VICTOR Hugo once said: "Each man should frame life so that at some future hour, fact and his dreaming meet." I wouldn’t mind framing life so that fact can meet up with my dreams, as long as it’s not the anxiety ones.
Psychologists say anxiety dreams are common among people of all ages. They also say most professions have their own versions of anxiety dreams, and these usually revolve around fears of unpreparedness and professional incompetence.
Surgeons, for example, may dream they’ve amputated the wrong limb, or killed the patient. (I suspect facts may have met too many of those dreams.)
Lawyers may dream of their innocent client going to prison; or accountants that they signed off a massive fraud (ditto on fact and dreams meeting there too).
And while new parents are not all professionals, they do have one of the hardest, most responsible jobs in the world. They may dream of doing a bad job, and something horrible happening to their offspring.
I’ve had anxiety dreams ever since I can remember, with content that has changed as the years have gone by.
At school and university, I used to dream of writing an exam for which I hadn’t studied. Once I became a journalist, that morphed into missing deadlines (thankfully, only ever in the Land of Nod, so no chance of fact and dream meeting).
Once I became a mother, I dreamt of bad things happening to my children.
But there are many other weird threads that weave through anxiety dreams, unrelated to professions or parenthood: public nudity for example; trying to talk, but your teeth fall out.
I’ve often wondered what purpose, if any, anxiety dreams serve. New-age dream "teachers" put a positive spin on them, saying they are a "rehearsal", an opportunity for dreamers to confront their worst fears, and be better prepared on the day.
That’s always seemed like so much nonsense to me, especially since I never dreamt of failing an exam the night before I had to sit for one — thank heavens, since I suffer from enough performance anxiety without the intrusion of the dream world.
And anyway, more qualified dream experts say anxiety dreams are not to be taken literally, and unraveling their symbolism isn’t simple.
They also say these dreams are "quite different" from nightmares — a distinction that eludes me. I have no artistic talent, but something in common with Dutch graphic artist Maurits Escher, who said: "I don’t use drugs, my dreams are frightening enough."
For me, the real dream authority Austrian psychiatrist is Sigmund Freud, author of The Interpretation Of Dreams. (There’s also his former pupil, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, author of Man And His Symbols, but I only have space for Freud.)
Freud said all dreams represent wish fulfillment on the dreamer’s part, and even anxiety dreams and nightmares reflect expressions of unconscious desires. Now that’s a sobering thought. If my anxiety dreams represent unconscious desires, may I never realise them anytime soon.
Freud also said that what can look like trivial nonsense in a dream, can reveal a set of coherent ideas and desires through the lengthy process of psychoanalysis. There may be quicker ways to get there.
Dr Deirdre Barrett, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of Trauma and Dreams, has said you can determine the outcome of an anxiety dream by focusing on a solution to what’s troubling you.
Anxiety dreams represent open-ended problems, she says, and you "don’t want to script the ending". The whole point, apparently, is "to tell yourself you want a solution to X, but to leave it open for your dreaming mind to come through with the solution", Barrett says.
She has listed famous people who did just that: German pharmacologist Otto Loewi, who spent some time in the dream world conceptualising an experiment on a frog heart, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1936; and German organic chemist Friedrich August Kekule, who developed the structure of chemistry’s benzene ring in his dreams, in the late 19th century.
Barrett has also been quoted as saying people will dream, whatever their background and qualifications, but "only major scientists will have the Nobel Prize-winning dreams".
I prefer Jack Kerouac’s view: "All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together."
Barrett has also said you can focus your dreams in "the right direction", whether they are anxiety dreams or not.
Her advice: keep a pen and paper by your bedside, and write the problem down as a brief phrase of a sentence. As you fall asleep, think of what you’ve done so far to try to solve the problem, form an image to represent it, and tell yourself you want to dream about the image.
The final step is "really important", according to Barrett: when you first wake up, "stay still"; don’t go rushing around, thinking of anything else, because dreams are ephemeral, and recall of them is fragile.
Of course, trying to pin down and dismantle the crazy world of dreams can be frustrating, like trying to catch the wind.
It makes more sense to me to revel in the madness, with permission from the "father of sleep medicine", Dr William Charles Dement, founder of the world’s first sleep laboratory at Stanford University.
Dement says dreaming permits "each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives".
• Marika Sboros is editor of Health News. Read her blog at blogs.businessday.co.za/marika.
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