By Robert Van de Castle
The holidays are a joyous time, whether for deeper connection to religion, family or friends. At work and at home, we're surrounded by celebrations and a spirit of giving.
At least, that's the ideal way to view this time of year. The reality is, the holidays can also be enormously stressful. There's an intense focus on giving and receiving presents, spending money, and meeting social obligations, which can produce uninvited anxiety.
Whether consciously or not, the holidays are filled with situations in which we feel socially evaluated by others, and assessed by our ability to give others what they want -- materially and emotionally.
It's often difficult to make conscious sense of the conflicting messages we receive during the holiday season. On the one hand, we're told that the spirit of the season is one of selflessness and compassion; on the other, we're told to spend money and make people happy through finding and giving them the perfect gifts.
But at night, when our conscious body is sleeping, our minds are helping us work through these mixed messages by way of our dreams -- and identifying and understanding these dreams can be very important and therapeutic during this time of year.
Many people are surprised, after they decorate the house and spend the day making holiday preparations, that their dreams are not always filled with pleasant images. The visions dancing through our heads are often not of sugarplums!
There's an increase in dreams fueled by the stress we otherwise ignore during the day. Some of the most commonly reported stress dreams during the holidays revolve around missing a flight, being overtaken by a tidal wave, falling from great heights, or even something as simple as losing your smartphone.
What's happening during these dreams can have a huge impact on our waking life: Our brains are interpreting the emotional memories of the day, helping us to process the most troublesome thoughts and revealing hidden anxieties.
But instead of interpreting these signals literally, the brain uses all of the information available to it -- which is why the images in our dreams are often highly symbolic.
For instance, a seemingly never-ending list of things to do may be visualized by the mind as an open sea. The stress of an upcoming deadline (such as Christmas Eve) may, likewise, be interpreted by a "dream-time" brain as a massive wave. Put the two together, and even people who live in the desert can find themselves "out to sea" in a dream.
Likewise, dreams related to falling through space often represent a loss of control -- and even though it may seem as though the house is clean and the in-laws are snug in their beds, the holidays are shared experiences that are out of our individual control.
Paying attention to our dreams can transform our lives. No better example of this can be found, perhaps, than in a holiday-themed story: Charles Dickens' 1843 novel A Christmas Carol. Angry, embittered Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a complete transformation in a single night, the result of three dreams, which he experiences as visits from ghosts.
Dreaming that he will die the next day unless he changes his selfish behavior, he is told, "Remember, Scrooge, time is short, and suddenly, you are not here anymore." His Christmas Day transformation is miraculous.
Dickens himself was enormously appreciative of dreams. "And how many dreams are common to us all," he wrote in an 1851 letter. "We all fall off that Tower, we all skim above the ground at a great pace ... We all go to public places in our night dresses and horribly disconcerted lest the company should observe it." *
Dreams can, in fact, be the greatest gift we receive at the holidays -- and they're free, with no fancy ribbons and bows attached. Dreams come to us whether we're prepared for them or not -- in fact, in an average lifetime, every one of us will have approximately 100,000 dreams! **
Being aware of them is of enormous importance, and there are several techniques to record these marvelous and wondrous journeys of self-discovery. You can keep an old-fashioned journal by the bed and try to remember your dreams upon waking.
Alternatively, you can also keep track of your dreams wherever you happen to remember them, by using new technology like DreamsCloud, which is the world's largest website devoted exclusively to dreams and is available on seven different platforms.
DreamsCloud also offers every user the opportunity to get free, professional feedback (or a "reflection") on dreams from trained experts in the field of dream study.
Keeping track of your dreams is the first step to understanding how dreams directly relate to your waking life. Just like Dickens' unforgettable character, every night in dreams, we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves -- and during the holidays, in particular, we have the chance to let go of our everyday stress and let our brains make sense of it all while we sleep.
* Winters, Warrington. Dickens and the Psychology of Dreams. Kessinger Legacy Reprints. Reprinted from PMLA: Publications of The Modern Language Association of America (1948). Volume LXIII, Number 3.
** Van de Castle, R. (1994, pp. 231-234). Our Dreaming Mind. NY: Ballantine Books
DreamsCloud is a place to log and share your dreams, keep an online dream journal, learn more about dream meanings and receive professional dream relections. They offer a free app for iOS, Android, Windows and Blackberry devices, in addition to a Facebook app.
Blog author Robert Van de Castle is the former director of the Sleep and Dreams Laboratory at the University of Virginia, and is also the author of Our Dreaming Mind, which contains more than 550 references and offers more insight into the importance and meaning of dreams.