Sleep Disorders

13 September 2010

The world of dreams

Every night when we sleep, we enter a different world. In this place there are no limitations and anything is possible. This is the world of our dreams.


Every night when we sleep, we enter a different world. It takes most of us approximately 20 minutes to get there. In this place there are no limitations and anything is possible. This is the world of our dreams.

However, sometimes our dreams get out of control. We wake up shocked and fearful, wondering if what we’ve dreamed is true, or whether it has any significance in our lives.

Why we dream

"Dreams are a result of the subconscious mind receiving messages in a symbolic form," says Tanja Jaeger, a third-generation psychic from Sea Point in Cape Town. “Our lives and our dreams are actually closely linked and in order to understand ourselves better, we need to gain insight into our emotional and psychological wellbeing by understanding the meaning of our dreams.”

Jaeger also explained that with the pace living these days, we find that we are often too busy to confront important issues. Because of this, at night, when our minds are at rest “dreaming helps us to understand and even supply solutions to these issues”.

Remembering dreams

Dreams only last momentarily after an awakening according to Dr Chris Idzikowski, the director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, says in a video on the London Sleep Centre website.  He explained that 20 to 40 seconds after waking up out of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, dreaming ends and because of this “the odds of remembering that state [of mind] are extremely low.” 

REM occurs during stage five of the sleeping process and is characterized by the rapid movements of the eyes.  The REM phase of sleep occurs while an individual is dreaming and is generally associated with lighter sleep. During the night, the body will go through at least four REM cycles


Jaeger suggests that “one needs to instruct the mind to remember the dream before one goes to sleep” in order to better remember details of the dream. She also said that keeping a dream journal next to your bed could help, because you can write down the details of a dream before you become fully alert and forget them.

Reoccurring dreams and when to get help

Many people experience reoccurring dreams or nightmares. Jaeger says “when dreams occur frequently, there is a root emotion attached to this. A common recurring dream would be one in which the dreamer is being chased by an unknown force or being. This generally represents the dreamer's fears, and upon awakening the breathing will be rapid, there’ll be sweating and the heart will be beating faster”.

There is no need to be alarmed by recurring dreams or nightmares unless one is suffering from post-traumatic stress. If you think this may be the case, it is advised that one seeks professional help. "Help should also be sought “if someone is distressed by their dreams, or they have daytime symptoms," says Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, Medical Director of the London Sleep Centre.

Here are the top 10 recurring dreams many people have, and what they are thought to mean, according to Jaeger:

Water:  this is a common feature of many people's dreams. It is said to represent our emotions.

Smooth water represents positive experiences in a person’s life, while choppy water generally indicates turmoil. Dark or murky water could indicate that there are unseen or hidden feelings present, or that other people are thought to be harbouring negative feelings towards the dreamer.

Swimming deep into water or even drowning (depending on the emotions the person goes through while dreaming) could indicate a sense of connection with deeper parts of oneself, or a period of great emotional growth. However if the dreamer experiences feelings of panic, then that person is literally drowning in their emotions and is not coping.

Vehicles. These represent the body and focuses one's attention on the body itself. If the vehicle is damaged or in an accident, this could be a warning that one is not taking enough time out to rest, and could mean a harbouring of illness.

Dreams of speeding and loss of control could mean one needs to look at one's life to see what is causing the feelings of loss of control. If, in a dream, someone else is driving, or the vehicle is overloaded, it is a sign that someone is controlling one's life or that  one is carrying too much responsibility for others.  However if the dreamer is driving and going along quite happily, this is normally a sign that life is going well.

Teeth/hair. Teeth that fall out, or crumble, or the discovery that teeth are missing generally represent a subconscious fear of not coping with an aspect of life. This could be a fear of failure, a lack of recognition or an inability to meet one's own needs. Hair falling out is thought to have the same meaning.

Nudity. Being naked in front of other people and trying to cover oneself up indicates a feeling of being emotionally vulnerable and exposed. It could also mean that the dreamer is trying to hide away from someone, possibly even from themselves.  However if the nudity in the dream is not an issue and the person is comfortable with it, it indicates that the dreamer has nothing to hide and doesn’t mind being exposed.

Falling. This generally indicates a fear of not coping and losing control.   Jaeger says by  affirming to yourself “I am in control of my life” before going to sleep, one can change the dream.

Being chased. This represents a fear of covering up or hiding something from oneself. The thing we are hiding or covering up turns into a dark monster, which is often unseen.

Jaeger says that a good way to deal with this is to use dream control, where one tells oneself that one is in control of dreams, and that one can turn around and face this fear. Often there is nothing there or one sees oneself and the dream image does not repeat itself.

 Ladders , staircases and mountains. Climbing ladders, going up winding staircases, and scaling  mountains are positive dreams and indicate that even though it may be a bit of a struggle, the outcome will be positive, so one should keep moving in that direction. Therefore going down generally means that one is going backwards.

Pregnancy, babies and birth.  Babies symbolise the birth of new ideas, or the ending of a cycle, or old patterns. Something that has been created will come about, such as a new career, a project or a business opportunity. It can also mean that one should become more creatively involved, as this energy is ready to produce results.

Pregnancy can indicate that something is developing in the inner self, such as thought or ideas before they manifest in reality.

In some cases, babies can mean a birth, “but then it would be a prophetic dream of what is to come in the future," says Jaeger.

Death and funerals. These indicate new beginnings and endings to the old ways and should not be taken literally.

Flying.  Dreams about flying could be one of the best experiences. In this dream the dreamer knows how to fly and a sense of freedom is present. Flying in dreams can have many meanings. Jaeger also explains flying by saying it could mean that obstacles have been overcome.  Flying higher or faster can bring about feelings of uncertainty and fear. This indicates that one has reached a certain level, but needs to be careful not to go too fast or reach too high too quickly. It may also indicate fearing failure, and that one needs to place more trust in oneself.

Sources:  The London Sleep Centre, Sigma Sleep Diagnostics (Pty) Ltd

(Megan McLean, Health24, August 2010)

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Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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