I’m flying high above the street, looking into the windows of skyscrapers and speeding through clouds when I decide I’m ready to return to the ground. Except I can’t. I cannot descend no matter how hard I try to burrow my head into my pillow. I wake up sweating from exertion and frustration. Something in my life must be stressing me out.

Although the debate continues over whether dreams are important messages about our health and lifestyle or whether they mean nothing at all, when most people interpret their dreams — or nightmares — these days, the themes and images can often be linked to pressure and anxiety in our offices or personal lives. Searching for a connection is not a new concept; our ancestors did it thousands of years before us.

According to Dream Moods, interpretations could date back to as early as 4,000 B.C. and often had a religious anchor, such as when the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that dreams were messages from their gods or from the dead. Those people would use the dreams to guide their waking decisions: “In fact, dream interpreters even accompanied military leaders into battle to help with war strategy.”

But the health angle we are so familiar with today was also present during that era, and throughout much of the rest of dream history.

Can dreamcatchers get rid of that recurring nightmare about showing up to school naked? Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

An article in the Journal of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine notes that ancient Greek physicians used dreams to diagnose illnesses and believed that setting up sleeping patients to dream of being mentally healthy could help in treatment. The teachings of Hippocrates, the physician whose namesake is the oath modern doctors take to do no harm, detailed that medical professionals should take down information about dreams as part of the patient’s medical history, along with physical surroundings, diet, biographical information, present symptoms and mood swings.

In the Victorian Era, the famous Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, himself as controversial as dreams, believed dreams were a commentary on mental health. The U.K.-based Freud Museum lists his opinions on what dreams represent, including the “disguised fulfilment of a repressed, infantile wish,” and how to interpret them based on knowledge of the patient and what different things mean to them: “Freud says it is only by using the dreamer’s associations that the true ‘emotional map’ of the dream (as we might call it) can be drawn, with all the significant bits in their proper place.” Freud’s contemporary, Carl Jung, also put a heavy emphasis on dream interpretation.

Whatever they mean, dreams have always played a large role in our lives down to the simplest details, like influencing our moods when we wake up in the morning.

The jury is out on whether weird dreams have any real meaning. Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Source: Kleisiaris CF, Sfakianakis C and Papathanasiou IV. Health care practices in ancient Greece: The Hippocratic ideal. Journal of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine. 2014.