What Do Dreams Mean?

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Have you ever had a dream so vivid and realistic that you had the sense that it had actually happened? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then you are not alone. For some, dreams can be so powerful that they find themselves thinking of the dream for days, or even weeks at a time. New research suggests that thinking about your dreams and trying to understand them is a helpful way to learn more about yourself, solve problems, and process traumatic events (Pesant & Zadra, 2004).

It takes a great deal of practice to learn the art of dream interpretation. Numerous online sites and books offer guidance about how to interpret dreams, but most of these approaches have not been studied empirically and are not theoretically sound. An exception to this is the Hill (1996) model of dream interpretation. Clara Hill offers the following three principles to follow when interpreting your dream:

  1. Dreams reflect waking-life issues. Dreams can clue us into issues that we might not otherwise realize. Through dream interpretation, the dreamer can reach greater understanding of conflicts, events, and experiences that are happening now.
  2. Dreams are personal. The dreamer is the only one who knows with certainty what the dream is telling him or her. There is no one “right” dream meaning, and dreams can mean different things at different times in a person’s life.
  3. Action needs to follow exploration. For lasting change, the dreamer must create a change in their daily life that mirrors a change that they would make in the dream.

For those interested in learning more about their dreams, use these techniques to begin exploring what your dreams are telling you:

  1. Start a Dream Journal. Keep a notebook and a pen near your bed and whenever you remember your dream, jot it down with as much detail as possible.
  2. Explore Major Images. Using your journal, circle all of the major images in your dream. An image can be a person, object, emotion, or action. Explore each image in as much detail as possible utilizing all five of your senses.
  3. Make Associations. Make associations to your waking life and connect emotions in your dreams to emotions that you have had in the past. Ask yourself: what is happening now in your life that could have provoked that particular image in your dream?
  4. Notice Themes. Recurrent dreams or dreams with repetitive themes can clue you into major life issues that have yet to be resolved.
  5. Create Action. Think about a change that you would make to the dream and translate that change that you would make in your life.

If you are finding it difficult to interpret your dream, don’t worry. It’s not uncommon to have problems with interpretation. In fact, many people find it helpful to seek the guidance of a professional to assist them in deriving meaning from vivid or recurrent dreams. The best approach when feeling stuck is to relax and allow the meaning of the dream to come to you, whether it takes a few minutes, hours, or possibly the next day.

If you are currently in therapy, consider talking about your dreams with your therapist. Research shows that those who use the Hill model of dream interpretation in therapy report higher levels of satisfaction and feel like the relationship with their therapist is more collaborative. Above all, remember that dreams are yours, and yours only to interpret. So, have fun with it, and good luck!


Pesant, N., Zadra, A. (2004). Working with dreams in therapy: what do we know and what should we do? Clinical Psychology Review, 24, 489-512.

Hill, C. E. (1996). Working with dreams in psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.

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