Health

How Your Dreams Can Affect Your Health

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A simple strategy called dream incubation is proven to help you find answers to nagging health issues. Our experts, Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., and author of The Committee of Sleep ($19.99, Amazon), dream expert Justina Lasley, and Leah Bolen, a certified dream practitioner and member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, reveal how to boost your dream health by setting an intention before bed and waking up wiser and happier.

Picture the Problem

Dreams tap the ocean of information in our subconscious to help us solve problems in the waking world, promises Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Just name your specific problem in a short sentence — the briefer the better because dreams stimulate the visual part of our brain while the language center is less active,” she advises. “Once in bed, picture it as a concrete image.”

For example, if you were trying to figure out what was causing your back pain, picture what the pain might look like. “If it feels like fire,” Barrett says, “visualize a flame to help prod your dreams to picture — and work on — the problem in your sleep.”

Linger in Bed

In the morning, note whether there’s any trace of a dream left and invite it to return. “It’s likelier to come back if you stay in the position you woke up in,” reveals Barrett. “Research suggests there’s body memory to how we sleep that enhances recall.”

Keep a Dream Diary

Even if you can recall only fragments, jot them down in a dream journal ($7.99, Amazon), urges dream expert Bolen. “We have four to five dreams per night, but we forget 90 percent of them,” she says. “Journaling, however, signals to your subconscious that you want to remember — it’s like building muscle memory for dreaming.”

Trust Your Emotions

Instead of turning to the dream dictionary ($9.89, Amazon), look within for wisdom, advises Barrett. “If, for example, you dream of a red light, rather than assume it means stop, ask what red means to you,” she says. “It could be your favorite color or remind you of Christmases as a child.”

There are no universal symbols, she maintains, so trust your own associations.

Look for Patterns

A repeated action in a dream is like an exclamation point, notes Barrett, recalling the case of a woman who was experiencing health issues despite taking medication for them. After setting the intention to incubate answers, she dreamed of repeatedly swallowing her pills with water over and over again. When she woke up, she learned she had been mistakenly taking too high of a dose, a realization that cleared up her complications.

Says Barrett, “If you dream of something trying to get your attention, pay attention.”

Listen to Words

Since dreams are so visual, when they do communicate in words, it’s often because the message is especially vital, says Lasley. In fact, when she was exhausted, she asked her dreams to help her find more energy. Strangely, she dreamed of an officer repeating, “You’re under arrest.”

Lasley realized he symbolized the part of her that needed boundaries. “You’re under arrest meant you’re under-rested, leading me to cancel draining commitments.”

Such revelations can lead to lasting joy, adds Bolen. “Studies show a link between our dream recall and our happiness, as dreams expand our definition of what’s possible.”

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This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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