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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The dreams of children are wish-fulfilments. Young children often report to have had a dream about them getting a reward. Something they desire.
  4. 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.
  5. Dreamers who have a guilty conscience, dream about unpleasant experiences such as enduring suffering and punishment (this is self-punishment).
  6. 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.







7 thoughts on “POST 63: DREAM WORK

    1. Thank you for your reply. “A compulsive attempt to undo the traumatic event”.
      The harsh realisation is that it cannot be undone and by awakening it provides fear and anxiety and deep sadness. Not a great start of the day. People have tried many things to not experience those. Before going to sleep you can think about 3 positive things. When awake in the early morning, maybe it is better to get up, as some of the “baddies” appear just then.

      Take care,


      Liked by 1 person

  1. Interesting, but what is the most current research on dreams? The latest resource cited is from something published in 2009, meaning it was researched prior to that. I’m curious to the addition of FMRI scanning as a tool for further unlocking of this mysterious mental state we humans use as an important part of our consciousness😎

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did look at the newer research done with fMRI imagery in relation to dreams. It is not very interesting as the imagery does not show anything new. Different phases of sleep can be observed, dreams occur during REM sleep. The meaning of these dreams, other than “memory consolidation” is not clear.
      I wrote the post as some people might be reading too much into dreams and may unnecessarily (re)-traumatise themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting. What do you think of muscle testing or EMDR? I had this done twice and in so doing discovered that the one who initially abused was my father. In light of Loftus & Ketcham, that determination could have been erroneous. I remembered abuses as an older child, but none as serious as the one this therapist had revealed when I was quite small. I realize any abuse is considered serious.
    At the time, I was caring for my father and I was suddenly nauseous at continuing to do so. My sister Sandy was a caregiver, so she basically rescued me. On his deathbed, I told him I knew and that I forgave him. He could not respond and the flash of hate that crossed his face and in his eyes, is one I will never forget. He could no longer speak, but those spoke volumes. It still haunts me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Based on research data, I have mixed feelings on EMDR. Not because it has not been helpful to some people, but based on the claims made (and the enormous money asked for training). The active ingredient of EMDR I think is cognitive therapy and not the finger movement. I have searched for research findings, and during all the years it has been advertised as THE treatment for trauma, I have not find any reason to recommend it to clients. CBT or CT is equally effective (minus the placebo effect). As you stated it helped you and therefore it has been valuable. Good therapists, and I am sure you had one, know how to guide people without interfering or “planting memories”. I am happy for you that you had closure. That is important for healing.
      PS: I nominated your Blog for the Lovely Blog Award a little while ago. No pressure! Just wanted to acknowledge you and saying “thanks”!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s