The 8 Most Common Dreams and What They Mean, According to a Psychologist

Victoria Hoff

Since I typically struggle to remember what I had for breakfast on any given morning, it's remarkable that I still sharply recall a dream I had when I was 3 or 4 years old—probably because it was the first time I can remember vividly thinking about a dream after waking up. I was in the middle of a dark forest, serenely walking toward a glowing, dappled light until I stumbled upon a clearing… and in it, a spectacular pool of crystalline turquoise water filled with a sparkling array of rainbow-color tropical fish. The magical scene took my breath away, and I opened my eyes in awestruck tears. I had surely never seen anything so beautiful in my waking moments, at least in the little time I'd spent on the planet so far.

I've been completely fascinated by dreams ever since, devotedly writing the details I can recall of my latest unconscious episodes in a journal I keep by my bed so that I might be able to interpret the plots and symbols and in turn, their greater meaning. My goal is simply a higher self-awareness. I subscribe to famed psychologist Carl Jung's theories on dreaming—that it's our unconscious psyche's way of communicating thoughts, moods, and desires that we just aren't accessing in the chaos of conscious life. And just via this simple habit of jotting down everything I can recall from my dreams, I've had countless moments of clarity and insight into situations that I'm dealing with in everyday life. True story: After agonizing about it and weighing pros and cons for weeks, I finally made the decision to move across the country after a dream helped me understand that for my sanity and well-being, I had no other option. (And in retrospect, it was absolutely the right choice.)

"Dreams are a really valuable resource for us to really understand ourselves better, to understand what's going on in our lives in a different way," says Carder Stout, PhD, MFT, a Los Angeles–based psychologist. Dreams, he explains, can provide reason to waking moods and feelings that we can't quite explain. "We have our consciousness, which encompasses our cognitive brains and everything that we do on a daily basis that makes us thrive as human beings. But below the surface there's this vast unconscious well—there's a lot of activity going on down there, and oftentimes when unconscious feelings are left unresolved, it creates conscious feelings. So we might have feelings of anger or we might have feelings of anxiety, we might feel depressed and not really know why."

But noting symbols, feelings, and themes that occur during dreams can help us bridge this gap, which can in turn potentially provide clarity to murky emotions and situations we're dealing with in daily life. And while ideally, we should consult with a professional like Stout or a reputable book (and ideally not Dr. Google) to get a clear, personalized interpretation, there are some common dream symbols that tend to represent universal themes. We're taking a look at them here.

Step one is (obviously) making sure you fall asleep in the first place: Check out the ideal sleep conditions for a great night of shut-eye, according to scientists. And tell us: Have you ever had a moment of clarity after dreaming about something? Sound off below!

This story was originally published on February 23, 2016.

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