where we can talk more freely about our issues, and can explore most of our desires. So perhaps some of us don’t see our dreams as the fascinating, hidden world they were once seen as, despite them being a rich source of information.

Modern life also means many of us sleep poorly. If we do dream, we are so rushed in the morning we’ve forgotten our dream by the time we get to work, and don’t have time to care. 

As for therapy, it goes through trends and fashions as much as anything. And the last few decades have been focused less on the workings of our unconscious, and more on the link between our thoughts, feelings, and actions – cognition and behaviour. This is clear in the popularity of ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ (CBT)

PTSD nightmares treatment

One area where dreams are getting more instead of less attention these days is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many sufferers are left navigating repetitive, exhaustive nightmares.

Image rehearsal therapy (IRT) is a modern-day technique used by cognitive behavioural therapists. The idea here is that the therapist helps you ‘re-imagine’ your bad dream with a better outcome. This can look like:

  • teaching you about what dreams are or aren’t so you feel more in control
  • discussing how the dreams could have different, less terrifying endings
  • writing down the dreams with alternative ends
  • monitoring your dreams and noticing how they are changing the more you work on them.

Lucid dream therapy (LDT) is another option. Becoming ‘lucid’ to your nightmare means working to become aware in the middle of your nightmare that actually you are just dreaming. This can involve daily exercises where you draw your attention to your surroundings, asking if it’s real or a dream. This trains your mind to always raise the question, until you do it in your sleep.

While one pilot study showed that lucid dreaming did indeed lower nightmare recurrence, it didn’t stop PTSD symptoms in general. So it might be a therapy best done in tandem with other PTSD support.

How can I find a dream therapist?

You can still work with a psychoanalyst these days (in fact they remain popular in countries like France and Argentina, despite Freud’s theories being challenged and falling out of fashion elsewhere). And some psychodynamic therapists, the next wave of therapy after Freud, still use dreamwork. Or you can also still find Jungian therapists.

As for newer sorts of therapy, transpersonal therapy would be the best bet. It integrates the spiritual aspect of being human, using a holistic approach which can include dreamwork.

Ready to to find a registered, professional therapist and work with your dreams? We connect you with some of London’s most highly regarded talk therapists. Or use our booking site to find UK-wide therapists and online counsellors now. 

Andrea M. Darcy mental health expertAndrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert who writes and also has a consultancy helping people find their right therapy and therapist. She is a huge fan of dreams, and has written hers out since a teenager, often using them to understand herself and her life better. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Going to Therapy, Types of Therapy

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