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Directing Your Dreams

Rewriting and directing dream 'scripts' can bolster confidence, empower us to improve our waking lives.

Rewriting and directing our dream "scripts" can bolsterconfidence and empower us to imprive our waking lives. Now there is a new landmark study that will help put you in control of your night.

Laura dreamed she brought a basket of laundry from the basement to the living room, where her husband was sitting on the couch.

"Jim picked up a gold sock and hurled it into a corner of the room. I was shocked and said. 'Why did you do that?' He said: 'It has a hole in it. I don't want it anymore!"'

Al dreamed a crowd of people were trying to fix an old, unusual railroad switch that was jammed into buried pipes.

"They hadn't used that switch it seemed like for years and naturally the sand and dust had blowed [sic] into these pipes and it was all rusty."

Tama dreamed her boyfriend had proposed marriage to her. As the teenaged couple walked along the beach to an old house, the idyllic scene suddenly dissolved.

"Characters from a horror movie were there, waiting to axe me. I went over to the beach with my boyfriend. Giant crabs were there, ready to attack."

These dreams do not reflect idle thoughts about home economics, plumbing, or marine life. Rather, they au zero in, with laserlike precision, on current crises in the dreamers' lives, emotional earthquakes that threaten to topple their basic sense of self-identity.

Laura was a 35-year-old mother of four whose husband, Jim, had just left her. Laura's dream summarized her view of herself and her tattered marriage: "Jim broke up the pair of us and threw me away." She thought the two of them were "his favorite pair." Even her use of a basket of laundry--an assortment of family members' clothing-was apt: her own life revolved around family and home.

Further, just before the breakup, Laura came home early one day to find Jim dressed in her underwear. This, she told me, was her first clue that he was having problems with his sexual identity and had begun in secret to cross-dress. It's no wonder she dreamed he had discarded her, the sock with the hole.

Al, the man who dreamed about a defective switch and plugged-up pipes, was about to undergo major surgery to repair a blocked vein in his leg. A former train engineer, he drew on images from his work identity to express his perception of what was wrong with his leg and his anxieties about how the operation would go. Al spent four nights before his surgery and three nights after it in the University of Oregon's sleep laboratory, where psychologist Louis Breger and his colleagues awakened him several times a night in order to collect his dreams.

Al's other dreams included surgical images, such as cutting up a large piece of meat; repair of other broken objects, such as a stove and a car; and problems with the transport of fluids, such as a half-dried riverbed and a stopped-up septic tank. AR these images occurred in dreams before the operation. Not one occurred after its successful completion. He focused on the threat to his body and its functions before his surgery. Afterward, he no longer felt this threat.

In her dream, Tama revealed a normal adolescent's desire for love and intimacy. But she worried that a calamity would keep her from fulfilling her wish. When Tama was only two years old, a forklift truck overturned on her, crushing her leg and necessitating many operations. When she was nine, surgeons finally had to amputate her leg.

Although Tama told child psychiatrist Lenore Terr this dream had nothing to do with her accident, "she actually had been axed," Terr observes. That was how the girl viewed the surgery she had undergone. Furthermore, Terr asks, "what looks more like a forklift truck, after all, than an oversize, shiny, bright orange Alaska king crab?"

A worn-out sock, rusty pipes, giant crabs: dreams are full of these wonderfully fitting images. Although dreams often puzzle us, it's worth the effort to capture and decipher them, for they show us what we otherwise may not see. They help us uncover truths about ourselves that our waking minds may know yet deny or that, awake, we may not be able to articulate clearly. They do so especially in times of intense emotional upheaval, as Laura found when going through a divorce, Al when facing major surgery, and Tama when confronting the fear that her damaged leg would keep her from getting married.

Few of us go through life without encountering such crises. Indeed, times of crisis highlight the important functions that dreams serve in our lives. Events we perceive as both positive and negative, beginnings and endings, pluses and minuses, all place heavy demands on the dream system. When we gain or lose a job, a mate, a home, or when we undergo any major change in our lives, our internal picture of who we are and our sense of security are called into question.

At such times, our dreams go into high gear. In our dreams, we search through our life story to find memories that can help us cope. We sleep more lightly and awaken more often. Dreams are more apt to stick with us when we're troubled than when life is going well.

The Chinese symbol for crisis includes the characters for both danger and opportunity. The danger we face during a crisis is from the potential shattering of the program on which we run-the present self. The opportunity is in expanding that picture, reshaping how we see ourselves, constructing a new, better-functioning persona.

Dreams during crises show how that equation is working out. Is the danger overwhelming us or are we dealing with the opportunity to assume new roles? Are these roles positive or negative? "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" the Munchkins asked Dorothy, who, when threatened with the loss of her beloved Toto, dreamed she was blown out of Kansas and into the land of Oz.

From Bad Dreams to Good

Our dreams serve, Cincinnati psychiatrist and dream researcher Milton Kramer suggests, as an emotional thermostat. A bad dream, like an elevated temperature, is a symptom that something is wrong. It is a distress signal, a message from our sleeping mind to our waking mind that is risky to ignore. Kramer's studies show that the mind-set we have during our dreams affects our attitudes and behavior the following day. After a bad dream, we awaken more discouraged than we were at bedtime. After a good one, we tend to feel more optimistic.

Dreams also offer a shortcut to understanding and overcoming the emotional stumbling blocks of people in crisis. The times that try men's (and women's) souls are precisely those when we most need to shift our dreams into action, to turn from simply recognizing the danger to our present self to accepting the opportunity to invent or devise a change and then to rehearse and work on it.

The crisis dreaming method-which addresses malfunctioning dreams directly to try to change those that reveal a continuing, underlying, poor identity pattern-offers an opportunity to direct our dreams toward more positive results. Once you discover the trend of what is happening from dream to dream, you can identify more easily those that are unproductive or even self-destructive, and you can start to work on dream repair that very night.

Useful in many situations, the crisis dreaming method aims to change negative, hurtful dreams to positive, heating ones. It enables people to stop bad dreams while they are in progress, and to rewrite their scripts. In this way, we can redirect dreaming to perform its proper function: to update our inner narrative, our sense of identity-first by recognizing those aspects of our present crisis that are negative and demoralizing, and next by finding images of strength already filed in our memory banks. We can then activate these images to change our waking attitudes. In so doing, we can adapt faster and more fully to the emotional hurricanes we all encounter.

The crisis dreaming method has value in good times as well as bad: It shows how we can use dreams not only to understand ourselves better, but also to foster desired changes in our waking lives. A good dream system enables us to reorganize our sense of ourselves internally, to make the necessary transformations in point of view when circumstances change, to create a new, self-respecting version of who we are.

If you are currently wrestling with a major life crisis, the first step is to pay more attention to your dreams. You may be skeptical. The conventional wisdom is that most of us recover from a crisis by changing our waking lives, not our dreams. Can it work the other way around? Many of those with whom I have worked tell me that dreams provided them with both the insight on how the present connects to the past, and the impetus to change the program of the self in order to create a better fit with their present lives. They have found that changing the endings of their dreams can be a giant step toward these goals. This concept shocks traditional psychoanalysts. It challenges the basic idea of the nature of the relationship between the waking mind and dreams.

Understanding Dream Dimensions

Key questions to ask yourself about any dream you recall are: "Why this dream?" and "Why dream this dream now?" For that, you need to look for the underlying themes that bind together your dreams and waking life, the emotional issues that prompt your sleeping self to declare: "This is what I am feeling. This is what day-today events remind me of. This is what needs more attention."

We build our dream stories to express these underlying themes using various dream dimensions-distinctions that we make to define and categorize our experiences. Dimensions, which reflect opposing states or qualities, constitute our own unique and habitual way of organizing the world we live in. We start in infancy to make big evaluative discriminations: This feels good; that feels bad. This is warm; that is cold. By the time we reach adulthood, we have added many such distinctions. In dreams, the specific images, along with their opposites, show how we see people and events and express our innermost feelings about them.

The idea of our using a system of opposites in our dreams is one I have adapted from the work of the noted anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who used this approach to analyze the characteristic ways of thinking and myth-making in tribal cultures. He suggested that the mind works on problems by dividing key issues into pairs and then by juggling these elements, this way and that, patiently rearranging and recombining them, until they fit the needs of the person telling the story.

Studies of waking memory show that we mentally file new information with bits of similar information as well as with their opposites; that is, we sort a new fact not only by what it is but also by what it is not. Thus, it's no surprise that we dream about winning the lottery when we're worried about not being able to pay the bills, or about striking out at bat at age 10 just after receiving a big promotion. The following list comprises some of the most common dimensions we see in dreams in our lab:

o Safety versus danger

o Helplessness versus competence

o Pride versus shame

o Activity versus passivity

o Independence versus dependence

o Trust versus mistrust

o Defiance versus compliance

While each dream in a series may have several dimensions, the same few dimensions are usually expressed repeatedly in a single night. Some parts of a dream may reflect the positive pole, and others the negative side. A dream expressing feelings of danger, for example, may precede or follow one expressing feelings of safety. Honing in on any one concept that a dream presents and stepping back to ask, "What is its opposite?" may open our eyes to important issues we wouldn't otherwise see.

Rewriting dream scripts: The RISC method

The premise of dream therapy is straightforward: If bad dream scripts make you awaken discouraged and downhearted, rewriting the scripts to improve the endings should lead to better moods.

Dream therapy has just four steps that you can learn on your own:

o RECOGNIZE when you are having a bad dream, the kind that leaves you feeling helpless, guilty, or upset the next morning. You need to become aware while you are dreaming that the dream is not going well.

o IDENTIFY what it is about the dream that makes you feel bad. Locate the dimensions that portray you in a negative light-as, for example, weak rather than strong, inept rather than capable, or out-of-control rather than in control.

o STOP any bad dream. You do not have to let it continue. You are in charge. Most people are surprised to find that telling themselves to recognize when a bad dream is in progress is often all it takes to empower them to stop such dreams.

o CHANGE negative dream dimensions into their opposite, positive sides. At first, you may need to wake up and devise a new conclusion before returning to sleep. With practice, you will be able to instruct yourself to change the action while remaining asleep.

The first letter of each step forms the acronym "RISC" to help you remember that the idea is to 'risk" stepping in to change the endings of your dreams and to work toward a more positive self-image.

Altering the outcome of a dream is a tall order, but our studies show it's an achievable goal. There's an active give-and-take between the conscious and the sleeping mind. Even if you don't change a particular dream while asleep, your waking exploration of the depressive elements of your dreams, and your awareness of what you can and should change, may have a payoff. People who devise several possible solutions to familiar dream dilemmas report that they often manage to incorporate some of these new waking attitudes into their dreams.

The definition of a "better" ending sometimes proves surprising. One meek young man often had a nightmare in which a bus ran him down. When he changed this dream, he gave himself a machine gun so that he could attack the bus and shoot its driver. He felt much better afterward and never had the dream again. Why not? In his dream, he could retaliate aggressively against the bullies who had picked on him when he was a youngster and destroy them. His dream success rebuilt some pride he sorely needed.

Such success reverberates with waking life. Becoming more active in dreams helps people to become more positive about the future. A successful night of dreaming produces immediate benefits for mood in the morning. Stopping a bad dream and changing it lifts the spirits. People gain a sense of empowerment from knowing they are not at the mercy of their bad dreams. Then, as they begin to change the image of a rejected, helpless self to one that is more in control, waking behavior begins to improve. They start to try out the new roles, the underdeveloped, better aspects of themselves, that they first practice in dreams.

Dreams Of Illness

Do dreams serve as a seismograph for illness, registering subterranean tremors long before the earthquakes of noticeable symptoms jolt our outer surface? Much as some women dream they are pregnant before their condition is confirmed, can dreams tell us that an illness is developing in our bodies even before we experience symptoms or before our doctors can detect signs of the illness? If so, we could use our dreams to obtain treatment earlier and perhaps to improve our health.

Psychologist Robert Haskell of the University of New England notes that the body undergoes numerous changes in REM sleep. Heart rate and breathing fluctuate more, for example. Certain hormones are released, while others are suppressed. Blood pressure rises. People with duodenal ulcers secrete more gastric acid. Dreams from which we awaken, heart pounding, palms sweaty, offer a good illustration of the impact of mind on body. The reverse also may be true. "It is quite possible, and reasonable to assume," Haskell asserts, "that just as simple external and internal physical and somatic stimuli are worked into dreams, that more complex 'cognitions' (awareness) are also worked into the dream process, cognitions about the state of physical health and illness.'

Stanford University researcher Ernest Hilgard personifies the dream system as a "hidden observer," an internal self-monitor, that supplies us with a steady stream of information and scrutinizes bodily cues that we might otherwise miss or dismiss-as inconsequential.

Scientific journals contain numerous examples of this phenomenon: A woman with rheumatoid arthritis dreamed her arms were bound in a straitjacket. Her illness flared. Later, she dreamed that she fell down on ice but got up easily. Her symptoms subsided.

A woman overwhelmed by work dreamed of looking at her watch, only to find its face covered over by strips of paper. Soon afterward, she became so exhausted she could not continue working. After taking time off, she recovered. She then dreamed she looked for her missing watch and remembered she had put it on a shelf. When she took it down, she found the face "quite clear.'

Research suggesting that dreams may have diagnostic validity and even may predict the course an illness will take is just beginning. Researcher Robert Smith and his colleagues at Michigan State University interviewed 49 hospitalized cardiology patients about their dreams. One member of the research team asked the patients to ten them a dream occurring in the past year, any dream at all. The researcher then rated the dream for references to death or separation.

Patients who reported having no dreams at all had the most severe illness. In the dreamers, there was a good correlation between the severity of their cardiac disease and the content of their dreams, with an interesting sex difference: Men who had the highest number of references to death in their dreams also proved to have the most severe disease; while women who were the sickest dreamed the most about separation or disruption of a personal relationship. The men's greatest fear was loss of life; the women's, a loss of connectedness. Because many of the patients underwent corrective coronary artery bypass surgery, the researchers were not able to correlate the types of dreams with the likelihood of survival.

When Dreams Are Disturbed

Psychologist David Foulkes of the Georgia Mental Health Institute has spent many years studying dreams in children. His early research at the University of Wyoming shows that children's dreams follow a regular sequence of stages over the years. The changes reflect more than the increasing ability to use language to describe dreams; they represent real developmental steps in the dreams themselves. "Proficiency in dreaming," Foulkes says, "evolves hand-in-hand with waking cognitive ability."

Although we create dream images from social experiences, dreams are not themselves social acts. No one corrects our misperceptions of meanings in dreams as they do when we are learning spoken language. Foulkes concludes from his work that the potential for us to create dream narratives is wired into our brains as surely as our ability to develop spoken language, and both go through an orderly developmental pattern. The single-image, literal dreams of early childhood form the basic alphabet we use later to construct more complex narratives.

Traumatic events that occur in childhood threaten this orderly process. Such events-even for children who are loved and supported, even if sudden and brief-are seldom forgotten. They leave behind unmistakable memory traces that show up in fears, games, or play activities in which the child reenacts the terrible event. And they show up in dreams.

Having these highly charged images in the memory bank means that new experiences, even minor ones, that evoke feelings of fear and powerlessness will produce echoes of these earlier images for a long time to come, perhaps even for a lifetime.

San Francisco psychologist Patricia Garfield asked 13 girls, aged 13 to 20, to describe their "worst dreams." All were victims of severe sexual abuse at the hands of their fathers or other adult males taking the father's place. Not surprisingly, the most common dream theme was that of being attacked, and the most common emotions in dreams were helplessness and terror. One child, abused by both her stepfather and her mother's ex-boyfriend, reported this dream:

"After X molests me, he gets my mom and my brother and me and takes us outside to this big shoe. It has a cannon in it and he takes my mother and puts her in the cannon and shoots her out. And I have to watch him kill my mother. The same with my brother and then he does it to me."

Several of the girls found ways to cope with their nightmare demons. One, when she dreamed of being stabbed, saw herself being rushed to a hospital. In her dream, she reported: "I almost died, but I hung on for my boyfriend and my sister." Another girl, with recurrent dreams about being chased by a huge, wild cat, finally dreamed the beast hugged her, promised to protect her, and then turned into her mother.

Abused children, Garfield points out, need guidance to find the positive signs of strength in their dreams. She asked one girl how she could improve a dream of falling, breaking her back, and dying. The girl replied: "I could just break my back and not die' " This type of answer, Garfield says, is in stark contrast to those of nonabused children, who invent rescuing helicopters or Superman saviors.

Bad dreams may go underground as we grow older, but they often resurface in times of trouble. Changing the self-image in dreams frees the mind to imagine better ways to be; it gives permission for positive action and the communication of feelings. Changes made in working with dreams often increase confidence and empower us to act in new ways in our waking lives.

"It's hard for women who have been abused to talk about their experience," social worker Doris Diamond says, "because talking makes it real. But once they can talk about it, healing can begin."

Diamond, who directs the Family Therapy Institute of Provident Counseling in St. Louis, works with women in groups lasting just six sessions. One requirement of participation is that the women must also be in individual therapy and committed to continuing it during their group work and afterward. Also, women who enter the group have already acknowledged that the abuse occurred, even if their memories remain vague.

In the group, women learn that they are not alone and, most importantly, that they were not at fault. One important activity is sharing recollections written out of class. "The writing often helps them to access the dream material and give form to their experience," Diamond says. As memories start to return, the women may feel terrible pain, then retreat to denying their experience, she notes. "They may say, 'I'm just having these wierd dreams, I must be making this up."

The women sometimes re-experience the abuse in a dream, no longer as a child, but rather at their present age. That makes the event harder to deny. One woman dreamed:

"My father was on top of me in bed. His breath stank of alcohol."

In some dreams, they may be trying to comfort their father. In such dreams, Diamond suggests, they may be trying to reassure themselves that the experience is over now and that they can get past it.

The group work aims to enable the women to rewrite the story of their past so that they can live with it in the present. Once they confront what happened to them, they can corral their dreams. Furthermore, sometimes they can use their dreams to help the healing process. One woman frequently awakened in fright from dreams of a looming, ominous, shadowy figure at the foot of her bed. She drew on her religious education and transformed the specter into an angel, stationed there to protect her.

Another saw in her dreams her father raping a small, tearful child. She knew she was the child, but she also knew that now she was an adult. She changed the dream so that she watched the event as a fly on the wall. She could tell herself, "That was another me, a younger me, from a long time ago' "

The healing process is often painful and difficult. Often, women who have suffered abuse have trained themselves not to cry, not to have feelings, not to acknowledge their pain. These strategies, protective during childhood, diminish the quality of their lives later on. When the feelings first return, women fear that once they start sobbing, they may not stop.

Certain kinds of recurring dreams, particularly those involving attacks, often serve as a red flag to alert us to the possibility of early sexual abuse. We can use these dreams to help uncover the awful secrets that we'd prefer to ignore. However, they need not be a continuing fixture in our lives. We can change our dreams to help us master our pain, to permit us to continue our lives, no longer as victims, but as survivors.

Recovery from crisis takes time. We may replay memories of guilt, anger, inadequacy, and rejection for years afterward. Those with basic problems in their underlying self-image must revise the ways they see themselves. The task is difficult, but we can speed the recovery process by learning to heed the inner voices of our dreams and then to. direct them to speak in stronger, more confident tones.

PHOTOS (7): Various photo illustrations (ALLEN WALLACE; DOUGLAS R. BURROWS)

Excerpted from Crisis Dreaming: Using Your Dreams to Solve Your Problems, by Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D. and Lynne Lamberg (HarperCollins). Copyright 1992 by Rosalind Cartwright and Lynne Lamberg.


"Oh my God, I think I just killed two people," Kenneth James Parks told Toronto police officers. He had stumbled into their station, with blood dripping from multiple deep wounds in his hands, just before 5 a.m. on May 24, 1987. Police found his mother-in-law stabbed to death, and his father-in-law bleeding profusely, alive but unconscious, in their home a block away.

Parks' hands were so severely cut that police has to stop taking his statement and drive him to a hospital when his confused state cleared up enough for him to begin to feel the pain. The surgeon who repaired the wounds called them "defensive." Police deduced that Parks has grappled with his mother-in-law for control of the kitchen knife he had used to kill her.

At his trial, Parks claimed that he had gone to sleep in his own home, 14 miles away, and awakened only after the murder. He had no memory of driving to his in-laws' home or of the event itself. I was one of two sleep specialists who interviewed Parks and helped prepare his defense. We concluded that he had been sleepwalking and in a confused state at the time. We thought it was the only reasonable diagnosis. There was no other explanation. The jury judged him not guilty be reason of sleepwalking and acquitted him.

Parks' case is an extreme example of what happens when the dream system fails. The line between sleeping and waking blurs. The sleeper is propelled from bed -- pulled, it seems, by some strong sense of being threatened. He is partly awake, partly asleep. He often acts violently and without conscious thought. Our appreciation for how dreams serve to maintain emotional equilibrium in our lives comes in part from seeing what happens when dreams don't work the way they should.

Parks was the first person in Canada to win acquittal for murder with a sleepwalking defense. His case, while exceptionally rare, is not unique. The medical literature contains reports of more than 30 similar cases, dating back to 1859 when Esther Griggs threw her baby out the window. Dazed with sleep, she thought that her house was on fire. She was trying to save her child's life. A passing constable who was an eyewitness gave a convincing account of her behavior to a grand jury.

While sleepwalkers only rarely display violence towards others, they frequently harm themselves, by crashing into furniture, for example, or falling out of windows. Along the way, they acquire bruises, cuts, and broken bones. Young sleepwalkers usually show poor coordination and clumsiness, but as adults, they sometimes accomplish feats that require considerable dexterity, such as knotting a tie or driving a car. Often they engage in automatic behaviors, such as opening and closing a drawer or turning a faucet on and off over and over.

Sleepwalkers are not acting out their dreams. Recent studies show that brain activity during sleep can be quite complex. In fact, rapid shifts to and from sleeping, waking, and dreaming may account for many of the bizarre behaviors described here.

Despite the complicated acts some people perform while sleepwalking, the ability to control what one does in this state is severely limited, Broughton says. "It's impossible, for instance, that a person could formulate a plan before falling asleep and then carry it out while sleepwalking," he said in testimony at Parks' trial.


o Keep a journal of waking events and concerns in tandem with your dream diary.

If you make a habit of reviewing your day just before goint go sleep, you are aldo priming your dream system with raw materials. The more you write, the more you have to draw on later when trying to see how a dream connects to your daily life.

o Remind yourself of your intention to keep track of your dreams as you drift off to sleep.

Just as you recall directions better when you're driving the car rather than being a passenger, putting yourself in the driver's seat for dreams will help you better remember where you go.

o When you wake up, lie still while you go over your dream.

Prolonging the muscle paralysis typical of the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) state helps bring back what was going through your mind at that time. You're more likely to recall a dream if you permit yourself to hover for a while between sleeping and waking.

o Translate the pictures into words before you open your eyes.

Fixing a key word or image in your mind will often help you reclaim the dream in the morning. If you make the title a summary sentence, you'll find the rest of the dream easier to remember.

o If all you remember is a fragment but you want to try to recover the dream, think of that fragment as you fall asleep the following night.

Often the details of a dream will come back more fully in the first few minutes of sleep than it did when you woke up in the morning.

o If you have trouble remembering dreams, try sleeping late on weekends.

The longer you sleep, the longer your REM periods and the longer and more complex your dreams. When you linger in bed until you are slept out, you're likely to awaken from REM sleep.


o Falling and Flying -- Falling is the earliest dream many people can remember. These dreams appear throughout our lives, often at times of threat to our basic sense of security, such as the loss of a job or a failed love affair. In falling dreams, we feel helpless, out of control. We often recognize that we are going over the edge, defying rules. Sometimes we get away with it; more often we awaken with a thumping heart, sweaty palms, and a profound sense of relief that we are safe in bed.

Flying dreams, by contrast, are usually exhilarating. In these we escape the laws of gravity and the demands of the waking world. While we dream, we are above it all. These often accompany a "good" crisis, when we feel pride in accomplishment. We feel pleased with ourselves, "high" in self-esteem, superior to others. Anxious flying dreams are close to falling dreams -- they arise from concern for our physical safety. We need to be aware of whether the image is positive or negative to understand its meaning.

o Being chased or embraced -- In chase dreams, the danger comes from other people and warns us that they might not always be trustworthy. Some current crisis may be stirring up feelings we had in childhood, such as the expectation of being punished or caught in a lie. We may try to call for help but cannot make a sound. We try to run but cannot move. We are helpless to alter circumstances or protect ourselves from those who intend to do us harm.

Being embraced is exactly the opposite and is usually a positive event, a way of reaffirming to ourselves, "There are people whom I can trust." Sexual images may relate to many kinds of feelings, both positive and negative. Attaining satisfaction from others or being at their mercy are only two of the possible themes of sex dreams.

o Failing or winning -- In failing dreams, the negative feelings are our own fault. We let ourselves down. These are often dreams of self-doubt or self-reproach. We didn't do all we could have to prevent some bad event.

The flip-side of this dream is one of success. We discard our self-doubt and accomplish an important task. We may even dream of being more able than we really are, doing something we don't truly know how to do -- fly a plane or play the piano.

o Ashamed or proud -- In social embarrassment dreams, we are caught naked where everyone can see or find ourselves in a bathroom for the opposite sex. These may be dreams of shame and exposure to the ridicule of others. In such dreams, we may be both literally and metaphorically caught with our pants down. These are more common when we are worried about being seen as we really are, before a job interview or an important date, for example.

Dreams of glory sparkle with pride. We win a gold medal at the Olympics or perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Sleep researcher Allan Rechtschaffen relates this dream: "I invented a device to stop war -- at the touch of a button, I could put everyone to sleep until they got over their urge to fight." He awoke with a great feeling of accomplishment.


Common problems we all face in growing up -- learning to protect ourselves from physical injury, coping with hostility, learning to live with our own upsetting feelings -- fuel the creation of our early dream images. We cannot shield children from accidents, injuries, or pain, but we can be alert to the dreams these events leave behind, the stories that need better endings.

We can encourage children to share their dreams, especially their nightmares. We can familiarize ourselves with how they handle the problems that we expect to show up in dreams. If they are falling, we can help them learn to fly; if monsters chase them, we can teach ways to tame the savage beasts.

Some children relate their dreams better by drawing them. In her book Nightmare Help, Anne Wiseman suggests using drawings to help your child master the conflicts the dream expresses. Once the monster is down on paper, you can encourage the child to draw a cage around it, for example. Children need to know they don't have to face their troubles all alone.

Wiseman reports that her own son had bad dreams about their house burning down. Her husband suggested to the boy that next time he had one of these dreams, he put the fire out. One morning the boy came to breakfast full of excitement. He did it. He put the fire out! When his parents asked him how, he said proudly, "I peed on it." They may have traded one nighttime problem for another!