How to interpret your dreams effectively

And why a dream dictionary is useless

“What is the meaning of my dream?”

Who hasn’t wondered about that at one time or another? Whether or not they were happy or scary dreams.

However, if our nightly escapade was particularly vivid – like a nightmare or a recurring dream – our curiosity is even more aroused.

Your dream may have been about a horse, a dog, a fish, a baby, a tsunami or aliens. You may have fought fires or desperately tried to stop drowning. You may have been chased, had physical relations or dreamt about cheating. And who hasn’t had a dream about spiders crawling way too close for comfort!

In this article I’m not going to give you the usual meaningless list of what your dream means. I’m going to slowly build your ability to interpret your own dreams correctly.

Just in case the search engine landed you on the wrong page …

You may have searched for information on a nervous breakdown. This article does relate to your problem, but do also read my article: Signs and Symptoms of a Nervous Breakdown

So what is dreaming?

And why and when does it happen? What do dreams mean? Why do you remember some more than others? And does the interpretation of dreams differ depending on whether you’re a Christian, a Moslem or have any other religion?

And why discuss it on a relationship site?

Well, if your partner calls out, laughs or cries in their sleep – there’s a good chance it’s got something to do with you (or a lover!). Many of your dreams too will doubtless be around what’s going on for you with regards to your relationship.

So, let’s find out how that works.

Dreamy view of dolphin, mammoth and girl
The reason for your barmy dreams may surprise you!

Dreaming happens mostly during the REM state, so let me explain a little about that…

(Of course, if you’re not interested in the technical bits – just scroll down!)

Dreaming in the REM state… what’s that?

REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement.

You’ll see it happening when someone’s dreaming. Although their eyes are closed, you’ll be able to see movement beneath their eyelids. You may also be able to observe it when someone’s very emotional, or when recalling a memory.

During the REM state your attention is locked.

REM states start within weeks after conception and increase until halfway through pregnancy. In fact, a foetus spends about 80% in REM sleep. After birth, newborns spend a third of their day in REM. 

During that time instinctive templates are ‘downloaded’ from our genes into the brain. This is when we are programmed to behave like a human being. It helps to prepare us for what we may come across in real life.

We cannot possibly be prepared for all situations, though. Imagine your brain having to be encoded for every language on earth!

Our brains need to be flexible if we’re going to be able to cope with the different scenarios we’ll inevitably encounter in our lives.

We’ll get different problems, confront different situations and discover differences in culture.

So, we’re born with basic templates, which our brain can then readily adapt in order to equip us to deal with any situation we might encounter.

To give you an example: a baby’s need to survive dictates that it will suckle on anything like a nipple, if a real one isn’t offered. The basic, innate template is the need to feed. If the ‘correct’ solution isn’t presented, the brain will adapt the need to feed and will seek an alternative solution.

3 interesting facts about the REM state

  1. Dreaming happens in the REM state. It’s an essential biological event that helps to process emotions. It also prevents us needing a brain the size of a house. And it prevents us from going barking mad! (See explanation further down.)
  2. The REM state is a ‘reality simulator’ – great for daydreaming.
  3. We can also access this state via hypnosis. (That’s why hypnosis is so effective when done by a skilled therapist and so dangerous in the wrong hands.)

What is a normal sleep cycle?

There are 3 main stages of sleep. In a nutshell, they are:

Stage 1 – You fall asleep, but not deeply. 
Stage 2 – Your breathing and heart rate slow down and your body temperature drops. You’re now sleeping lightly.
Stage 3 (and 4) – You’re now fast asleep (or should be)

The whole cycle takes about 1.5 to 2 hours, and REM sleep normally happens at the end of each cycle. With every repeat of the cycle, the length of REM sleep increases. Usually the longest period of dreaming takes place in the morning just before we wake up.

During stage 3 (and 4) your muscles relax, and the major muscle groups are actually paralysed. That stops most people running out of the door or accidentally kicking their partner whilst they’re dreaming.

Why do we dream?

My trainer, psychologist Joe Griffin – one of the two originators of the Human Givens school of psychology – discovered that all elements of all dreams are metaphorical and symbolical. This even relates to the structure of the dream itself too.

Your dreams therefore have a very definite purpose. They have a deliberate storyline with carefully chosen characters, who play-act situations in real life. And boy… does it come up with some peaches of dreams!

Everything that happens in those seemly barmy dreams is purposefully scripted by your brain. All the events and characters are based on your experiences during the previous day.

Joe discovered and proved time and again that what we dream is a metaphorical representation of our experiences – in particular, our unexpressed thoughts and emotions the previous day. But, there’s more to it…

So, your dream doesn’t represent what happened and  you were feeling the day before – it has a twist.

It tells the story of what you made of it.

It’s all about the feelings, thoughts, hopes and expectations that you didn’t express at the time. If something had bothered you but you’d been able to sort it out there and then, you wouldn’t then dream about it that night.

“I find out a lot about myself by sleeping. Dreams, they are who I am when I’m too tired to be me.”

Jarod Kintz

What has your nervous system got to do with dreaming?

Any feelings or thoughts that you don’t act on and sort out right away create a sort of ‘waiting game’ – an unfulfilled expectation.

This causes tension in one half of your nervous system. That’s the half that ensures your heart beats automatically, that your digestive system does what it needs to, etc. without you having to remember to switch it on. In case you’re interested it is called your Autonomic Nervous System, known for its fight/flight response.

The beauty of our dreams

Whilst you’re dreaming, your brain processes those unfulfilled expectations from the previous day. In your dreams you act out in a metaphorical way what you hadn’t been able to do that previous day. Thus your nervous system protects itself from any ‘bugs’ injected by your thoughts and behaviours.

It’s a superbly designed process, because, let’s face it, you really aren’t always in a position to act on your feelings and wishes. If you feel like ‘throttling’ someone, it’s best if you don’t give in to that! And during your dreams your major muscle groups are paralysed to prevent any ‘accidents’. ;-)

Can you see now how your dreams are linked with your moods and visa versa?

So, a metaphorical dream will allow your brain to process and release those pent up emotions – even if the dream doesn’t seem relevant to whatever happened during the previous day.

Remember the downloaded templates (see earlier in this article)?

Dreams about spiders are common and obviously often related to fear. But what of?
Dreams about spiders are common and obviously often related to fear. But what of?

How to interpret your dreams

Example interpretations

Say, for example, you had a row with your partner and you didn’t express your true feelings. This means you were left with unfulfilled expectations (i.e. unexpressed emotions) before you went to sleep – you just go to sleep still feeling miffed. You could almost predict that your dream that night would be about that argument.

But – it would contain events, scenes and emotions that represent only your unexpressed emotions and thoughts. So it wouldn’t necessarily display in the form of the row itself. This means your partner or spouse may be represented by a gremlin, a spider or an alien you’re trying to fight off. ;-)

Dreams about cheating are another example of metaphorical representations of real events.

They may not necessarily depict you or your partner having an affair. Cheating can characterise disloyalty in any shape or form. So, your dream may simply represent your feelings about having been taken for a ride by the car sales manager that you didn’t express at the time.

In contrast, any unexpressed feelings (or fantasies) about wanting an affair are likely to be depicted in a dreaming sequence that doesn’t at all look like cheating!

Dreams about fire could easily mean that your marriage is ‘burning out’. Or it could mean that you’re ‘in the hot-house’. Another interpretation is that you’re heading for a burn-out.

The reason your brain is using the imagery of a fire is that you’ve possibly recently seen a fire or you’re particularly fearful of a fire or maybe you saw your child play with a match.

Now you understand perhaps why dream dictionaries won’t help you figure out the meaning of your dreams.

American Indians believed a dream catcher would ensure good dreams for it’s owner.

How to discover the meaning of your dream

How do you interpret your dream? What does it mean?

Here are some examples of how you could look for the meaning behind your dreams:

If you were falling in your dream, your tumble could mean you’ve been worried you were falling from status. Perhaps you were worried that you were at risk of being ‘exposed’. Or maybe you failed to come up to scratch in some way.

Say you dreamt about an animal or insect, be that a dog, horse, spider, or fish.

That animal or insect might have been ‘standing in’, as it were, for someone who left you with unexpressed feelings of any kind. You might have felt – and not communicated – worry, lust, frustration or anger. In this case, the spider could represent someone you thought was ‘a bit creepy’. Or the dog could be someone who seemed a bit ‘playful’, and so on.

Dreaming about your ex?

It’s unlikely to be about him or her – they’re representing someone like them.

Your brain takes any image that happens to be immediately available to match it up with an ‘alike’ situation. The catalogue of images comes from whatever’s kept you busy recently, whatever you’ve read, heard or thought about.

Religious dreams?

Wondering whether your dreams have any religious meaning?

Following on from the above, if you spend much time praying, reading the scriptures or you are in any other way involved with your religion – your dreams are likely to contain much religious imagery.

The symbols and metaphors are likely to match those you’re familiar with – regardless of whether you’re a Christian, a Moslem or you practice any other religion. 

Why do we forget dreams?

In short – a dream is difficult to remember because it has done its job.

The energy that built up in your autonomic nervous system during the day is discharged in your dream sleep. Not only does this naturally lower our stress levels, but it’s vital for protecting the instinctive templates we’ve developed.

If that didn’t happen, those templates could potentially be ‘re-written’. They would be permanently damaged by all that anguish you felt the previous day. The new ‘default’ template would be disfigured by your personal interpretations.

So, the dream has calmed the emotions caused by wishful thinking, unexpressed emotions and unfulfilled expectations. The instinctive template is thereby protected, secured and ready to be used again without any ‘bugs’.

The dream has deactivated the emotional charge. The memory of the cause of the emotions is stored, but has taken a backseat. You now have to make an effort to retrieve the memory.

6 steps to help you remember a dream

  1. As soon as you wake up, write it down in as much detail as you can
  2. Repeat out loud what happened or talk to someone about it
  3. Look at the structure of the dream. Identify the beginning, middle and the end. Notice where significant events took place
  4. Connect the emotions to the elements, the characters and the events
  5. Think about what prompted those emotions
  6. Connect the whole dream with the events of the previous day

It can be really worthwhile trying to figure out what your dreams are about. Particularly during difficult times in your relationship, your dreams can help you identify the real crunch points for you. They can help you to dig deeper to find what’s at the very core of your discontent, anger or disappointment.

What’s the link between dreaming and your mood?

Dreaming affects your mood. And, conversely, your mood most definitely affects how you dream.

If you happen to be depressed, here’s what will happen:

  • You’ll dream more than someone who isn’t depressed and your dreams will be more intense with vivid disasters being played out
  • You’ll start with a long period of dreaming too early in the night. Someone who isn’t depressed has the longest period of dreaming at the end of the night
  • Because you spend more time dreaming – tiring by itself – you’ll have a lot less restorative sleep. Excessive dreaming and fatigue go hand-in-hand!
  • There is a part of your brain that’s constantly at work – your orientation response (the brain’s response to anything unusual, such as a loud bang for example). Therefore, by the time you wake up your energy store is already depleted. You wake up lacking motivation and little energy to face the day ahead. (You’re also likely to get angry quicker than you might otherwise have done – no doubt much to your partner’s chagrin!)
  • Because you feel so miserable after a lousy and/or busy night’s sleep you are likely to start to worry about the day ahead. In such a low mood you won’t want to even bother with things that require your attention and action. That’s a sure way to wishful thinking, further in-action and more or your essential emotional needs not being met and your mood spiralling down.
    Guess what?
    You’ve then set yourself up for another night of excessive dreaming – which is necessary to discharge all that emotional arousal.
  • And so the cycle of depression continues.

Under normal circumstances though, dreaming helps to switch off the emotions aroused by unfulfilled expectations. These expectations were things you wanted to happen and/or you expected them to happen, but you didn’t express that. You just thought about them. In your REM sleep that night you would revisit those expectations and dream about it. Those dreams enable you to take a fresh – calm – look at stuff again in the morning, unencumbered by the previous days ruminations.


It’s clear that your body/mind is totally primed for self-healing. But… you can help it along by taking note of any warning signs. Whether it’s relationship issues or personal troubles – taking action to resolve any problems is clearly going to help you sleep and dream much better.

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The Expectation Fulfillment Theory of Dreaming by Joe Griffin

Images courtesy of: Anthenarius, BonnyBBX