Dream Therapy: How to dream your way to health and happiness

By Dr. Clare Johnson

Dream Therapy Guide

Wondering how your dreams can help you heal?

Interested in dream therapy and how you might tap into those oceans of inner wisdom?

Dr Clare Johnson is a respected expert and practicing therapist. In this article she helps us to understand some of the history of dream therapy and how we can apply it in practice.

What is Dream Therapy?

Dream Therapy is a transformative blend of mindful sleeping, lucid dreaming, and waking dreamwork.

Dream Therapy takes lucidity a step further because we not only engage lucidly with our dreams while we sleep – we also learn the art of lucid dreaming while awake.

When we bring lucidity to all aspects of sleeping and dreaming, we lay the groundwork for a happier, healthier life.

Neurobiology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience demonstrate just how important dreaming is for our mental health and well-being. In the 1980s, biophysics and physiology researcher Dr. Candace Pert pinpointed a complex biochemical communication network between mind and body.

Immune cells have receptors for neuropeptides, or the “molecules of emotion”, which are released during every emotional state. If strong emotions are not adequately processed, they are stored at a cellular level. These surplus emotions rise to consciousness during dreaming, and Dr. Pert theorizes that if we do waking dreamwork, we can help to release them before they become damaging by creating illness in the body.

See Pert’s book Molecules of Emotion.

Dreams help us to process our emotions, and dreamwork is good for our health!

We attract everything in our life through the thoughts and images we keep in our mind.

In dreams, we come face to face with our deepest unconscious images. Through working with our dreams, we can change our “dream movie” - and in doing so, we enable ourselves to transform on a deep level.

And when we transform, so do our lives.

How do we “work with our dreams”?

One way of working with a dream is by becoming lucid in it and “asking the swamp creature why it’s chasing us”.

Or by helping the lost dream child we spot huddled on the pavement.

When we know that we are dreaming, we can react responsively to a dream. Lucidity is a powerful tool to help us heal ourselves on deep levels.

But we don’t have to be lucid dreamers in order to work with our unconscious imagery in healing ways.

This is the beauty of Dream Therapy – we can bring lucidity to our dreams by doing dreamwork after we wake up from them. In this way, we can shine the light of lucidity onto non-lucid dreams, nightmares and our most baffling dreams.

There are a great number of ways of working with dreams therapeutically.

To give just one example - for decades nightmare researcher Dr. Barry Krakow has been teaching Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, where nightmare sufferers rewrite the story of their bad dream so it has a happier ending.

imagery rehearsal therapy

It may sound incredibly simple, even childish, to change the dream story so that (for example) instead of being flattened by a rampaging steam roller, we are saved in the nick of time. Yet re-imagining the nightmare and changing it so that it has a better outcome has actually helped a great number of people to transcend their recurring bad dreams.

You can see the proof in this study.

This is because the technique encourages dreamers to engage lucidly with their own deep unconscious material - and they can relive their nightmare fearlessly, knowing that they have the ability to change bad things. It’s like a rehearsal of lucid dreaming.

Changing the dream story and then spending time each day actively visualizing the new, happier ending trains the unconscious to recognize and embrace choice when faced with scary unconscious imagery.

And it can simultaneously resolve the underlying emotions of the nightmare.

How else can dreams be used in a therapeutic role?

By connecting mindfully with our night-time dreams, we open up the door to our unconscious.

Dreams are mirrors - reflecting our preoccupations, fantasies, fears, regrets and desires.

Dreams show us the state of our soul. When we communicate with our dreams, we begin to see our lives with greater clarity - and we start to understand how we can act to change our lives for the better.

When we gain insight into the painful emotions or unpleasant images we experience in our dreams, we begin to see what we need to change in our lives.

But what about those terrible times in life where we are lost in suffering because someone we love has died?

Or maybe we’re having highly unpleasant sexual dreams and don’t know what they mean? And what if we are seriously ill or in pain?

Can Dream Therapy help us in even the worst of situations?

Let’s look at some different types of dreams and how we can work with them for greater health and wellbeing.

Dream Therapy and the grief process

There is no expiry date on grief, no “right time” to heal.

But we can get stuck in our grief.

Dreams help us to move on from this stuck position and heal. When someone we love dies, dreaming of them allows us to maintain a connection with them that can ease the grieving process. Instead of drowning in loss, we can begin to understand death as a natural part of life and trust that our loved one is OK.

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy for nightmares

Dreams can provide a beautiful, healing link between the dead and those who miss them.

Yet there are positive bereavement dreams, and negative ones. Some people have awfully upsetting dreams of their deceased loved ones, where they see them upset or lost, or even have vicious arguments with them.

All of this is a normal part of the grief process - as grief can be incredibly complex.

When we do Dream Therapy with difficult bereavement dreams, we can transform them in healing ways. For example, we might imaginatively re-enter the dream and conduct an interview with the dream figures who are present in the dream - to gain insight into their perspective.

This can result in surprising and often cathartic insights.

A woman in one of my workshops, whose mother had just died, used my Lucid Writing technique (where you focus on a dream image and write whatever comes into your head) to work on a dream she was having of black widow spiders hanging above her mother’s bed.

Writing about this toxic dream image helped her to see that she needed to move beyond the “cannibalistic” relationship she’d had with her mother.

Even when a person is dead, we can still heal our relationship with them by working with the emotional imagery present in our dreams.

Sexual dreams

Sexual dreams can help us to discover more about our sexual energy and the role it plays in our relationships and creative life.

And we can learn to chart a way to healthy intimacy.

The first thing to remember when working with a sexual dream is this: sex dreams may not be about sex! The language of dreams is richly symbolic.

For example, if you dream that you cannot complete the sexual act, this may simply reflect a waking life situation that you feel unable to complete. Dreams of infidelity are common, but they don’t necessarily mean that your partner is cheating on you!

You can find out more by working with the dream.

One way of doing this is to mentally re-enter your dream and “become” a particular element of the dream. Known as Gestalt therapy, this method was pioneered by German psychiatrist Fritz Perls in the fifties and is outlined in his 1992 book Gestalt Therapy Verbatim.

One woman I worked with in her twenties dreamed she was a ladybird who had flipped onto its back! In the dream, her genitals were exposed but she couldn’t get back onto her feet.

therapeutic role of dreams

When she mentally “became” the ladybird and spoke from its perspective, she understood that the dream was showing her how vulnerable and exposed she felt in her relationship with a dominant partner - as if she couldn’t stand on her own two feet anymore.

When dreams show us how we really feel about a situation, we can then take steps to change what we need to change.

Dream Therapy to ease illness and pain

Internationally known Austrian sleep disorder specialist Ernest Hartmann suggests in his book The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams that dreaming is critical for good mental and emotional health (and for optimal neurophysiological functioning).

Dreams and the body are inextricably linked.

When we work with dreams in therapeutic ways, we gradually become happier and feel more whole - thus giving our bodies a chance to grow stronger.

Therapeutic dreamwork is good for our physical health!

If we are ill or in pain, when we become lucid in a dream, we can send a beam of healing light towards the affected body part. Or we can expect a pool of healing water to appear and then dive into it.

We can ask the dream: “Why do I have this illness?”

We can do the same thing in waking dreamwork, especially if we have a dream that we feel is related to our physical state.

Dreams can create health metaphors to reflect the state of our bodies: look out for images of buildings, dilapidated cars and other vehicles, references to body parts, scenes of attack, war, or decay, injured animals, dirty water, and any negative imagery or emotions such as disgust or dread.

One healing way to work with negative dream imagery is to close your eyes and visualise it enveloped in healing light.

Mentally send it unconditional love and understanding - and watch it transform.

Treasure any positive imagery you find in your dreams, or through waking dreamwork. Focus on it whenever you can and imagine it boosting your vitality and energy.

When we integrate healing imagery from our dreams into our healing process, we are boosting our chances of resolving pain and recovering more quickly from illness.

Become your own dream therapist

dream therapy by clare johnson

Dreams are an incredible inner resource, so why waste them?

When we connect consciously with dreams and work with them in healing ways, we can change deep unconscious patterns that have been preventing us from living life to the fullest.

We learn to heal our life.

Dream Therapy is about discovering that we have the power to change what we no longer need or want. Both in our dreams and in our waking lives.

It can help us to heal from the past, ease illness and pain, navigate grief and loss, and resolve our nightmares.

Dream Therapy gives us insight into how we feel and enables us to create our own best life – the life we would love to live.

About The Author

clare johnson

Dr Clare Johnson has researched lucid dreaming for 20 years and is a lifelong lucid dreamer. She is Vice President of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. Her book Dream Therapy: Dream your way to health and happiness (US/Canadians can find it under the title Mindful Dreaming) fully expands on all the topics covered in this article and more. It’s packed with practical exercises on how to bring lucid dreaming techniques into psychological dreamwork. Visit her at: www.deepluciddreaming.com

About The Author

About The Author

Rebecca Casale is a lucid dreamer and a science writer with a special interest in biology and the brain. She is the founder of World of Lucid Dreaming and Science Me.