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Common Dream Themes and Nightmares

Noreen Honeycutt

VP/Founder of Psychology for Traitify | Psychotherapist and Psychoanalyst, Obsessed with Dogs | Mentor/Analyzer in Psychology

How often have you said, "I had that nightmare where I couldn't find the classroom and didn't study for the exam?" Or how about the one where you are convinced you didn't actually finish High School? And, people know exactly what you are talking about? While dreams are unique and complex, there are some classic themes that universally appear. In working with dreams, it is both the manifest (actual) content of the dream as well as what is going on in someone's day and life that helps one analyze its meaning. Also, there is always a wish in each dream, either obvious or hidden, just waiting to be realized.

Since the dreamer is the architect of every dream, the dreamer's personality and thoughts, feelings and conflicts weave into the dream story. Let's look at some examples. Starting with the "examination dream" noted above, any number of versions of this type of dream tend to emerge when an individual is about to take a big step forward in life. The dream serves several functions. First, it serves the purpose of undoing the anxiety of the life "promotion," by turning back the hands of time. However, the anxiety then gets transferred to the exam that isn't studied for or the diploma never received. Then comes the reassuring part of the dream where the dreamer wakes up and get's to soothe his/her anxiety with the reality of, "this was only a dream! I did graduate, I did pass my exam, I will be okay with that next big step!"

Let's look at another common nightmare. Ever have the one where your teeth were suddenly really loose or randomly falling out? Not uncommon. This dream typically surfaces at times when the dreamer either gets something they really want or indulges themselves to the point of feeling a bit guilty. The dream is a kind of a mirror where something is very gratifying but then serves the function of retaliation for the guilty pleasure. The punishment in this case is an actual loss or damage to one's body in the form of losing something permanent — in this case, one's teeth! All of the mixed feelings are being worked out in sleep and the dreamer gets to wake up with a full toothy smile!

In addition to life events, personality comes through in dreams. Let's take the very tidy, organized and rational person. In waking life, they manage their anxiety by keeping things orderly and tend to stay away from "messy emotions." The dream life of these individuals tends to be similar — sequential and orderly dream stories. However, the dreamer is often surprised at one small aspect of their dreams that seems so unlike them, such as a messy room or an outpouring of emotion. This is where the wishes come in. While preferring a life of order, these individuals often wish that they were freer to loosen up and throw caution to the wind. They typically don't, except in their dream life where they are able to "practice" without consequence!

Dreams have been called the "Royal Road to the Unconscious." Anyone in the psychology world is well-acquainted with using dreams as a tool to understand oneself in a deeper way. The good news is that we all dream (even if we don't always remember them.) We can all know that a nightmare is the breaking through of anxiety and take a look at what we are anxious about after a scary dream. More fun though, is finding the hidden wish in each night's visual story. Examine your dream. How does it fit with your personality? Your life? Your actual waking dreams? Just remember: you are the writer, the director, the producer and the actors in your dreams. Here's your opportunity to discover the depths of your personality, day and night.

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