If you’re thinking of starting the process of writing down your dreams, you’re in good company. Both Freud and Jung kept dream journals, psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., tells me. But she adds a caveat: “Both eventually became overwhelmed with the amount of material to process and destroyed them.”
So, then, the first rule of keeping a dream journal is not taking yourself too seriously. The point of putting pen to paper every morning and noting what you can remember should be to reflect on your subconscious self — and maybe even witness the crossover between waking life and dream — rather than processing the minutiae.
We have a lot of journaling practices to choose from these days. But the experts we spoke with gave a strong case for choosing dream journaling above all others. “There's compelling evidence suggesting that we are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived,” psychologist Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., FAASM, director of NewMoon Sleep, tells me.
“Dreaming bestows significant benefits upon our health, especially mental health,” he says. Since quality sleep leads to dreaming, and this kind of deep relaxation and reset for the brain is good for mental health, “it makes sense for all of us to establish and deepen our relationship with our own dream process, and journaling is an exceptional way of doing so,” he says.
Keeping a dream journal may also lead to higher-quality sleep. “Journaling is powerful because you can improve your sleep,” says Zen Buddhist therapist Michele Paiva, Ph.D. “When you get used to journaling, you see bedtime and sleep as a ritual of self-love,” which can have a positive effect on your sleep itself.
But, What If I Can’t Remember My Dreams?
There may be nothing to worry about, Naiman says. Like many things, once you turn your attention toward dreams, you may find yourself remembering them effortlessly. “[Some] may be dreaming normally, but don’t remember the dreams because they don’t deem them important,” he says.
“We can consciously increase dream recall by reconsidering the value of our dreams,” he says. “To better remember our dreams, it's useful to linger for a few moments in morning grogginess before getting out of bed.” As you start the practice of staying in bed — and maybe even opening a page of your journal and writing down thoughts — the dreams may come.
That said, some may be contending with more complicated forces. “Many people are simply dreaming less,” Naiman adds. He lists “commonly used medications (especially psychiatric medications), sleep disorders, and substances like alcohol and cannabis” for robbing some of their dreams. That said, even those who fall into these categories may find themselves recalling their dreams once they begin the practice of regular journaling.
Can Affirmations & Manifestations Transfer To Sleep?
This is a point of contention among the experts we spoke with. Some say no, while others say emphatically yes — with qualifiers. Paiva is on the pro side. “If you’re incorporating affirmations, manifestations, or other intentional thoughts in your daily waking life,” she says, “the ritual of dream recording might show themes of what you think you want versus what you really want.”
In other words, if you’re attempting to manifest romance and have a specific idea of what that could look like, you might dream of romance in some other way. “This doesn't mean you are off base,” she says. “Your dreams give you deeper meaning to your conscious desires and fears.” By allowing your real-life dreams to start mixing with your subconscious dreams, you just might wind up with what you really want.
Though Naiman disagrees with the modern vision of manifestation, his thoughts on this echo Paiva’s. “I believe contemporary notions about manifestation are not very useful,” he says. “The essence of dream work is not about utilizing or hacking our dreams, it's about recognizing a deeper intelligence within the dream that can serve us.” As long as you don’t get too stuck on what you think you want or need, your dreams can provide a valuable layer of information. Rather than trying to manifest a specific thing — for example, a certain outcome in a relationship — paying attention to your dreams about your relationship may result in a deeper understanding of your own hopes or needs.
Registered clinical counselor Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., RCC, an expert in working with dreams, nightmares, and the effects of trauma in psychotherapy, puts it even more plainly. “Dreams can respond to the questions and desires we are holding,” she says. “They often pick up on our most salient emotional concerns and offer a kind of visual commentary on the situation.”
A daily affirmation or manifestation might not transfer to dreams, but they are vehicles into your dream world. “If you want your dreams to provide insight into specific themes, or even point to answers you’re seeking, try formulating an open-ended question and writing it down before going to sleep,” Ellis says, adding that you might even “slip it under your pillow.”
From there, see what comes. It might be nothing, but it might also point you in a new direction. “You could ask your dream to show you something important about your love life — and then treat the dreams that come that night or in the next few as if they are an answer to your request,” Ellis says. “This doesn’t always work, but there is some research to show that this way of incubating dreams has the best chance of success.”
OK, I’m Ready — How Do I Journal A Dream?
If you talk to 15 different experts on the subconscious, you might get 15 different suggestions about how to format your dreams. But the main theme across all four experts we spoke with is that journaling is a choose-your-own-adventure situation, and that you have to do it first thing in the morning. Beyond that, play around, try different formats, and do what works best for you.
“It’s important to journal dreams upon awaking,” Naiman says. “How one does so is up to the individual — we can journal any standard narrative form, we can do so poetically, we can even sketch aspects of the dream.”
Tessina agrees. “Dreams are not necessarily in words,” she says. “Record them verbally, or draw pictures or write, in disjointed notes or long narratives.”
Ellis suggests taking a moment when you wake up to stay in the dream and re-explore all the parts you can remember before opening your eyes. “Really take the time to recall all parts of it before you sit down to write,” she suggests. “If you find yourself forgetting pieces of the dream as you write, start with an outline of the main parts of the dream, then go back and fill in as much detail as you can.”
She also has a novel suggestion: “Give your dream a title.” As you jot down your dreams daily, you’ll have little headlines to flip back to and consult if you so desire. She also likes including a sketch of the dream “if the material lends itself to visual treatment.”
Whatever form your journaling takes, Paiva reminds us to be gentle. “Don't be hard on yourself if you are erratic in keeping this ritual, especially at first,” she says. “Sometimes we resist because we are not ready to dive in fully, and that is OK.” Beyond that, she shares a few tricks of the trade.
“I tend to be someone who uses bullet points and doodles,” she says. “Fragments are just as good as a long story — you’ll work with your organic nature, and you might find this changes over time. A few years ago, I wrote nothing but haiku to explain my dreams.”
Will Journaling About My Dreams Affect My Sleep?
Maybe Freud and Jung really were on to something — it seems that recording your dreams doesn’t just give insight into your subconscious, but it can also help you sleep better. “If you journal, you’re less likely to jump out of bed like a Jack in the Box toy, but instead linger a bit and stay more present in the moment,” Paiva says. “This is a beautiful transition from night to day.”
Ellis warns that dream journaling shouldn’t be tried in the middle of the night. “If you work too hard at recalling dreams, and try to write down every scrap of dream you recall by jotting them down in the night,” she says, “this can be disruptive — not just for the dreamer, but for their bed partner as well.”
Not to worry, though: “The richest and longest REM dream periods actually take place very late in our sleep cycle, so the best time to catch dreams is just as we are waking up in the morning,” Ellis adds.
And if you happen to be blighted with nightmares, your sleep might improve as a result of dream journaling as well. “If you process your scariest dreams, and learn from them, they’ll stop disturbing your sleep,” says Tessina. “It’s a great way to stop having nightmares — you can tame your dreams by interacting with them.”
For example, if you’ve been waking in a cold sweat, try this technique: “When you’re awake, use your notes to tell your dream as though it’s happening right now,” Tessina. “Then go through the dream and talk with each character or object. If a dream character or object is scary, ask it what it wants to teach you.”
Whatever is on the other side of keeping a dream journal, by starting the practice, you’re sure to uncover new truths and greater depths about yourself. “Journaling our dreams is about entering a conversation with the unconscious,” Naiman says. “I believe once the unconscious recognizes that’s happening, it will be even more present in the conversation.”