I'm A Dream Expert & Here's What Most People Get Wrong About Dreams
We'd wager that at some point, you, too, have woken up from a particularly bizarre dream (about spiders or losing teeth, perhaps) and thought: Does this mean anything? Welcome to the fascinating—yet elusive—field of dream interpretation: It's rather difficult to study, as dreams are never one-size-fits-all (there's tons of nuance, as only you can say whether an interpretation makes sense for you).
However, according to therapist and dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., there are a few things most people do get wrong about dreaming. As she explains on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, dreamwork is personal and experiential, but some of the process is commonly misunderstood.
Here, Ellis separates fact from fantasy:
Myth 1: Some people don't dream.
First things first: Everybody dreams. According to Ellis, most of what experts consider "typical dreaming" happens during REM sleep, and she says that most people have about two hours' worth of REM sleep1 each night. "Chances are that if you wake somebody up in REM, they're going to be in the middle of a dream," she adds. So even the people who swear they just don't dream do actually venture into dreamland for at least two hours—they just might not remember it. "It's a problem with dream recall, not dreaming," she explains.
So how do you remember your dreams, you ask? Well, says Ellis, the best time to remember your dreams is during your sleep-wake transition, when REM-sleep is most concentrated. "REM periods get longer and longer through the night, and so the last thing in the morning, those are probably the most interesting dreams," says Ellis.
That's not to say you need to set an alarm for the crack of dawn: Ellis recommends letting yourself sleep until you wake up naturally, if you can. "Give yourself enough time to go through that whole sleep cycle, don't cut your sleep cycle off at the end, and [try to] wake up slowly so that your dreams are accessible to you," she explains. Slow that waking process down, try to reflect on what you were just dreaming about (where were you? Who were you with?), and write down the details if that helps.
Myth 2: Dreams are nonsensical.
"The other big [misconception] people think is that dreams are nonsensical, not useful," says Ellis. This could not be more false! "In REM sleep, your brain is more active than when you're awake. So there's a lot going on that we can tap into," she adds.
Specifically, dreams can help you deal with intense emotions: "Dreams tend to take the really heightened emotion that we feel during the day and dampen it down or calm it down," Ellis notes. Take the classic anxiety dream, for example, where you're unprepared for an exam or speech or event (you're usually naked, too, says Ellis). Even if the situation at hand doesn't relate to your life at the moment (say, you don't have an exam coming up on the pipeline), you may be feeling that same emotion in some other capacity. "There's something that you're maybe not quite feeling prepared for in your current situation," says Ellis.
And that dream motif is only one of the countless ways dreams can help you release emotional weight. Says Ellis, "I've found it to be so profoundly useful... Things that have really troubled me, I've made sense of them through dreamwork. I've been able to move forward through situations."
Myth 3: Only experts can interpret your dreams.
Finally, you don't have to see a dreamwork professional to interpret your dreams. You totally can, of course, as these experts are specifically trained to help you make sense of that emotional realm. But Ellis says you can also interpret your dreams with a friend or group of people. "You don't have to be a therapist or have special training necessarily."
Although, she says you do need at least one other person to help you work through your dreams. "We tend to dream about things that we repress that we don't necessarily want to see about ourselves," she explains. In other words, you can be a bit biased to your own dreams, which makes it difficult to work with them honestly. Even Ellis, a dream expert herself, shares that she's "not that great at working with [her] own."
So grab a friend or partner to share your dreams with, as they can help you understand them in an unbiased way. Or you can join a dream group, Ellis notes, where a bunch of people band together (virtually, of course) to help translate each other's dreams. "What happens over time is that you get to know each other's dream lives, and the themes repeat," she adds. At the very least, it's a fun, interesting exercise.
While dream interpretation is nuanced and entirely personal, there are a few aspects about dreaming itself that people do misunderstand. The bottom line? Dreams are powerful emotional tools, everyone has them, and you don't need to be an expert to dive into dreamland. The rest is up to the dreamer to suss out.