Dream Work: Interesting but not recommended for childhood trauma
Alexander (1948) in “The Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis” states that a dream is an attempt to protect the sleep from “disturbing stimuli” in an organism. So, in general dreams, according to the psychoanalytical perspective, function as an aid to protect sleep, but dreams are not always successful.
There are many different opinions on the value of dreams. Freud perceived dreams as meaningful and his work resulted in his “Theory of Dream Interpretation”.
“Dream work” refers to the process to transform the latent content (hidden content) of a dream into the manifest content (the plot, the part that has meaning to the dreamer).
With caution (see below) therapists who are familiar with the past and the emotional state of a client can help a client to make sense of a dream. Dream work is aided by “free association” a psychoanalytical therapeutic approach that allows clients to freely talk about what comes to their mind. It helps the therapist to translate latent contents of a dream in a manifest content. None of the dream work could be done without the assistance of the client as it is the client’s dream and it is about their life and perspectives. The client’s experiences and emotional state influence the interpretation of the therapist. It is an art rather than a science.
Although there are Internet sites and books available that discuss symbols that might aid in explaining a dream, dream interpretation is more than knowing symbols as these are different depending on the culture, language and age of the client. Some symbols however, seem to be universal such as a king (father), nature (mother), departure (death), water (birth). Parents are often represented in a dream by its opposite (a stranger of a different race), according to Alexander (1948).
Dreams protect sleep through providing solutions to internal hurdles
- Intrusions can be stimuli that are physiological needs (being hungry and thirsty or having to go to the toilet). The dreamer dreams that they are eating or drinking or visiting the toilet and the dream is successful as it gratifies a need.
- The dream can prevent disturbance of sleep caused by the need to engage in unpleasant duties. The dreamer dreams that they are doing homework, are at work or at school and fully functioning.
- The dreams of children are wish-fulfilments. Young children often report to have had a dream about them getting a reward. Something they desire.
- Adults can have a desire for vengeance and because dreaming about hurting someone is not acceptable by the dreamer, the content of the dream is distorted and disguised. The hurting of someone is an unfulfilled wish and by dreaming about it in a disguised way the dreamer’s conscience is not disturbed.
- Dreamers who have a guilty conscience, dream about unpleasant experiences such as enduring suffering and punishment (this is self-punishment).
- Trauma: Schur (1972) in “Freud: Living and Dying”, addresses the topic of “the repetition of traumatic events in dreams”. The repetitiveness of the dreams is explained by Freud as an attempt to undo the traumatic event. The dreams are compulsions to attempt “to restore an earlier state of things” (p. 325).
Caution: Implications for Therapy
Mazzoni and collegaues (1999) demonstrated in a research experiment that a 30-minute session could influence and change how vulnerable people thought about a past event. This shows the power a therapist can have during sessions with a clients. Therapists have to be very careful when using dream analysis as they might implant false memories in particular when these are related to childhood events.
Loftus and Ketcham (1994) and Clancy (2009) have written about this topic in their books, “the myth of repressed memory” and “the trauma myth”. Loftus’s book “is not for the faint of heart. It shows how careful therapists need to be when vulnerable clients (those who have experienced trauma) come to therapy. Loftus and Ketcham report on the many cases of harm done to clients and their family members based on therapy done by well-meaning therapists. Loftus as well as Clancy mention the book” a Courage to Heal” by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis who wrote that memories are not as important, but how someone “feels”. Based on that statement, women started to look for memories that would explain why they felt moody, depressed and anxious in their current life. Unfortunately, many thought incorrectly, that it must have been related to childhood sexual abuse (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994).
Loftus and Ketcham end with “Perhaps therapy can be the place where our pain is truly witnessed and our memories appreciated, even celebrated, as ongoing, ever-changing interactions between imagination and history” (p. 269).
Alexander, F. (1948). Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Inc.
Clancy. S. A. (2009). The trauma myth. New York: Basic Books.
Loftus, E., & Ketcham, K. (1994). The myth of repressed memory. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Mazzoni, G., Loftus, E., Seitz. A & Lynn, S (1999). Changing beliefs and memories through dream interpretation. Applied Cognitive Psychology 13: 125-144.
Schur, M. (1972). Freud: Living and Dying. New York: International Universities Press. Inc.