How to Keep a Dream Journal: Tips and Benefits

What could be more interesting than getting to know yourself better? Remembering and understanding your dreams, by keeping a dream journal, is an excellent exercise in self-reflection.

By Sheryl Grassie

Since Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung first pioneered psychological work with dreams in the first half of the 20th century, the importance of understanding our dreams and the benefits of having a conscious and active dream life are well known. For most of us, dreams can seem somewhat disconnected. Yes, we may recognize elements from our daily life: people, places, or things that happened, but what does it matter?

We may only give our dreams a fleeting thought after we wake⁠—that is if we remember them at all. However, the interesting thing is that our dreams actually form a whole and cohesive picture of our subconscious when looked at over a long period of time. There are many benefits to being more consciously connected to the schema in our psyches, and keeping a dream journal is a great way to get there.

What is a Dream Journal?

Very simply, a dream journal is a detailed record of your dreams. It can be done with pen and paper or digitally. It is considered a discipline, something you must do daily to get the benefits. It is also something people do to improve both physical and psychological health.

You can purchase a hard or soft bound notebook at any bookstore or online. Add a writing utensil, or even a whole set of colored pencils or pens, and you are good to go. Or, use your phone or a digital recorder for a voice to text version that can be saved in a file. The only other thing you need is your input.

What if I Don’t Dream?

One initial stumbling block for some people is that they don’t remember their dreams. If you fall into this category, here are some things to think about.

First, everybody dreams. You may not remember your dreams, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t dreaming. There is a correlation between really poor sleep and a lack of dreams, so improving your sleep could impact dream recall.

Next, keeping a dream journal does in fact tend to increase recall of dreams. What we think about tends to come about, and focusing on our dream life with a structured practice of recording dreams tends to generate more dreams or more dream recall.

Lastly, there are a series of reasons that people generally don’t remember their dreams. Many of these have to do with lifestyle choices and can be changed. Dr. Henry Emmons, sleep expert and author of The Chemistry of Joy, says that sleeping well starts during the day. The same can be said for remembering your dreams.

The ability to remember what you dream about is predicated on what you do during your waking life. Keep the following in mind as to why you may not remember your dreams.

Alcohol and Medications

People may not remember their dreams if intoxicated when they go to sleep or if on medications that impair memory. Also if you take sleep medications, your sleep may be very deep, creating sleep a state of oblivion and making dream recall difficult.

Being Overtired

When people go to bed really exhausted, they may sleep so deeply they move through the night and wake in the morning with no recollections. This kind of sleep can be refreshing, but a good connection to your dreams comes from a more balanced sleep. Go to bed tired but not exhausted.

The Message is Too Painful

Psychologists find that the subconscious stores traumatic and painful memories that may still need processing. These memories or symbolic representations of the traumatic memories can be played out in dreams. But, if the conscious mind is not ready to face the issues, it may block the dream recall.

The Dream Language is Too Complicated

Your conscious mind controls your dream recall. If the dream symbols and story lines are too disparate from your normal waking life, or if the dream is filled with complicated symbology, the conscious mind may not know how to interpret it and will block out the dream.

Benefits of Keeping a Dream Journal

Before we look at the specifics of keeping a journal, you might need some convincing that engaging in this daily discipline is worth it. How does it benefit you to keep a dream journal?

It may surprise you to learn that keeping a dream journal has numerous benefits.

Improved Physical Health and Immune Function

In studies where people kept a dream journal there were marked improvements in overall physical health. Especially of note was increased immune function, less illness, and a reported improved sense of physical well-being. Some researchers hypothesize this may be connected to an improved psychological state from more subconscious awareness.

Improved Overall Memory

It may be the concentrated daily effort of working to remember your dreams, but people who keep a dream journal, and work on increasing recall of dream details, find it transfers to improved memory in other areas.

Increased Mindfulness and Awareness

In a similar way, as memory is improved, paying attention to something in your life in a concentrated fashion teaches your brain to be more alert and aware. Individuals who keep dream journals find that they are generally more cognizant of things around them. They experience increased work performance and feel more present to the experiences in their lives.

Decreased Nightmares

Keeping a dream journal decreases, or even eliminates, nightmares. The reasons for this may be that individuals who pay attention to their dreams can move into more lucid dreaming where they have conscious control of dream outcomes. When a bad dream starts, you have the power to shift it into a good dream, eliminating nightmares. Another theory holds that nightmares are subconscious psychological messages; your unconscious is trying to get your attention. When you start recording dreams, your subconscious feels listened to and does not have to get your attention in such a harsh way.

Improved Creativity

One of the most important outcomes of recording your dreams is improved creativity. Lots of famous authors, inventors, artists, and scientists claim their creations came in a dream. Dreams are a channel for creativity, but to get the benefit of what your subconscious is sending you, you have to be connected and paying attention. The journaling process improves dream recall and allows for this connection.

A Therapeutic Process

Journaling your dreams can be a way to identify hidden or long buried issues. Becoming aware of them can be the first step in resolving psychological concerns that may or may not be underlying physical problems as well.

How to Keep a Dream Journal

Keeping a dream journal is not a difficult or complicated process; however, it does require a commitment and some effort to be disciplined until it becomes a habit. As with any new endeavor, it helps to be clear on why you want to do it. This reason can help when you need to draw on something for motivation.

To start the process of dream journaling follow these steps.

Step 1: Think of the dream journal as a gift to self.

There is really no other reason to do it. The process is a way of knowing yourself better, improving your memory, improving your psychological functioning, and possibly bringing to light unresolved issues. It is good self-care.

Step 2: Find a journal you love.

Although a voice to text or digital platform can work, it is highly recommended that you record your journal by hand, pen on paper. This process connects you with the creative side of your brain, the place where dreams come from, and allows for better recall. Writer/producer David E. Kelley writes his scripts longhand with a ballpoint pen for better access to creative inspiration. Find a journal or notebook that you love to write in and have it be exclusive, only for dreams. There are many journals to choose from online and in stores.

Step 3: Keep your journal next to your bed.

Your journal should be within reach without you having to move dramatically or get out of bed. Keep it on the bedside table.

Step 4: Do a retro section.

Start your journal by writing down any significant dreams you remember from childhood or earlier in your life—especially if you have had any recurrent dreams. Even record small snippets of dreams or occasional nightmares and how they made you feel. Also, write down anything you can remember from over the years, especially good dreams. They will all help give you a base for better understanding what you record in your dream journal.

Step 5: Set an intention.

State out loud or write in your journal, “I intend to remember my dreams.” Say this daily until you feel comfortable that you will remember.

Step 6: Wake up and think.

Spend the first few seconds when you wake up reliving the dream. Then turn to your journal and write.

Step 7: Write immediately.

Don’t get out of bed and use the bathroom, just grab your pen and start writing. Memories are freshest right away. We all know how quickly dreams fade after we get up.

Step 8: Give your dream a title.

It could be something about the way the dream felt, “Scary Dream,” or something about the theme, “Dream in an Amusement Park.” Giving it a title will help with both recall and interpretation.

Step 9: Keep your recording in present tense.

Write your entry like it is happening now: “I am walking down a road,” verses “I was walking down a road.” This helps to keep the dream in your consciousness and makes for better recording.

Step 10: Ask yourself questions.

As best you can, find the answers to a series of qualitative and quantitative questions like, “Was it day or night?” “How did I feel?” “How old was I in the dream?” Then again, write them in the present tense: “It is night, and I am tired. I am only six years old…”

Step 11: Look for dream symbols.

Dream symbols are things in dreams that have other meanings or additional meanings. For example, if you dream about your teeth falling out, it could be a symbol with a hidden meaning. Teeth represent decisions and indecisiveness. It could point to your need to make a decision. There are books on dream interpretation, and they can help with whether a symbol in a dream has significance or not.

Step 12: Put structure to your recording.

Some people find it helps to have a template page. This is a page at the beginning of your journal that reminds you of the kinds of things you want to record and the questions you can ask yourself as prompts. Below is a sample page: adapt yours to your liking, and include things that are important to you. Good luck recording!


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