One man learned he had cancer—early enough to cure it.

Most people don’t believe it, but our nighttime dreams are a powerful source of insight that can help us lead more fulfilling lives. In fact, by working with your dreams, you can move past obstacles, cope better with anxiety, heal old hurts and make better decisions. Bottom Line/Personal spoke with Judith Orloff, MD, author of the book Emotional Freedom, about how we all can use our dreams to make our lives better…

How to Remember Your Dreams

Everyone dreams, but not everyone remembers dreaming. You can train yourself to recall your dreams.

Keep a notebook and pen by your bed. Before you go to sleep each night, say to yourself, I will remember a dream tonight. You also may wish to write down a question at bedtime about an emotional dilemma, such as How can I be happier?

When you wake up in the morning, don’t jump out of bed. Instead, spend a few minutes with your eyes closed, relaxing in the peaceful state between sleeping and waking.

Then, open your eyes and write down anything you remember about your previous night’s dreams. Don’t try to interpret them right away—this could interfere with your recall. You don’t have to record every detail, but don’t shy away from the embarrassing, frightening or otherwise distressing parts. Those elements often contain the most valuable information.

You may need to follow these steps for a week or more before you form the habit of remembering your dreams.

Once you remember your dreams and have written them down, you can begin to analyze them. You will find that they fall into three categories—psychological, predictive or guidance.

Psychological Dreams

Psychological dreams are the most common type, offering a window into your emotional life. Some psychological dreams point out a problem that needs your attention. Examples: Dreams about being chased…being naked in public…taking a test for which you are completely unprepared. These dreams usually arise from a fear or insecurity that is holding you back.

Other psychological dreams celebrate your strengths, achievements and transitions. Examples: Dreams about flying…triumphing over odds…getting married.

To use psychological dreams…

Focus on the most emotionally intense part of the dream, whether upsetting or uplifting. Identify the issue that the dream is referring to by asking, How does this dream seem to relate to my life? Write any answers in your dream notebook.

If your dream brings up a problem or issue, brainstorm ways of dealing with it. Write down the steps that you can take to address it. Take action, and see whether your situation or attitude improves.

Example: You dream that you are being chased by a bandit. Ask yourself, Who in my life is pursuing me? Where am I feeling unsafe? Perhaps the pursuer reminds you of a coworker who is intruding on your project. Explore the ways in which you are feeling pressured by this person, and examine your options. Perhaps you need to find other allies at work or to say “no” more assertively.

Enjoy the positive emotions a dream brings up, such as scenes or feelings of accomplishment or encouragement. Too often we breeze past our successes and focus immediately on the next goal. Instead, ask yourself what situation in your life the dream is celebrating, and do something special or inspirational to savor this milestone. Examples: Throw a party…or call a friend to talk about it.

Predictive Dreams

Predictive dreams give you information that you would otherwise have no way of knowing. These dreams might portray you in a career, relationship or other life circumstance you had not considered or depict a health problem that you have not been consciously aware of.

Example 1: When I was in my 20s, I had a dream in which I became a doctor. At that time, I was a college dropout working contentedly in a department store. The dream opened my eyes to potential I had not seen in myself. A few months later, I re-enrolled in college, went on to get my medical degree and became a psychiatrist.

Example 2: One of my patients dreamed that he saw fire around his neck. He woke up with a calm sense of certainty that he had cancer. His doctor didn’t feel anything unusual during a physical examination, and tests were normal. The patient persisted until he found a specialist willing to do a scan. The scan indicated a thyroid tumor, which was successfully treated.

How is a predictive dream different from a psychological dream? Whereas psychological dreams involve strong emotions, predictive dreams are -emotionally neutral. Images and -scenarios are crisp and clear in predictive dreams, and information is conveyed in a detached way. You feel more like a witness than a participant, as if you’re in a theater watching a movie.

To use predictive dreams…

Ask yourself, What is the dream trying to tell me? Use your common sense as you apply the information you receive. Dreaming about illness does not necessarily mean that you are ill. Dreaming about divorce does not necessarily mean that your marriage is in trouble. Do not feel compelled to take sudden, drastic action if it feels wrong. Take gradual steps, and observe their effects. As you respond to the message in a predictive dream, you will feel lighter emotionally.

If you wake up racked with worry about a dream involving the future, it was more likely a psychological dream than a predictive dream. In that case, work with it as a psychological dream—identify the problems that it relates to so that you can clear out your anxiety about the issue. Then you will be able to listen more clearly to any intuition.

Example: If you have recurring dreams in which you develop a terrifying disease, ask yourself questions such as, Where is this anxiety about health coming from? Does this have to do with my mother, who frets about my health? What steps can I take to separate my own attitude toward my health from my parents’? Where have I been neglecting my health, and what can I do to be healthier?

Guidance Dreams

Guidance dreams contain answers to waking dilemmas. They dispel confusion so that you can make good choices.

Example: A friend of mine wondered whether he should get involved in a real estate venture with his sister. She had never been dependable but had recently been acting more stable. Before he went to sleep, he asked for guidance about the potential partnership. He dreamed that he was in a car with his sister at the wheel. She was driving recklessly and almost crashed. He realized that the stress of partnering with her was not worth the risk.

How do guidance dreams differ from predictive dreams? Guidance dreams sometimes contain an element of prediction. However, predictive dreams arise spontaneously, whereas guidance dreams occur in response to a question. Guidance dreams also produce a physical response, such as a tingle, when you start to analyze them in contrast to the neutral tone of predictive dreams.

Guidance dreams are especially helpful when you have been overanalyzing a situation and feel stuck.

To use guidance dreams…

At bedtime, write a question in your dream notebook about a problem or decision you are struggling with.

Examples: Why do my spouse and I argue so often?Should I say yes to this job opportunity? When you wake up, record your dream. Look for a scene, word or image that grabs your attention and generates a physical response, such as a flush or chill.

Explore what this element of the dream tells you about the situation. Listen for a feeling of “rightness” in your body and a sense of emotional release. Act on your dream’s advice, and observe the results.

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