06/04/2012 08:30 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2012

How Dreams Can Help You Fight Your Fears

As Arianna Huffington pointed out in the Becoming Fearless video "Simple Sleep Tips With Dr. Breus," "it's really critical to remember what a source of information and insight and wisdom dreams can be."

Gayle Delaney, Ph.D., co-founder of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and one of the pioneers of modern dream theory, has found that we can actively use our dreams to overcome the fears we have in our waking lives. She calls the process "dream incubation," and it differs from lucid dreaming in that it doesn't involve manipulating your dreams while you're in them, but rather giving yourself a dream assignment and then learning from what your subconscious reveals to you.

"Incubation is: 'I want to explore,'" says Dr. Delaney. "It's setting yourself something to sleep on and targeting an issue you’d like to dream about. It's actually very easy to do -- you can train yourself to do it at will!"

According to Dr. Delaney, dreams help hook us to our mission of having a good life. “You have got to understand what your fears are,” she says. “You can’t just have blind fear. Some fears are useful; they keep you alive. Others go back to childhood trauma, or to fear of the future -- you’re afraid that things will go wrong, or you fear criticism and ostracism. It’s crucial that you figure out both why you’ve got the fear and what you can do about it. Therefore, I suggest a two-pronged approach.”


1) “Pick a place in your life where you’re fearful more than you want to be,” says Dr. Delaney. “Is it asking for the respect or the payment you need at work? Is it in dating? Are you fearful to stand up to somebody in your life when you know you should? It doesn’t matter how important the issue is, as long as it’s something you’d like to overcome.”

2) “Distill what you want to dream about into one clear sentence that asks a question: ‘Why am I so afraid of my boss?’ or ‘What keeps me from being able to leave my destructive boyfriend?” suggests Dr. Delaney.

3) Write your question down on a piece of paper right before you turn out the light. “If you write the question down, you will almost always get a direct hit,” notes Dr. Delaney.

4) Repeat your question over and over to yourself as you fall asleep. “This will actually help you fall asleep, because it’s like a hypnotic induction,” says Dr. Delaney.

5) “As soon as you wake up in the morning, write down the dreams or dream images you remember,” she says. “It might be the insight you’re looking for; it might be a short dream that’s easy to understand. Or, you might not recognize it at first, because it might be symbolic: You’ll have to figure out what metaphors you used to answer your question. Whatever the case, see if it helps shine light on the core root of your fearfulness.”


“On night number two, I would like to challenge you to incubate a dream on how you can be more fearless in general,” says Dr. Delaney. “This would mean incubating a dream about your general way of approaching life -- new things, old things, people. The question should be something like, ‘How can I become more fearless in my life?’ or ‘How can I develop a wise courageousness in my life?’”

Follow the same steps you did the night before -- write the question down, repeat it to yourself as you fall asleep, etc.

“Some of my clients have evolved their dream-incubation technique over decades,” says Dr. Delaney. “In the process, they’ve learned how to be more confident in general. I mean, what are the antidotes to fear? Confidence, purpose, competence. Dreams help you develop all those traits -- and they show you what’s getting in the way of your fearlessness."

Dr. Delaney points out that you can even use your dreams for insight when it comes to fearful situations you can’t control or fix (a chronic illness; a loved one’s dementia). “Most dream-incubation questions are about what’s going wrong and why, and what you can do about it,” she says. “But even if you can’t do anything to change the situation, you can still work with your attitude and your way of coping with it. You could cope better or worse with the very difficult situation you’re in, right? So: Incubate a dream asking, ‘How can I improve my coping?' or 'How can this terrible loss be less of a weight on me?' or 'Is there any way I could do this better that would make it less painful?’. You will be amazed at the insight that your dreaming mind will give to you.”

To read our previous post about fear dreams -- "Fear Dreams: What Are They Trying To Tell You?" -- click here.

What fearful images or themes appear in your dreams at night? Comment below (using as much detail as possible), and Dr. Delaney may analyze your dream in a future post as part of our Fearless Dreaming with Gayle Delaney initiative.

In the meantime, feel free to consult Dr. Delaney’s website, which gives detailed instructions on how incubate a dream. Go to YourSleepingGenius.com by clicking here.