How To Keep A Dream Journal: Tips and Benefits
Table of Contents
If you’ve ever tried to unravel the mysteries of your dreams, you may be stumped before you start. What do they mean? Why can’t you remember more details, and haven’t you had this dream before? While experts still can’t explain exactly why we dream, it may be a way of processing emotions or a kind of memory consolidation that reflects our waking hours. In both cases, dream journaling may be particularly beneficial. Here’s what to understand about dream journaling, including how to do it and how it may benefit you.
What Is a Dream Journal?
“A dream journal is just the act of recording one’s dreams,” dream scholar and lecturer on psychology in Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry, Deirdre Leigh Barrett, Ph.D., tells Sleepopolis. “This used to be pen and paper, and still is for some people, but dictating to a phone’s voice-to-text system is now equally common, and there are a variety of apps that not only transform to text, but categorize and track in various ways.”
However you choose to do it, the intention is the same — capturing your dreams in as much detail as possible when they’re still fresh in your mind to preserve them over time.
Benefits of Using a Dream Journal
Writing down your dreams can be rewarding in and of itself, simply because it’s a way of remembering what is so often quickly forgotten. But there are other benefits, too. “Many people who keep dream journals feel it is a contemplative practice, like meditation or prayer,” dream researcher and author Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., tells Sleepopolis.
He says there are both specific and general benefits that stem from dream journaling. According to Bulkeley, recording your dreams can offer new insights into personal relationships, work conflicts, health concerns, spiritual questions, and other dynamics. “General benefits involve greater self awareness, mental flexibility and emotional intelligence,” he adds.
Journaling about your dreams can also serve as a creative outlet, as it’s a form of expressive writing that invites you to really tune into yourself. Dream journaling may also be a form of therapy that helps you work through intense emotions and thoughts, which is an excellent stress reliever. In fact, evidence suggests that creative arts interventions, including art, can help reduce anxiety levels and improve mood.
Plus, the more you journal, the more of your dreams you tend to remember. “Most people find that they begin to remember more dreams as they keep a record of them,” says Barrett. She explains that maintaining a dream journal makes it easier to reflect on your dreams and both recognize and process the emotions they reflect. That’s an important part of interpreting dreams —it’s less about literal interpretations than it is about the emotions they represent.
A written record also makes it easier to pick out patterns and repetition. “People often begin to notice recurring themes in their dreams over time,” says Barrett. In this way, your dreams can be indicative of growth and change in your life.
Dream journaling may also aid in lucid dreaming, an experience in which people are both aware that they’re dreaming and may have full control over what’s happening in the dream. In fact, many experts agree that keeping a dream journal is essential if you’re learning how to lucid dream. Recording every detail you can remember about the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of your dreams helps you become familiar with your unique dream world, which may help your subconscious mind more easily recognize that you’re dreaming.
How to Keep a Dream Journal
There’s no right or wrong way to keep a dream journal, but Bulkeley recommends making the process as easy and accessible as possible — whether that means keeping a dream journal on your nightstand or grabbing your phone at 3 a.m. to do a quick voice note is up to you. “That will enable you to gather enough dreams so the journal can begin revealing the deeper patterns,” he says. “Then you’ll want to keep going, to see where the unfolding story of your dreams is leading.”
Here are a few best practices to get you started:
- It’s helpful to journal first thing in the morning so your dreams are still fresh in your mind. If you wake up in the night recalling a dream, you may also want to journal about it in the moment.
- Try to include as many details as possible about what happened, where you were, and who was there. Include both facts and emotions.
- Be consistent! Make it a goal to journal every morning.
“I advise people to keep the journal in whatever format sounds appealing to them,” says Barrett. She notes that voice dictation is simplest, which makes it easiest to stick with for many. “Other dreamers find the idea of writing in a beautiful physical journal more satisfying, or they may wish to draw their dreams in the journal.”
After you’ve opted for the format that most appeals to you, think about how you’d like to record your dreams themselves. Barrett says there are endless ways to do so, from giving them titles to making notes in the present tense so you feel like you’re reliving the dream. “I think whatever feels natural and appealing for you is how you should start,” she says.
Just remember to be detailed in your recollections — the more specifics you can include, the more useful your dream journal may be. Barrett says those details will be useful if you plan to interpret your dreams by exploring your associations to each individual element.
How Can You Use Your Dream Journal?
Consistency is important in tracking your dreams, but also in reviewing it. “Make it a regular practice to read through your dream journal,” says Barrett. That can be daily, weekly or monthly — it’s really up to you — but be mindful about making time to read through your dreams so you can use them in any of the following ways.
Interpret Your Dreams and Look for Themes
Being familiar with what you’ve written will help you recall your dreams more fully and help you begin picking out themes and repetition. Remember to focus on the emotions you feel in your dreams instead of becoming overly focused on visuals or symbols.
Record Intent for Your Dreams
Your dream journal can help if you’re looking to your dreams for insight into your waking hours, which starts with setting an intention. “Use the dream journal to record intent for your dreams, such as dreaming an answer to a particular question, asking a character in a recurring nightmare what they represent, or becoming ‘lucid’ — or aware that you are dreaming,” says Barrett. That will help guide both your dreaming and journaling process.
Gauge Mental Health
Anecdotally, the themes and patterns that emerge in your dreams, and specifically the emotions with which they’re associated, may be a clue into your current mental health. If you’re processing a recent or past traumatic experience, journaling about your dreams can help you process the emotions behind them.
Use It as a Tool in Therapy
Bulkeley cautions that a dream journal isn’t therapy in and of itself, “but it can be an ally in therapeutic work,” he says. “Many psychologists, including Carl Jung, [the founder of analytical psychology], believed that interpreting dreams in a long series is the best way to understand the archetypal dimensions of dreaming and to help people find greater meaning and coherence in their lives.”
Does Keeping a Dream Journal Help You Dream More?
It’s normal to spend about two hours every night dreaming, even if you don’t remember. Recording your dreams in a journal may not help you dream more, simply because everyone is different, but it can help you remember more of the dreams you’re already having every night. “The intention to keep a journal is like putting out a welcome mat for your dreaming mind,” says Bulkeley.
If it seems like you’re having more dreams once you’ve begun recording them, it could be that journaling about your dreams means you’re paying closer attention to them.
The Last Word From Sleepopolis
“A dream journal can be anything that enables you to record your dreams and preserve them over time,” says Bulkeley. Whether you use a notebook, sketchpad, or online app to capture your dreams, these records can offer greater insight into your relationships and emotions. Remember to be consistent and focus on the emotions reflected in your dreams. “What’s exciting about a dream journal is that it allows you to create your own list of dream symbols and their meanings,” says Bulkeley. “And the list grows over time, with symbols that both reflect your past experiences and anticipate your future potentials.”
Do dream journals help with nightmares?
Yes. “A good way of helping with the fear of nightmares is to externalize them by talking about them, writing them down, drawing them,” says Bulkeley. “Then you can look at the nightmare outside of you, rather than having it grip you from the inside. Dream journals can help with that.”
Does keeping a dream journal help lucid dreaming?
Many experts agree that keeping a dream journal is an integral part of learning how to lucid dream. By recording every detail you can remember about the experiences, thoughts and emotions of your dreams, you can become familiar with your unique dream world. “Because keeping a journal has the effect of increasing the presence of dreaming consciousness in waking, it seems to elicit the correlating effect of increasing the presence of waking consciousness in dreaming,” explains Bulkeley.
Deirdre Leigh Barrett, personal interview, June 2023.
Kelly Bulkeley, personal interview, June 2023.
Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. (2023). https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/public-education/brain-basics/brain-basics-understanding-sleep
Martin L, Oepen R, Bauer K, Nottensteiner A, Mergheim K, Gruber H, Koch SC. Creative Arts Interventions for Stress Management and Prevention-A Systematic Review. Behav Sci (Basel). 2018 Feb 22;8(2):28. doi: 10.3390/bs8020028. PMID: 29470435; PMCID: PMC5836011.
Dresler, M. et al. Lucid Dreaming. https://www.sciencedirect.com/sdfe/pdf/download/eid/3-s2.0-B9780323242882000520/first-page-pdf