Do you wonder about the meanings of dreams, nightmares, and how they connect us to ourselves?

During these unusual and intense times, many people have been reporting an increase of vivid dreams. It makes sense that, as we navigate incredible shifts in our global and daily lives, our unconscious symbolism reflects these transformations. 

We spend roughly one third of our lives sleeping and around 2 hours per night dreaming. Those strange, scary, and sometimes hilarious movies we watch in our heads while we sleep mystify us. They may also give us clues and insights to our inner worlds.

Hypnotic experiences provide another way to tap into our internal selves. I often think of hypnosis as a bridge state. Hypnosis and self-hypnosis can be seen as tools. They uniquely help us to navigate the pathways between the conscious and unconscious minds. While meditation allows us to “just BE” in a state of non-attachment or equanimity, the hypnotic experience can also bring us to a similar place. It does so, however, through the interface of conscious and unconscious intention and direction in the form of “hypnotic suggestions.”

I sometimes think of dreams as the mirror opposite of that.

In our waking states, we focus our attention on certain things. We have particular goals, interests, or thought patterns. Either organically or with the help of a hypnotherapist, we may lead our conscious mind into unconscious territory. This allows us to shift our perceptions in impactful ways.

This can also happen in reverse. In other words, instead of thinking of something and having our thoughts direct our next steps, the unconscious mind may “communicate” and guide us. Perhaps it does so through dreams, nightmares, and metaphors. In those dream-time stories, the unconscious speaks to the conscious mind instead of the other way around.

I work as a psychologist, hypnotherapist specializing in sleep, and I’ve run numerous dream groups. I have observed 3 main varieties of dreams and nightmares.

Dreams, Nightmares, and How They Connect Us to Ourselves:

• Everyday dreams

These dreams can be likened to background noise and daily routines. They help us to process information from the day, consolidate memories, and organize our recent experiences within the context of our lives. Everyday dreams may be strange or ordinary. We may remember or forget them, but they don’t necessarily demand a lot of energy.

• Standout dreams

Certain dreams stay with us and get our attention. For some reason, they feel important. They might be dramatic or particularly strange or funny. These standout dreams seem to guide us, bring us insight or direction. We might feel compelled to analyze them, journal about them, decode them, or remember them.

Twenty-five years ago, while struggling with severe chronic health issues, the book, The Healing Path, inspired me. After reading it, for several nights before bed, I asked my unconscious to guide me:  “Tonight, please give me a simple dream with a car in it to symbolize my body.” I set the intention that the wheels would represent my limbs, the dashboard my brain, the radio my voice, and so on. I proposed to myself that I would remember the dream. It would steer me in knowing what to do to support myself.

Since then I have had quite a few car dreams and all have been important. This concept has been helpful personally and to many of my clients. As a result, it motivated me. In my Deep & Easy Sleep Self-Hypnosis Package, I created an audio with self-hypnosis suggestions for listeners to have dreams with similar (or more personalized) guiding symbols.

• Nightmares

Many people find nightmares terrifying or even traumatic, especially when they recur.

During graduate school, while studying dreams, nightmares and how they connect us to ourselves, my attitude about the meaning of nightmares changed. Years later, I ran a dream group using the Ullman Dream technique. I now have a much deeper appreciation for nightmares.

When you think about it, if the unconscious REALLY wants to get our attention, doesn’t it make sense that it would give us a nightmare?

We all go through powerful or stressful experiences sometimes. We can feel alone, helpless, or overwhelmed. Or maybe, a major shift takes place in our lives. At that time, a lot of energy needs to go into making sense of things or integrating information and events. During those periods, nightmares might be more likely to occur.

I’ve worked with psychotherapy clients or members of my former dream groups to understand the meanings of scary or alarming sleep-time imagery. Consistently, the dreamers have ultimately realized that their nightmare validated profound feelings that they had, consciously or under the surface.

It can be very empowering for a dreamer to recognize the ways that a nightmare symbolically tells the story of the impact of what’s going on in their life. This recognition tends to make people feel less alone.

When we acknowledge the deep power and weight of a nightmare, we can sometimes feel that “it’s not all in our heads.” It’s almost like the nightmare says, “I see you. I validate your emotions about the seriousness of what has been going on for you. You are not alone. I, your unconscious, get it. We’re going through this together and I won’t leave your side.”

We tend to feel calmer and safer when things make sense to us.  When we can organize our understanding of dreams, at least in terms of their types or categories, we can rest more easily. This may create more comfortable flow between the conscious and unconscious minds. Facilitating this dialogue between dreams and our waking lives can lead to healing and to a more cohesive sense of direction. And with that, maybe we can sleep a little better.

Post previously appeared on on July 8, 2020

Featured image Lightfield Studios for Adobe 

Additional “Dream” image CD_Pix for Adobe


  • Dyan Haspel-Johnson, Ph.D., S.E.P.®

    Psychologist & Hypnosis Expert

    Thrive Global

    Dr. Dyan Haspel-Johnson runs a private psychological and hypnotherapy practice with a specialty in hypnosis for sleep and other mind-body-spirit modalities. After receiving her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design, Dr. Dyan earned her Ph.D. in psychology while working in a physician's holistic medical practice. Her creative and science based backgrounds inspire Dr. Dyan's unique way of thinking about healing. Her approach led her to become the Vice President of Continuing Education Programs for the Southern California Society for Clinical Hypnosis, and then to become President of that organization while also teaching at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and lecturing at many other institutions. Dr. Dyan's expertise with sleep, and the demand in her practice to help people to sleep better motivated Dr. Dyan to make the complimentary, downloadable eBook and video, "The 3 Biggest Things That Cause Sleep Problems & The ONE Thing You Can Do by 3pm Today to Sleep Better." She has also created the Deep & Easy Sleep Self-Hypnosis Package, available through her website.