How To Track Dreams (And Reframe Nightmares) With A Personal Dream Journal
From slithering snakes to teeth falling out, dream themes can get weird. Who isn't a little curious about what their dreams are all about? One of the best ways to start interpreting your dreams is by keeping a dream journal. We got therapist and dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D.'s take on the best way to start one and comb through its entries for some insights into your subconscious.
A refresher on dream interpretation:
There are plenty of theories surrounding dreams and whether we can actually learn anything from them, but one of the most widely accepted theories is that dreams serve as a means of as memory consolidation, where the dream is a reflection of waking life, psychologist and dream expert, Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., previously explained to mbg.
"From that perspective," he says, "dream interpretation is about decoding the dream. It enlightens us and expands our awareness psychologically, [offering an] expansion of consciousness."
The key to dream interpretation, according to Naiman, is not to try to interpret the dream literally through symbols and visuals, but rather to feel into the emotions it evokes, asking, What is this bringing up for me emotionally? "We need to learn the dream language; we don't always have to translate it into waking," he notes.
The benefits of starting a dream journal:
It lets you reflect.
According to Ellis, the dream journal acts as a tangible way to interact with, and reflect on, our nightly adventures in the dream world. And the more attention we give them, the better. "The more we pay attention to our dreams, the more we recall them—and the more helpful they are," she says.
It allows you to tap into your subconscious.
Once you start your journal, it will become easier to discern what your dreams might be trying to tell you about your waking life, Ellis notes. "In particular," she says, "dreams can help us get a better understanding of our blind spots and shine a light on things that are important that we may have been avoiding."
It makes it easy to track progress.
When we record our dreams, we can spot repeated patterns and themes over time. "You'll start to be able to use your dreams to track changes and take note when something in your dream life begins to transform," she adds. "This can often reflect major changes and progress in relevant aspects of your waking life."
How to start and use your journal.
Intrigued yet? You're in luck because dream journaling couldn't be more simple. Here's the step-by-step process for dream journaling, according to Ellis:
Choose your journal (or app).
Wake up slowly, and recall your dream(s).
"It's important to write your dreams down as soon as possible after waking up," Ellis says, "because they tend to fade from our memory very quickly." She suggests lying very still upon waking up and going over any dreams you can remember a few times before doing anything else.
Write them down.
Write down as much about the dream(s) as you can remember, with as much detail as possible. If you're in a hurry, Ellis notes you can make enough notes to help jog your memory later, and then write the rest when you can. "It can also help to make little sketches of your dream as they are often highly visual," she adds, "and pictures can convey spatial relationships often depicted in dreams."
Once you've got all your notes and/or drawings down, you can start diving into the meaning. "The best place to start is with associations," Ellis says. "For the main images in your dreams, jot down what they remind you of most in your waking life."
Notice any patterns or themes.
The more you begin to record your dreams, the more likely certain patterns or themes will keep showing up. Ellis says, "Dreams have been described as picture-metaphors for your most salient emotions—so you could also consider your dream images in this light and journal about the feelings your dreams depict. Over time, your journal can give you an entire story of your unique dream world."
Templates to get you started.
Use this list of questions and prompts to help you recall your dreams upon waking.
- Who was present in the dream?
- How did the dream make you feel?
- Where are the themes of your dream present in your waking life?
- Where were you in the dream?
- What do you think this dream could be trying to tell you?
- How can you take the lesson from this dream into your waking life?
- Was the dream recurring? If so, why do you think you keep having it?
- Did the dream have any important symbolism?
- Draw or sketch one specific detail you remember from your dream
- Draw or sketch one larger scene you can remember from your dream
- Draw or sketch something to represent the emotions present in the dream
- Write a different version of the dream with how you'd have preferred it to go
- Write what you would have liked to happen if the dream continued
A note on nightmares.
Ellis adds that if you have unfinished and/or disturbing dreams, you can use your journal to write them down—with a new ending. One that, "ideally completes the dream in a way that brings some kind of resolution or mastery of what you fear in the dream," she explains. "This is a version of the most highly recommended treatment for nightmares, and it can be amazingly helpful given its simplicity."
The bottom line.
Dreams are super personal, and only you can decode them for yourself. A dream journal can help you not only get in the habit of recalling them but offer you a timeline of your dream world that you can relate back to your waking life.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.