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Impactful Dreams

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

While completing my Master of Arts degree, my research topic was impactful dream experiences, focussing specifically on the life impact following the dream. For this project (2020), I learned about and summarized the history of dream interpretation through communal and psychological lenses. I then interviewed eight individuals who had impactful dream experiences and analyzed their stories and common themes using a qualitative, narrative methodology. This basically means I listened to their stories, documented them as in-depth as I could, had them verify that my descriptions were accurate or correct them, then compared differences and similarities.

I chose this topic because I noticed how little discussion there was about dream meaning despite knowing many individuals who derived value from their dreams. Studying the history of dream interpretation provided some insight into why this general silence exists. Dream meaning does still hold profound relevance in many modern contexts, such as within some Islamic traditions (Bukleley, 2002; Hoffman, 1997), Shamanism (Lee, 2010), some Indigenous populations (Boer, 2012), and depth psychological models of therapy (Aizenstat, 2011; Beebe, Cambray, & Kirsch, 2001; Bird, 2005; Loden, 2003; Perrine, 2011), but in many ways dream meaning has generally fallen under the radar in mainstream society (King & DeCicco, 2009; Lee, 2010).

There are so many influences behind this and the history of dreamwork within both psychological and cultural frameworks is way too complex to go into in this post. To put it in very simplified terms, dreams are explored less in psychological spaces in part because psychology has become increasingly science-based (Rosner, 1997), and it is difficult to study dream meaning scientifically. The growing prominence of individualism and secularization within mainstream society has also contributed to the fading of dream exploration, since before the birth of the field of psychology, dreams were explored communally and often spiritually instead of only individually (Lee, 2010). Although there are generally fewer avenues to explore dream meaning than in the past, many people continue to see their dreams as psychologically and/or spiritually significant today, and many individuals have expressed a sense of longing for more avenues of exploration (King & DeCicco, 2009; Morewedge & Norton, 2009; Nell, 2012).

Lippmann (2006) poetically summarized the shift from communal explorations to measurable factors and described the remaining sense of longing for deeper dream inquiry with the following quote:

If we follow the dream's own nature and also the history and anthropology of the search for meaning in dreams across the centuries and through all cultures, we will discover that the dream - that shy disappearing flower of nighttime - can provide illumination into the deepest mysteries of human living - both private and public, individual and collective. Our study of the inner voice of dreams stands in stark opposition to the dangers inherent in a mind-numbing identification with our technology and in the steady march, outside of awareness of our own silent transformation into machines (p. 116).

This post is meant to briefly describe my research and state how it has informed my approach to dreamwork. This may be of interest to anyone who wants to explore their dreams with a counsellor or on their own, or fellow clinicians; the main purpose is to share my findings in an open and accessible way.

The Research Process and Findings

As I researched the progression of dream interpretation throughout time and the amazing methods communities and psychological models have developed to interpret their dreams, it was just as daunting as it was astounding. In The Gift of Therapy, Yalom (2002) talked about the apprehension many counsellors feel towards working with dreams because they feel pressure to interpret dream content "correctly" or "completely." I have noticed that some people feel similar apprehension towards exploring their own dreams. Personally, I have always wanted to incorporate dreamwork into my practice, but while reading through its history, I felt this same pressure.

The primary finding within my study was of liberating sensations that made life changes easier to initiate or accept. This theme was described by all eight of the study's dreamers. Six of them discussed immediate sensations upon waking that helped them accept or initiate waking change, and for the other two it took some time to process these sensations. They all framed them as shifting their perception of the world and/or their identity in some way that continues to affect them. The most impactful parts lived more in those sensations than having a clear or "definite" understanding of what everything in their dreams represented, even if they drew some of those ties.

If you are seeking out materials for dream exploration, you may already have an intuitive connection to impactful dreams, or are trying to find one. Even though some of the participants' dreams took months or years to process, they did process. My current approach to dreamwork, while acknowledging there is always much more to learn, is about facilitating the connection between dreams and the dreamers' intuition that is already present, even if only enough to elicit curiosity. Then, the next step is to contain the process of finding meaning through sensation. Somatic interventions to help connect dreamers to the body through dreams do exist and have already been meaningfully applied by clinicians such as Johanne Hamel who works somatically with dreams through art therapy (Hamel, 2020). To help you in your own process in ways that align with the participants in my study, I have provided some free materials that are described in the next section. It is important to note these materials are based on my research findings and have not themselves been empirically studied or measured for efficacy.

It is also important to mention that approaches to dreamwork like the one I am describing do exist and I am by no means "inventing" this idea. For example, the approach I am describing is non-interpretive, and James Hillman developed a non-interpretive approach to dreamwork that functions within the lens of Archetypal Psychology (1979). Part of the dream log exercises also include ongoing exploration of dream figures in waking life, which holds similarities with Stephen Aizenstat's method called Dream Tending (2011).

Free Materials

The aim of the dream log exercises listed below is to help you explore your own dreams while tapping into the sensations that proved so transformative for the participants in my study. The nature of impactful dreams varied from each other, so I split them into three categories using participants' language. Each category has its own dream logging exercise, and the questions / prompts line up with how participants described their own process of finding meaning.

The thing with impactful dreams is we never know when they're going to come to us. They are not voluntary or controllable, but this is also what makes them so fascinating. It can often take time for the sensations from your impactful dreams to fully process, so it may be helpful to come back to these exercises on an ongoing basis. This gradual nature can also be applied to dream images or figures. For example, some dreamers in my study have maintained ongoing relationships with figures in their dreams that have shifted over time. As always, adapt as needed and make the exercises your own.

1. The *something* dream

This exploration may be useful if you have woken up feeling there was *something* evocative in a dream but you can't quite place what is. Although you're unsure how to conceptualize what shifted in you, you awake feeling a sense of curiosity and desire to listen and delve deeper. These dreams may contain a type of self-confrontation and/or discovery of a facet of yourself that did not feel as accessible or visible before.

2. The pathway dream

Pathway dreams feel like messages. You may want to try this exploration if you woke from your dream with a newfound sense of clarity, freedom, or feel like a decision was made either in the dream or immediately after. This may involve the choice to abandon a certain path in waking life, or embark on a new one.

3. The transcendent dream

This exploration is reserved for those dreams that totally blow your mind. You awake feeling new, magnified sensations and/or realizations, which sometimes involve a drastic and lasting change in outlook. For these dreams, you're unlikely to feel bothered with intellectualizing or analyzing the dream's content because you'll be so engrossed in the feelings and sensations that came with it. These dreams may be spiritual or religious in nature.



Aizenstat, S. (2011). Dream tending. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal

Beebe, J., Cambray, J., & Kirsch, T. B. (2001). What Freudians can learn from Jung.

Psychoanalytic Psychology, 18(2), 213–242.

Bird, B. E. I. (2005). Understanding dreams and dreamers: An Adlerian perspective. Journal of Individual Psychology, 61(3), 200–216.

Boer, E. (2012). Spirit conception: Dreams in Aboriginal Australia. Dreaming, 22(3), 192-211.

Bulkeley, K. (2002). Reflections on the dream traditions of Islam. Sleep and Hypnosis, 4(1), 1– 11.

Hamel, J. (2020). Art therapy, dreams, and healing. Routledge

Hamel, J. (2020). Somatic art therapy: Alleviating pain and trauma through art. Routledge.

Hillman, J. (1979). Dream. In The dream and the underworld (pp. 91-142). New York: Harper & Row.

Hoffman, V. J. (1997). The role of visions in contemporary Egyptian religious life. Religion, 27(1), 45–63.

King, D. B., & DeCicco, T. L. (2009). Dream relevance and the continuity hypothesis: Believe it or not? Dreaming, 19(4), 207–217.

Lee, R. L. M. (2010). Forgotten fantasies? Modernity, reenchantment, and dream consciousness. Dreaming, 20(4), 288–304.

Lippmann, P. (2006). The canary in the mind: On the fate of dreams in psychoanalysis and in contemporary culture. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 66(2), 113-130.

Loden, S. (2003). The fate of the dream in contemporary psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 51(1), 43-70.

Morewedge, C. K., & Norton, M. I. (2009). When dreaming is believing: The (motivated) interpretation of dreams. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(2), 249–264.

Nell, W. (2012). Religion and spirituality in contemporary dreams. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 68(1), 1–9.

Perrine, R. M. (2011). Experimental research on dreaming: State of the art and neuropsychoanalytic perspectives. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 1-10.

Rosner, R. I. (1997). Cognitive therapy, constructivism and dreams: A critical review. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 10, 249-273.

Von Hausen, E. (2020). How dreams have impacted the lives of dreamers: A narrative study. (Masters thesis). ProQuest.

Yalom, I. D. (2002). The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

*something* Dream
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Pathway Dream
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Transcendent Dream
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