Since I typically struggle to remember what I had for breakfast on any given morning, it's remarkable that I still sharply recall a dream I had when I was three or four years old—probably because it was the first time I can remember vividly thinking about a dream after waking up.
I was in the middle of a dark forest, serenely walking toward a glowing, dappled light until I stumbled upon a clearing… and in it, a spectacular pool of crystalline turquoise water filled with a sparkling array of rainbow-color tropical fish. The magical scene took my breath away, and I opened my eyes in awestruck tears. I had surely never seen anything so beautiful in my waking moments, at least in the little time I'd spent on the planet so far.
I've been completely fascinated by dreams ever since, devotedly writing the details I can recall of my latest unconscious episodes in a journal I keep by my bed so that I might be able to interpret the plots and symbols and in turn, their greater meaning. My goal is simply a higher self-awareness. I subscribe to famed psychologist Carl Jung's theories on dreaming—that it's our unconscious psyche's way of communicating thoughts, moods, and desires that we just aren't accessing in the chaos of conscious life.
And just via this simple habit of jotting down everything I can recall from my dreams, I've had countless moments of clarity and insight into situations that I'm dealing with in everyday life. True story: After agonizing about it and weighing pros and cons for weeks, I finally made the decision to move across the country after a dream helped me understand that for my sanity and well-being, I had no other option. (And in retrospect, it was absolutely the right choice.)
"Dreams are a really valuable resource for us to really understand ourselves better, to understand what's going on in our lives in a different way," says Carder Stout, PhD, MFT, a Los Angeles–based psychologist. Dreams, he explains, can provide reason to waking moods and feelings that we can't quite explain. "We have our consciousness, which encompasses our cognitive brains and everything that we do on a daily basis that makes us thrive as human beings.
"But below the surface, there's this vast unconscious well—there's a lot of activity going on down there, and often when unconscious feelings are left unresolved, conscious feelings begin to pop up. So we might have feelings of anger or we might have feelings of anxiety, we might feel depressed and not really know why."
But noting symbols, feelings, and themes that occur during dreams can help us bridge this gap, which can in turn potentially provide clarity to murky emotions and situations we're dealing with in daily life. And while ideally we should consult with a professional like Stout or a reputable book (preferably not Dr. Google) to get a clear, personalized interpretation, there are some common dream symbols that tend to represent universal themes.
We're taking a look at them here.
Hold up—what's the best way to keep track of my dreams? How do I remember?
Before we dive into the symbolism, it's definitely important to note some strategies to keep track of what you're dreaming about. Just keeping a notebook by your bed is a simple solution, and Dr. Stout also suggests leaving a voice memo on your phone or a tape recorder right after waking up. Just one thing to keep in mind: If you wake up in the middle of the night after a really poignant dream, you might be tempted to just go right back to sleep—but then, chances are you might not remember it at all when you wake up in the morning. In these circumstances, Dr. Stout recommends jotting down just a few key points or symbols to help jog your memory come sunrise.
Now that you know how to dream journal, let's talk symbolism.
Dreaming that your teeth are falling out or missing might feel disconcerting, but it's actually pretty common. "If you think about it, when are the times in life when you lose your teeth?" says Dr. Stout. "Symbolically, it represents that you're going through a transition in your life, or that there's something happening that's transitional. Whether you are changing jobs, whether you're moving, whether you're breaking up with a boyfriend… If you're entering into a new phase in your life, you might have this dream. You're growing out of one phase, you're moving into another phase."
You know that dream—the one where you slept through your alarm on the day of the big presentation or show up to your high school in your pajamas. But while it's easy to assume that it's just stress-induced, it might go deeper to represent a general sense of FOMO. "It's about this fear that we have of time moving past us and we are being left behind," says Dr. Stout. "And I think that that's kind of an archetypal fear that most of us have; that the world is moving and we're not. There's something important happening and we're not there and we can't get there. So it's this kind of insecurity that we that we're not showing up. That the party's happening and we're not there."
"Dreams where we're in a familiar place—and oftentimes, that's represented by a childhood home or a home—really mean that you're going down into the unconscious," explains Dr. Stout. "And the home, or sometimes a body of water, really represents the psychological part of you. If it was your childhood home, it might mean you were visiting some feelings or some tendencies or some memories that you had as a child that were important for you to recognize right now."
To this end, he suggests reflecting back on the memories associated with that place or object and considering how they might apply to your life now, and what lessons you can take away from this connection. "A lot of times, it's just really a reference to the need to lighten up, or that you need to play a little bit more, have a little bit more fun," he says. "You need to have some more freedom. You know, because those are all the attributes of children."
Whether you're in a completely unfamiliar place or just took a wrong turn, the significance behind feeling lost actually isn't too much of a leap. "It's frightening being an adult, isn't it?" says Dr. Stout. "It's hard not to feel lost. It's hard not to feel as though, 'Maybe I'm an imposter. Maybe I'm not cut out for all of this. Maybe this is all just a façade, and I'm just going to pretend.' So I think that this dream is very common when we're feeling like, Who am I and where am I? What is my purpose in the world?"
If you're feeling physically stuck or fatigued in your dreams, it could represent a similar mental feeling in your waking life. "That is really a dream about feeling stagnant," says Dr. Stout. "Something in your life—whether it's a job or your relationship or just the feeling that some part of your life is not moving forward—really needs to be addressed. If you're having a dream where you can't move, well there's some aspect of your life that needs to move."
"Falling usually means that you are really taking on a lot in your life and that you don't feel grounded," says Dr. Stout. "You feel like the earth beneath your feet has actually been taken away. It's sort of a scary time in life. Perhaps you're feeling overwhelmed, you don't have a sense that you have a solid foundation. When people are having these types of dreams, I tell them it's very important for you to take care of yourself, very important for you to slow down. Decrease the levels of anxiety that you're experiencing and just remember that you can always just sit firmly, anchor yourself to the earth and be on the ground. That usually tends to settle people."
Here's where things get really fascinating: If you find yourself in a mystical locale or notice any mythical or magical elements to your dream, while confusing at the time, it could represent something much more concrete—even if there's no way you could have consciously made that connection. For example, Dr. Stout recalls a dream he had in which he encountered a woman with no hands.
"I kind of went and broke my own rule, and I googled woman with no hands, and it come up as a old German myth," he says. "So I went out and I found the myth, a specific regional myth, and I read that. It was really about powerlessness of being a woman throughout history, and a masculine-dominated world taking away women's power. So I had to think about what that meant to me specifically in my life at that time."
These, he says, are called archetypal dreams. "These are patterns of knowledge and information that live in the collective that we have access to when we dream," he explains. "So if there's a story or a myth or symbol that is thousands of years old and we dream about it, that means that we are accessing that archetype. So those are really powerful and really important and really sacred dreams, for having an archetypal dream." And it's up to us to extrapolate what we can.
Step one is (obviously) making sure you fall asleep in the first place: Check out the ideal sleep conditions for a great night of shut-eye, according to scientists.
This story was originally published on February 23, 2016.