Monday, 3 November 2014

Interpreting popular dream themes (8) - Falling

Falling dreams are of the most common universal dream themes and can be classified as a form of nightmare as they are often terrifying and very vivid. Some dream researchers suggest that the average person will dream of falling to their death at least 5 times in their lifetime. In the beginning of Alice's dream in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Alice experiences a long fall down the rabbit hole.

Contrary to popular belief, the dreamer will not die if they don't wake up before they hit the ground.

Physiological causes of falling dreams
Falling dreams usually occur in the first stages of sleep and are commonly accompanied by strong muscle spasms and jerks which wake the dreamer, leaving them with a sense of having actually experienced a trauma. The dreamer who wakes from a falling dream in this way may notice their heart racing, sweating and quickened breathing. It is assumed that these spasms are part of the body's arousal mechanism, allowing the dreamer to wake extremely fast so as to avoid dangers in their environment. They are sometimes referred to as 'panic reflex dreams' or 'hypnic/hypnagogic jerks' and may only last for a moment. They are characterised as an involuntary twitch causing the dreamer to startle and wake. These types of dreams are reported more as being more frequent in persons who have irregular sleep patterns and children. Aside from being caused by stress, sleep researchers have suggested that strenuous physical activity and caffeine may be influential factors in their occurrence. 

Some research has claimed that falling dreams and hypnic jerks have evolutionary origins - they are vestigial reflexes which developed when humans used to sleep in trees and evolved as for the purpose of making the sleeper readjust their position to prevent themselves from actually falling whilst asleep. Other dream researchers suggest that falling dreams are rooted in our experiences as a baby learning to walk. The physical sensation of tripping and falling are linked intrinsically to fear and calamity, so as adults, when we face such emotions, our brains may reactivate these memories of physical sensations. Some more obscure theories as to how dreams of falling can be interpreted claim that such dreams may relate to (suppressed) memories of the dreamer's own birth or falling from a parent's arms during infancy, both of which may left the dreamer with a form of subconscious trauma.

When the falling dream occurs just after the dreamer has fallen asleep, it may be because there is a physiological glitch - during REM sleep, the body goes into sleep paralysis, so that the dreamer is unable to 'act out' their dreams and put themselves in physical danger while asleep. However, if the body has not fully relaxed and become 'paralysed' but the mind is halfway between a waking and sleep state, the dreamer may physically react to dream imagery or narratives while feeling as if they were awake the whole time. It may be that falling dreams which give rise to hypnic jerks are a warning mechanism which keeps the dreamer alert. They may symbolise a real fear of the risk of falling out of the bed.

Cathleen O'Connor suggest that the physiological falling dream occurs because the dreamer's nervous system is relaxing, blood pressure is lowering and their heart rate is dropping. The physiological sensation of 'falling asleep' triggers a falling dream. She suggests that it is possible to induce falling dreams, by setting an intention to experience such a dream while laying in bed, before falling asleep. Other physiological reasons for falling dreams in the earliest stages of sleep are movement of fluid in the middle air (affecting sensations of balance) or limbs hanging off the edge of the bed (creating sensations of a lack of support beneath the body). The unconscious mind creates visual images, narratives and dream symbols to 'illustrate' the physical feelings or physiological changes experienced by the dreamer.

Psychological causes of falling dreams
The second type of falling dream occurs during a normal dream state - and it is these forms of falling dream to which the following interpretations relate, as there seems to be more psychological reasons for why they occur, as opposed to the physical reasons for the panic reflex/hypnic jerk dreams.

Falling dreams are often a sign that the dreamer has lost control of something in their waking life which needs their attention. Therefore falling dreams can be interpreted as a communication or message by the unconscious, telling the dreamer that they need to address the cause of their anxiety. Therefore, falling dreams are linked to uncertainty, instability and insecurity. The dreamer is feeling completely overwhelmed in some way and has lost their foothold. Falling dreams may also represent a sense of inferiority or failure and a lack of self-esteem; the dreamer has either lost - or fears the loss - of sources of security and safety. Further, the dreamer is unable to maintain the status quo and fears that they do not measure up in some way.

Standing on the edge of a high precipice, mountain, cliff etc, is interpreted as a sign that dreamer is 'on edge' and aware that they are 'living dangerously'. It can also be interpreted as the dreamer having a view of such risks - they are seeing the situation with some form of clarity. 

A soft landing may be a reminder that the dreamer should not fear the outcome of a waking life situation and must face their fears. If the dreamer sees themselves dead on the ground, this can be interpreted as a sign that they have evolved or transformed in some way, and thus, it can be interpreted as a positive, affirmative dream symbol. Interpretations of falling dreams suggest that if the dreamer falls on flat ground they are in the process of achieving their desires and therefore, this is a positive dream symbol. This should be contrasted with interpretations of falling into ditches or mud/dirt, which can symbolise loss of reputation or power or the fact that someone in the dreamer's waking life has been spreading malicious gossip of badmouthing them.

Typically, the loss of control may involve work, study, home or relationships and internal or external in nature - so existing in the dreamer's thoughts about their life, or an actual events which are happening in their real-life. Recalling the location from where the dreamer fell in the falling dream is important - for example, if they fall from the roof of their house, it is likely that the source of anxiety is within their home. Remembering how the dreamer fell is also of significance. Falling on your back is a sign that the dreamer requires some support, while falling on your hands is representative of needing 'a hand'. Falling into water is symbolic of an emotional breakdown and an urgent matter which requires immediate attention so that the dreamer does not let themselves 'go under' and 'drown' in their problem. The dream characters who appear in the dream may be of great importance - they may be the cause of the anxiety or problems, or - if they are helping the dreamer - the persons who can offer help and support in waking life.

Falling from a high altitude can be interpreted as a fear of loss of reputation or status. The dreamer may be anxious that others are losing respect for him. Often falling dreams involve falling 'into the void' or into blackness - this demonstrates concerns of the dreamer as to the direction they are headed and the fact that they cannot see a way out of a waking situation. They are vulnerable and helpless and therefore in a 'black hole'. The dreamer fears the unknown.

Dreaming of an object falling represents loss of what that object symbolises - for example, dreaming of a house falling down can mean anxiety about the crumbling of domestic relations or loss of security the home offers. The dreamer fears losing possession of the object or letting it slip from their grasp.

Losing balance:
Loss of balance suggests that the source of anxiety lies within the dreamer and their perception, thoughts of emotions regarding a certain situation. It is a sign that the dreamer feels unstable and needs to be grounded. There is a loss of balance in the dreamer's life or a lack of mental equilibrium. The dreamer needs to gain confidence in their ability to handle the situation.

Being pushed:
Being pushed and falling to one's death is a sign that the dreamer is being pushed overboard mentally by someone in their waking life. It may be that expectations of the dreamer are too high and they are being overworked or overburdened by others. Additionally. the dreamer may be pushing themselves to exhaustion in order to meet the expectations or demands of others.

Loss of grip:
Losing grip and falling represents the dreamer's lack of confidence in themselves and their abilities. There may be issues within the dreamer's relationship with another person or others in their waking life which need to be addressed. Some interpretations suggest that these type of falling dreams happen when the dreamer feels that a partner has an upper-hand in a relationship and is manipulating or controlling the dreamer in some way.

Holding on:
If the dreamer is holding on, it is a symbol of them desperately trying to fix a situation in their waking life. If the dream is scary or negative, then the dreamer may fear letting go of something in their waking life - such as a situation, relationship or attitude. If the dream has positive overtones, the dreamer may have already let go of whatever was holding them back and they are symbolically 'taking the plunge'. It may be that the dreamer has relinquished or released fear, anxiety or worry in their waking life

Slipping on a very high surface suggests the dreamer is - or will soon - slip up in a waking life scenario. It is a warning that they need to re-evaluate what is happening in their waking lives and either take precautions or refrain from dangerous actions of behaviours to avoid emotional distress. The dreamer needs to get 'back on track' and reach a more stable state.

Freudian theory suggests that falling dreams are a symbol that the dreamer is contemplating giving in to sexual urges, impulses and desires or is lacking discretion in such situations. It may be that the dreamer's libido has decreased or they have abstained from sexual intercourse. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud categorises falling dreams as 'typical dreams' which happen to all dreamers and have similar meanings.

Jungian theory suggests that dreams of falling from a height may suggest that the dreamer has unrealistic expectations of themselves, which is not matched by their actual capabilities. The dreamer is suffering from a lack of judgement and awareness in their waking life.

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