Dream analysis played a pivotal role in early psychoanalytic work. Over time, however, work with dreams has been downgraded and ignored. Luckily, there are still dreamers and we must ask, “What can we make of dreams and dreamers?”

To understand a particular dream is to understand the dreamer. Each is as unique to the dreamer as a fingerprint or birthmark and each one is an internal ‘poem’ reflecting character, conflicts, defenses and aspirations, as well as the life and times of its creator. The dream and the dreamer have a reciprocal relationship. The better one understands the person, the better one can understand the dream and vice versa.

That is why so-called ‘dream books,’ which try to correlate a specific dream image with a set of possible meanings are so unsatisfying. Without the specifics of the dreamer, very little of a particular dream can be appreciated.

Sigmund Freud was the first to systematically use the dream to discover our deepest unconscious wishes. Dream images themselves reflect our conscious concerns but the real sources of conflict and pain remain disguised at the core of each dream. In treatment, the dream is used to guide the patient gradually to the place where many of our troubles began. Hence Freud’s famous statement that “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.”

No reputable professional should venture very far in offering ‘interpretations’ solely on the images of any particular dream. More often than not, such activity is incorrect and can be dangerous. However, there are two conditions that can be read as indicators of potential mental stress:

The person who never dreams

Most of us have times in our lives when we don’t remember our dreams. Investigation shows that we are in fact dreaming but simply don’t remember the dreams upon waking. For individuals who seemingly do not, this can be an indication of intense emotional rigidity.

To dream is to play and the dreamscape is the mind’s playground. There are individuals whose struggle with their unconscious conflicts is so severe that they dare not ‘play’ for fear of where they might wander and what they might remember or feel. These individuals cannot even allow those conflicts to be presented in the disguised form of the dream. Psychoanalytic treatment can break up the psychic paralysis and restore an ongoing ability to dream and the search for adaptive solutions in awake life.

The person who feels exhausted or frightened by dreams

This is the ‘flip’ side of the coin where ideas, images and memories are pictured, but are too disturbing to ‘handle.’ The mind has its own economy. The greater emotional reserves, the more it can ‘handle’ or ‘play’ with remembered experience and desire.

In general, dreams filled with intense violence and fear can be correlated with excessive aggression in the dreamer’s unconscious mind. Treatment allows the safe expression and modulation of aggressive thoughts, reducing mental pressure and improving the quality of life.

Dreaming is the mind’s effort to solve the problems of the dreamer’s life using metaphor and disguise. Dreams are created from the earliest and most powerful of our loves and hates, as each of us tries to find creative solutions to current renditions of these original relationships.

Dream work in a treatment setting is exciting and immensely valuable. It requires imagination from patient and therapist alike and a tolerance for uncertainty as dreams give up their secret meaning slowly and over time.