Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

What Dreams Tell Me About My Health

Before I talk about “what dreams tell me about my health,” I need to begin with a disclaimer: Dreams are not reliable diagnostic tools. Although dreams can carry essential information about my physical health, warn me of developing illnesses, and even offer healing guidance, they do so in unpredictable ways. Getting direct medical advice from dreams is a risky business, and I don’t recommend it.

Now let me (apparently) contradict myself by telling my own story. A while ago, I began to have spasms of pain in my upper left back. The pain was completely disabling, and frightening in its intensity. It went on for a couple of days, and I could barely eat or sleep. Because of my medical history, there were reasons to be concerned about the possibility of pancreatitis (which evoked the even more awful possibility of pancreatic cancer). So I went to the doctor. After medical consultation, tests, and a scan, both pancreatitis and kidney stones were ruled out. The pain was apparently a severely strained muscle. With pain medication and a lot of rest, I got back to normal pretty quickly.

Although it was probably a good thing to put my mind at ease by getting it checked out, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d relied on my dream-instinct.

In the past, when something has been seriously wrong with me, there have always been indications in my dreams. A few times, there were actual “prodromic” dreams that pointed at specific problems (for example, dreams of rodents biting me around the neck area in the exact places where I later developed lymphoma tumors)—but such dreams were only really significant for me in retrospect, since I didn’t recognize their warnings at the time. Jeremy Taylor describes a more useful dream of this kind in one of his books—a woman dreamed there was a piece of rotting meat in her purse, and this prompted her to seek medical help and get diagnosis and treatment for cancer. That signal seems pretty obvious, but many such indicators (like my own prodromic dreams) are more ambiguous. It takes real skill (or a good guess) to recognize when an image in a dream points to a physical health problem, and when it doesn’t.

The truly significant dreams for me had all kinds of different themes and images—mysterious journeys, snow, sand, doorways, rivers, encounters with animals and strange people—and it would have been ridiculous to assume that they had major health implications by their content alone. However, when I had these dreams, I always woke with a sense that they were telling me something powerfully relevant to my physical survival. In every case where I experienced this specific feeling about the dream, it turned out that I was critically ill.

Since my cancer and treatments have made me vulnerable to developing further cancers in the future, there have been several instances over the years when I’ve had pain or odd symptoms and wondered whether this might be really serious. Each time, I looked at my dreams and found no indication that suggested I should be concerned (although sometimes I went for medical tests to be on the safe side anyway). On the other hand, in the few cases when there has been reason for concern, even on a lesser scale (for example when I got a secondary infection following the flu that required antibiotics), there were dreams that left me with that spooky, solemn, quiet feeling that something was wrong and needed to be checked.

This past week, when I had the back pains, there were no unusual dreams, and some part of me knew that this crisis was going to turn out to be okay. Nevertheless, I went and got checked out, because there’s nothing definitive about dream diagnosis. It’s quite possible that for some reason, someday, I’ll be really, really sick or dying and won’t see any indication at all in my dreams. Probably, the indications will be there—but it’s possible I won’t recognize them.

The idea that we should “interpret” our dreams at all is an oversimplification at best, and an absurdity at worst. When I explore a dream, I am not trying to “interpret” it, which would imply trying to make a direct translation of “what the dream is saying” from some secret language into plain English. The “interpretation” approach suggests that the dream is “trying to say” something specific that simply needs to be decoded. Really, dreams aren’t “trying to say” anything—they are speaking as straightforwardly and as ambiguously as any other subtle, complex, paradoxical and peculiar experience in our lives.

Dreams have many kinds of meanings, and although I believe that they “come in the service of health and wholeness” [see Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work Tool Kit, #1], the health and wholeness they serve doesn’t necessarily coincide with my idea of a positive medical outcome. All of my life experiences, including dreams, can give me information, warnings, and guidance, but they are often telling me many different—and even contradictory—things at the same time. So it’s really not advisable to convince myself that I can decide precisely what such dreams or experiences are advising me to do in medical matters.

But even as I disclaim dream diagnosis, I am suggesting that, although it’s an inexact science, finding health insights in dreams is an extremely venerable and valuable art. In fact, finding health insights in dreams is one of the most ancient and widely-practiced of the healing arts, far older and more widespread than Western medical sciences, and with a comparable level of accuracy in diagnosis and treatment (meaning that neither Western medicine nor dreamwork are absolutely accurate—they both have mixed results).

What dreams have to offer in terms of health advice is to be found not by “interpreting” the dreams but by listening to them: listening not only with the ears and the mind, but with all of the senses, including the heart. All good medicine is listening medicine. And although there is no absolute conclusion to be drawn from this kind of listening, there is much to be learned.



  1. Tina

    Hi Kirsten–
    Thanks as usual for a great post. It seems timely to me as I had a medical alert in my dream yesterday– at one point I was very sensitive to light, not able to open my eyes fully. The feeling in that bit of the dream had a different, especially intense quality. This morning I woke with some pain and redness in my left eye, and recognized the very early stages of iritis, a disease I’ve had several times. One of the later symptoms of iritis is extreme sensitivity to light. Because of my dream, I took my mild symptoms seriously and trotted off to the doctor, got the medicine. I know that the longer I wait to treat iritis the more aggressive the treatment is, so I’m grateful to my dream for alerting me, confirming (as I believe) this was an incoming problem!
    Thanks again–

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Wow, Tina! It shows how insightful you are about listening to your dreams that you could be guided by this one. And, I’m sure there are many levels to the dream (beyond the physical symptom suggestion) that you are also hearing and following. I find that once we start taking our dreams seriously, we learn from them and they can inform our choices as much as any waking life experience. And then those choices lead to further dreaming and waking experiences, new questions, new choices…

  2. Tallulah

    Kirstin, thank you. I will print your latest post and offer it to members of my cancer dream groups. You discuss the paradoxical nature of dream healing better than anyone I have heard. Thank you!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thank you, Tallulah! Your work with cancer dream groups is so important and meaningful. In fact, I’m in the process of writing a review of your terrific book “Dreams and Guided Imagery,” which reflects the healing power of dreams and dreamwork so beautifully… I’ll post the review here soon, and hope others will read your book, too!

  3. jcowles2001

    Thanks for this post, Kirsten. While I wholeheartedly agree with your disclaimer above, I have witnessed the profound effect of dreams on health: early warning, pointing ways to healing, and even helping one to prepare for transition into death. I was just listening yesterday to a Shrink Rap Radio interview the “Dr. Dave” held with Jungian analyst Monika Wikman. She talked extensively about dreams around death as well as her own spontaneous healing from stage IV ovarian cancer that had a lot to do with following her dreams advice and knowing she wasn’t alone in her plight (She writes about this, too, in the Intro to her fabulous book “Pregnant Darkness). But she also warned that dreams aren’t always the perfect diagnostic or treatment tool due to their symbolic nature that is often confusing. I know from the experience of my husband’s dreams – that he began having one year before his cancer diagnosis and into his last days – that dreams can help a person process the anger, frustration, sadness of dealing with terminal illness, as well as guide one toward acceptance and peace around dying. I watched a fabulous movie last night about a young boy who was dying of leukemia and the way that his dreams, visions, and connections with those whom he loved in life helped him to make his transition. The title is Death of a Superhero. I highly recommend! Thanks again for this post! Jenna

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Some great examples, Jenna! Yes, it’s difficult to believe how powerful and to-the-point dreams can be in directing attention to physical problems, unless you’ve experienced it yourself or with someone close to you. And yet, most of the people with cancer that I’ve known (through work, or personally) could tell stories about dreams that influenced their healing process or even saved their lives…

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