Should you keep a dream journal?

Journaling can be seen as a light-hearted activity, and writing in notebooks throughout the day might not be something we give much thought to. However, recording your dreams can offer benefits for your mental health and the quality of your sleep.

What is a dream journal?

A dream journal is a tool that you can use to capture, process and understand your emotions, thoughts and feelings during your conscious sleep state.

It involves writing down fragments of your dreams each morning - both good and bad.

Journal coach, Moyra Mackie, adds that a dream is an "emotional story" and, as long as you don't take them too literally, it can allow you to reflect on what the meaning behind your dreams might be.

How can you start a dream journal?

The best way to get the most out of dream journaling is by recording your dreams while they are still fresh in your mind.

Therefore, keep a notebook and a pen next to your bed so you can write any memories of dreams down as soon as you wake up. Mackie adds that it's important to write the story down in a raw form without editing or overthinking.

"Be careful not to spend time interpreting the dream because it will vanish. It's important to capture the details first before trying to assign meaning."

It can also be beneficial to record nightmares as well as dreams that make you feel fulfilled and content, as a way of unlocking the creativity that can go unnoticed throughout the day.

If you prefer, you can sketch out your dreams instead of writing about them, which might be easier if you are a visual learner. You may want to keep your dream journal neat or believe your dreams will escape your memory too quickly once you start writing. If so, keep a voice recorder (or your phone with a voice recording app) next to your bed and write up your thoughts later.

You can even buy journals, or download apps, that are specifically designed for dream recording. These have spaces for illustrations and prompts to get you thinking about what your dreams represent.

What are the benefits of keeping a dream journal?

"It is important to recognise that even when we are sleeping our brains are still working to process thoughts and feelings. These memories and emotions are stored in our consciousness as we sleep, and a dream is a window into that world," says Mackie.

She says that capturing details of our dreams gives us the opportunity to understand our rawest emotions. This can be especially helpful when we are stressed or having difficulties processing and managing our emotions when awake.

Journaling also allows us to be curious and ask questions such as, "I wonder what this could be about …?" or, "What if …?” while also arming us with the tools to answer them.

Our everyday lives can be very busy, so we don’t always have time to stop for reflection. Therefore, putting your dreams on paper and dedicating time to deciphering what your thoughts and feelings mean can help address underlying issues. It may also help you work out a plan to tackle difficulties in your life.

Mackie adds that recording dreams also allows you to be curious about your habits, values and relationships, developing a greater understanding of who you are as a person.

"Plus, reflecting on your dreams opens up new opportunities for learning and growing, and a chance to step off the hamster wheel of chaos and distraction."

Other benefits of dream journaling include:

  • Reveals patterns in recurring dreams.
  • Dismantles creativity blockers.
  • Reduces stress.
  • Regulates anxiety.
  • Aids with problem-solving.
  • Allows preparation for responding to stressful situations.

Lucid dreaming

Additionally, dream journaling can help you learn how to 'lucid dream'. Lucid dreaming is a phenomenon in which people are aware that they are dreaming and can have some (or even complete) control over what happens in their dreams.

Extensive research has been conducted by scientists into what triggers lucidity. Recent studies suggest that the deliberate alteration of sleep-related behaviours (such as briefly going back to sleep after waking by hitting snooze), can be used to induce lucid dreams.

Therefore, people can be more likely to lucid dream after "brief awakenings followed by snoozing", which might activate the brain or rapid eye movement periods.

If you are able to control your dreams and remember them vividly, it can make journaling more thrilling. However, this may affect your sleep quality and disrupt relaxing and restful sleep. If your brain is focusing on directing your dreams, you are less likely to benefit fully from the hours you spend in bed.

In this case, it is important to maintain good sleep hygiene and establish a bedtime routine.

Tips for ensuring you get enough sleep while dreaming throughout the night include:

  • Stick to a schedule of going to bed at an appropriate hour.
  • Avoid caffeine before bed.
  • Avoid using mobile phones or screens before bed.
  • Move around during the day and try gentle exercise before bed (such as yoga).
  • Create a dark room with blackout blinds, curtains or an eye mask.

Does journaling, in general, have a positive impact on your health?

Mackie says that journaling has the potential to be "life-changing".

The wider benefits of journaling can include:

  • Building self-esteem.
  • Boosting mindfulness.
  • Improving memory.
  • Building a stronger immune system.
  • Boosting self-confidence.
  • Increasing IQ.

Journaling does not only need to be used to record dreams and sleep but can also monitor exercise, food, daily goals and aspirations.

"It is one thing to fill a journal with thoughts and ideas, but you also need to put them into practice in your everyday life. While journals are not the be-all and end-all of living a fulfilled life and feeling content, they can be really useful in improving mental health and opening doors to healing," says Mackie.

Research shows that happiness, resilience and reduced anxiety can come from the quality of our connections, which is also something journaling can assist with. As our confidence improves and we find the best ways to overcome challenges in our lives, our communication skills can improve, allowing us to form strong support networks.

"Journaling helps us connect with our inner coach, rather than our inner critic, which has a ripple effect on every aspect of life," adds Mackie.

Mackie's top tips for journaling

  1. Start with free writing without pausing or editing for 3-5 minutes.
  2. When the three minutes are up, pause, stretch, and read what emerged.
  3. Take a different coloured pen and look out for the emotions.
  4. Notice which ones you express openly and which ones lie between the lines.
  5. Name them by writing them in the margins of your page.
  6. Use this method to benefit your self-growth and the areas you need to work on.
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