How To Keep And Understand a Dream Journal

A lighted pen and rubber bracelet are useful for keeping a dream journal.

The Dream Recovery System

A simple way to help you remember, analyze, and fully benefit from your dreams.

©2018, 2022 All Rights Reserved


Why bother keeping a journal of your dreams?

Why you need to make peace with your need to sleep

The subconscious mind vs. the conscious

The benefits of dream journaling

How to remember more of your dreams.

How to record your dreams so you can understand them.

The Stages of Sleep (infographic)

The Dream Recovery System


Dream journaling as a hobby.

Part 1

Why Bother Trying To Remember Your Dreams

For many Americans, the 1930s were a decade-long nightmare. A quarter of the population found themselves without work. Folks from every stratum of society were starving, suffering, and despondent. Depression ran rampant. Many committed suicide by jumping out of windows, hanging themselves, shooting themselves in the head, or poisoning themselves.

Those were truly the “bad old days.”

Memories and images of that significant economic downturn are still fresh thanks to photographs, movies, and recordings.

Unfortunately, but as expected, the generation that personally experienced it grows fewer in number every day. The phrase “Great Depression” still conjures thoughts of unemployment lines. People think of dirty, starving children with haggard, worried mothers. They visualize crowded soup kitchens, sharecroppers, and shantytowns. Perhaps they think of the song, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Many families have stories about how their relatives suffered during those days leading up to World War II.

Almost everyone seemed to suffer in some way. 

Though it’s the best-remembered period of steep economic decline in the United States’ history, the Great Depression of the 1930s wasn’t the first; it’s merely the best remembered today due to its proximity in time. These kinds of extreme downturns are part of a cycle.

Almost a century before the Great Depression, world commodity prices collapsed in the Panic of 1837. As it did in the Great Depression, unemployment reached a quarter of the population in some areas. Consumer prices fell seven years in a row. This caused households and businesses to put off purchases. The economy contracted and then cratered. Why buy today when the price might go down some more tomorrow? It was a seemingly never-ending spiral down an abyss.

Almost 100 years before the Great Depression, the Panic of 1837 was the first financial catastrophe the United States faced.

Millions of men and women starved. 

One of those affected by this crisis was a young man named Elias Howe.

After the textile factory in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he worked went out of business, Elias and his cousin Nathaniel moved 30 miles away to Cambridge. The young men found work as mechanics on carding machinery. Carding machines were important in the creation of textiles. The machines clean, sort, and spin threads together when cotton becomes cloth.

Elias had an idea for a machine to make strong stitches in fabrics. With such a device, clothing, drapes, windsails, and other textile products could be sewn more efficiently. If he could invent and market the machine, it would make him a fortune. He’d never have to worry about not having a job and going hungry ever again. As he had gone through a lot, that was undoubtedly utmost in his mind.

Such a machine was possible. It had to be. With his textile factory experience and his apprenticeship in a precision machine shop, he knew what had to run right. Nevertheless, when it came to bringing the idea to life, a few details stymied him.

The first designs used the needle and thread conventionally. The eye of the needle was at the top. The thread ran through. That wasn’t the right way to do it, he realized. Those designs failed. 

Howe’s dream

One night, Elias went to bed perplexed and discouraged.

When he went to sleep, Elias dreamt he had to build his invention for a savage king in a strange country.

“You have 24 hours to finish this machine and make it sew,” the king said. “Or else.”

The problem still stumped him in the dream. He couldn’t get the machine to make a single stitch.

In the dream, the deadline passed. The savages began to prepare to execute him. 

Upon being led to his death, he noticed how the warriors carried spears pierced at the top.

That was the answer! He woke with a start. 

The first sewing machine Elias Howe created.

It was 4 a.m., but he paid no attention to the time. He ran to his workshop. By 9 a.m., he had invented the sewing machine. While other inventors developed other sewing machines before, Howe’s was the first to make a lockstitch. This kind of stitch was much more durable than others. It revolutionized clothing production.

It all came about due to the inspiration he got from a dream.

The gist of Elias Howe’s story about how he invented the sewing machine isn’t rare. Dreams have inspired many scientific breakthroughs, songs, and other creative works.

While every one of your dreams may not have the world-changing impact of this dream, if you forget most of them upon waking every night, you’re missing something. Maybe it’s not an invention, a hit song, or a new scientific theory. Perhaps it’s how you’re feeling about a particular topic. Maybe it’s vital knowledge about a significant relationship. It’s an opportunity for self-knowledge, a key to a happy, successful life.

Dream creativity is still relevant today

Even today, while approaching 200 years of technological breakthroughs, dreams haven’t stopped inspiring. From the Pillow King to the Terminator movie franchise to hit songs too many to count, dreams have played and continue to play a significant role in inspiration and planning.”

(For much more on this topic, check out Deirdre Barrett’s excellent The Committee of Sleep which includes many examples of this in a variety of fields.)

Bottom line: it’s practical to want to remember and to try to remember your dreams, and that’s because it’s a powerful source of creativity.

Yet creativity has an undeservedly bad reputation in certain circles. It shouldn’t. Creativity refers to the ability to use, produce, or access original ideas. The dark side of creativity doesn’t have to be pronounced if we have tools to deal with our subconscious. Dream recovery and analysis can be one of those tools. Every field uses and needs creativity in some way. There’s no surer way of doing this than using the dreams you already have to do so.

Moreover, creativity comes from a form of self-expression. There’s no source more undistilled of this kind of expression than the dream. 

When it comes to tapping into the power of your dreams, it all starts with merely remembering them. 

Weird as they might be at first glance, understanding them can be made much easier with a simple technique.

Read on.

Part 2

Embrace the Need to Sleep

In the context of the pressures of day-to-day life, it’s easy to put down the importance of sleep and dreams. There always seems to be something more important or more urgent. There’s always a class to attend, a paycheck to earn, someone you’ve got to see, and something more to do.

Who has time to sleep? 

In our society, sleep is seen by many as something to be bargained with or tolerated. If possible, it would be something to negotiate away. If only you can get enough caffeine with the right energy drink or the right coffee, maybe you could do without it completely! Imagine what you could accomplish if you didn’t have to sleep at all! Around seven or eight annoying hours occupying the dark of night—what a waste of time!

The practical, ambitious, goal-oriented person tries to get by with as little sleep as possible. He or she sometimes even brags to others about how little they sleep.

How desperate some are to not sleep is stunning when you realize the terrible long- and short-term side effects of excessive stimulant use. Nodding off is more than inefficient; it’s dangerous. We’re unable to remember much of what we do or what happens. We make bad choices—our tempers fray. Whatever kind of reprieve energy drinks and the rest offer, it’s only temporary.

We go to bed reluctantly. When we’re there, we look at our phones. Unless we take steps to do so, we’re affected by their sleep-challenging properties. Blue light emitted by the devices tricks our brains into thinking it’s time to be awake.

Some go down the unfortunate path of using methamphetamines to stay awake. Unless they’re terribly young or outstandingly naive, when they do, they’re usually aware of at least some of the adverse health effects like bizarre behavior, hallucinations, “meth mouth,” and skin conditions. Nevertheless, thousands conclude none of those horrible effects will happen to them or won’t be so bad. In desperation, they start down a path that never ends well.

The drugs tweak their brain and provide a pleasant diversion. Maybe they don’t realize that sleep would do the same thing in dreams?

A counter-intuitive approach to sleep

The need for sleep evolved right along with humankind for many good reasons. Yes, it takes up hours each day. It’s a profligate use of time. It makes sense to do it as efficiently as possible.

Understanding how you can be the best you can at sleeping, it helps to know why we sleep in the first place.

First, getting enough sleep is a big deal. That’s because it’s one of the fundamental cornerstones of health, along with diet and exercise. You’d never realize that it was as important as those other two cornerstones from the number of TV shows, magazines, and books dedicated to it as compared to the other two. It’s dwarfed! 

Yet, without enough sleep, your reflexes suffer. You get into accidents. Trauma is a significant cause of death. These accidents are a major reason why people who sleep too little tend to die prematurely.

The chronically sleep-deprived also have problems with their tempers. Getting into fights might also contribute to their premature deaths.

Sleep deprivation leads to poor memory. It dumbs you down.

When you get enough sleep, you can learn more quickly and efficiently. It makes you smarter.

A lack of sleep can cause pain. Not just from accidents but also from headaches.

It affects how your body processes food and undertakes other functions by changing how hormones are released. This can contribute to premature aging and depression.

The practical person realizes sleep helps you win by not screwing up.

They come to regard it as a passive good, something you want to make sure you get enough of, but not necessarily an active good, something worth seeking out.

It is, though. Sleep is more than a maintenance activity. It’s an active good to connect you with your subconscious and unconscious mind, even God.

There’s a spiritual component to getting enough sleep few Western-oriented medical personnel to speak about. The experience of sleep and dreaming is individual; western medicine operates through studies. But it’s there. Diverse cultures, like the aboriginals of Australia, Islam, and various Native American tribes, have sleep practices built around it. 

By dream journaling, sleep can become a nightly spiritual experience.


Having and remembering your dreams is one of the significant benefits of sleeping, rarely quoted in the Western mindset outside of the realm of psychology.

Whether they’re good dreams or bad dreams, people don’t know what to do with them. They’re all a side effect of sleeping. Some dreams are about things that make them feel uncomfortable for one reason or another, either because they forbid themselves from thinking certain thoughts or don’t immediately understand what their dreams are about. Dreams make them leery.

There’s no reason to be embarrassed about any of them, not really. Because they’re in a symbolic language, it’s not unlike a game of charades.

Another reason is they simply don’t remember their dreams. They’re so tired when they do sleep. They don’t spend much time in the sleep stages where they can remember much of their dreams.

This is unfortunate.

While nobody knows fully how or why we dream, the act can inspire your life. That’s why these aspirations for the future are called dreams!

By communicating with your subconscious mind, you learn what’s truly important to you, whatever phase your mind is in.

The Subconscious

The subconscious mind is the part taking over when you’re asleep. 

The opposite, your conscious mind, is in control when you’re awake. The conscious mind makes day-to-day decisions. It’s often rational, sometimes emotional.

The brain is the physical organ containing these minds. It’s not the mind itself. The subconscious weighs these experiences while you’re asleep. It’s thought that the result of these thought patterns are dreams.

The mind has an even deeper level, the unconscious mind. This is the place it buries frightening thoughts. They’re the thoughts you don’t allow yourself to think because to think them makes you feel uncomfortable.

Various ideas can be stored there, depending on what you don’t like to confront. Some of the ideas are about what constitutes a threat to your safety. Others can be about what you don’t want to think of yourself. There are a lot of different things people don’t want to confront.

When you remember and journal your dreams, there’s no guarantee you don’t go that deep, all of the way into the unconscious mind, a level some feel uncomfortable with. If you’re able to realize some things we repress aren’t necessarily shameful, that they’re normal, understandable, tough, or whatever, we can assign their appropriate level of importance to the point where we can process them and take what we need from them. We can move on, and they can no longer hurt us anymore.

11 Benefits of Dream Journaling

  1. Inspiration. Dreams have a way of underscoring what’s important to you. By understanding what matters and what’s truly important, you can get clarity. From clarity comes inspiration.
  2. You understand yourself better because you know what matters to you. Everyone has basic needs. They have to be fulfilled first, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You’re no different than anyone else. Once you get past that and into the esteem and self-actualization need level it can get confusing as you weigh your priorities and relationships.
  3. Understanding your dreams helps you understand those who matter most to you. It improves your closest relationships. You dream about these significant people frequently. Their thoughts, ideas, and being can get lost in the day-to-day crush of events and happenings. They’re complex individuals like you with not every yearning, thought, and idea clearly expressed. Your conscious mind might not notice what’s going on with them, but your subconscious often does. As it processes the events of the day, it can and often does let you know. In this instance, your dreams can serve pretty much the same purpose as an engine warning light on a car. A quick reflection on the dream lets you know: relationship maintenance is required. This helps you from being blindsided. When it comes to significant relationships, the adage is never more true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
  4. Dreams provide a filter to interpret the world, especially in times of uncertainty. Dreams communicate in a metaphorical language more subtle than verbal and written ones. When COVID-19 started developing into an epidemic, people began dreaming about it. Some of the dreams were frightening; some of the dreams were priority assigning. People who were able to get to the root of their concerns about the epidemic could cope with it more easily. What sacrifices were they going to be able to make to keep themselves and their family safe? How much social distancing and isolation should they practice?
  5. Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. First, decide what you need. Yes, sleep is a way to refresh, but it’s also time to think. Eyes closed, your brain is left mostly to itself. On busy problem-filled days, it can be the only time you have to think. That’s probably why so much problem-solving goes on when we’re sleeping. Dream journaling and analysis supercharge day-to-day creativity. At its root, creativity is an effort to solve various problems (self-expression is solving the problem of putting feelings into words). 
  6. While it’s not a feature of Western medicine, there’s a spiritual component to dream journaling and analysis. With experience and self-understanding, you’ll be more able to discern the spirit.
  7. Not every achievement is the result of something you do. Sometimes you achieve by not making mistakes, by not losing. Dream journaling and analysis give you a bird’s eye view of your life, sometimes calming you and letting you know when to be patient. 
  8. Having excellent recall of your dreams helps you avoid stress by giving you perspective. This, too, shall pass. When you’ve journaled your dreams for a while, you start to see a development in your character, even as an adult.
  9. The time you spend asleep is about one-third of your life going hand-in-hand with the other two-thirds where you’re awake. One section shines a light on the other. It only makes sense you should know what’s going on in each.
  10. Dream journaling is a form of meditation. It’s probably an efficient way of gaining benefits without spending any time on something you’d be doing in any case. It hasn’t been directly studied as such yet. When it is, this list will undoubtedly grow much longer.

It’s well worth your time and the minimal effort it takes.

Part 3

Remember and Journal Your Dreams

Everyone dreams. You, too, will dream tonight, even if you usually don’t remember them.

The key to success with dream journaling is to be prepared. You’ll want to have a pen or pencil, something to write on (ideally a journal, but a card might do too), and a bracelet or some other kind of memory device for one of your limbs. 

Every one of those objects has its purpose. Miss one of them, and your recall rate will suffer greatly, especially if you’re new to dream journaling. It’s impossible to tell you how much your recall rate will suffer because many factors combine together, but it will.

The writing utensil and paper are useful for waking up and having something to write the dream down on. If you don’t note it right away, you’re likely to forget many details. This is especially true if it’s a complicated dream with many points and other details. The more you forget, the less you’ll benefit.

What we’ll call a memory device helps to make it clear to your mind that your sleep time conditions are different from your waking conditions.

When sleeping, you’ll wear the memory device on a wrist opposite from where you wear your watch. Even if you don’t regularly wear a watch every day, wear the memory device opposite of where you’d wear a watch. This has the effect of allowing your body and mind to differentiate sleep from wakefulness.

If you wear other bracelets, take them off before going to bed.

Some products make dream journaling and sleeping nicer and, perhaps, easier. For example, pens with lights in them, dedicated, bound dream journals, dim lights that clip on to bound dream journals, and sleep masks. They’re not absolutely necessary, though you may want to experiment with them. The above items are the basics.

Another key to success is having a routine. Try to go to bed at nearly the same time every night. When you delay sleep or go to bed early, you throw off a regular biological cycle known as the Circadian rhythm. It’s the 24-hour wake-rest cycle seen in people, animals, and plants. A routine can be changed, but change needs to happen mindfully while keeping this natural rhythm in mind to have the greatest chance of success.

Sleep Cycles

The sleep cycle occurs in five stages, repeating about every 90 minutes. Many people wake up several times during the night, though not necessarily fully. You go back and forth through the stages. Altogether, you’ll go through several complete sleep cycles during the whole night.


Studies show dreaming is necessary for sanity. Each step of the sleep cycle seems to be necessary, though it’s not completely clear why. For example, if REM sleep is interrupted for several nights, the sleeper will try to catch up by going to the REM stage quicker than usual. This phenomenon is known as “REM Rebound.”


The Dream Recovery System (10 Steps)

Now that you have the background as to how the Sleep Cycle works and the basic equipment needed as far as increasing your chances of success with dream journaling, it’s time to spell out the steps.

1. When you lay down, tell yourself you’ll remember your dreams when you wake up and that you have to write them down.

See yourself writing and recording your dreams upon waking. It helps to have some kind of object present to remind you. People have used a variety of objects, like a rubber band on the wrist or a piece of tape. You can even write yourself a note. The sooner you reorient, the more likely you will be able to remember the content of your dreams. A rubber bracelet can be snapped to wake you when you feel the will to write your dream slipping away.

2. Keep your journal someplace close.

This can be under your bed; under your pillow; on the nightstand, or on the floor beside you. You want to be able to remember to reach for it and easily find it when you wake up. Use a paper journal, not a cell phone or computer. Don’t use a voice recorder, either. Sometimes you’re going to have dreams with symbols, and you can’t record those symbols accurately.

Prepare for writing when you wake.

Have a pen or pencil handy, along with a little nightlight (or, ideally, a lighted pen). If it’s only a few words, you might be able to write clearly in the dark, provided you aim for the middle of the page, and you’re not going to write very much text. If you sleep with a partner, always be kind and conscious of their need to sleep when jotting down your dream.

Upon waking, start writing by creating a short title for the dream.

It can be as simple as one word, say, “Falling” or “Dogs.” A single word can help you focus your thoughts which are sometimes going to be disjointed. Don’t worry about the date. You can add it later. You can also title the dream then. As you build skill, you can write a few keywords about the dream and go back and finish writing it down when you’re done. The longer you wait, the less you’ll remember, so go back as soon as you can.

If you don’t remember the dream or you don’t believe you had one, write “No Dream To Record” as the title.

Date the entry. While this may be disappointing, it’s vital for developing a habit. Keeping a dream journal is a habit, and habits take time to develop. Making sure to do this helps you develop the habit because your subconscious will associate waking up with writing in your dream journal.

Once you have the title, use the acronym PACTREPS to uncover critical details from the dream. 

Details are like gold nuggets when it comes to dream analysis. They’re the key to understanding the dream. Dreams don’t always have a plot, and they often don’t make objective sense. That’s okay. Often the importance lies in the symbolism. It’s helpful to memorize this acronym and what it stands for. As a way of training yourself to have outstanding dream recall, write PACTREPS on the top of the first ten pages (or more) of your dream journal to prod yourself to probe your memory for the nebulous details that tend to slip below the surface of your memory. Next, inside the front cover of the spiral or leather-bound journal, write what the acronym stands for.


P = People — Were there any people in the dream? Did they do anything?

A = Animals — Were any animals prominently featured?

C = Colors — Were there any colors that stood out?

T = Modes of Transport — Was a journey involved?

R = Recurring — Did you ever have this dream or a similar one before?

E = Emotion — How did the dream make you feel emotionally?

P = Plot — Was there a plot to the dream? It’s okay if it didn’t make sense.

S = Setting & Sound — Where did the dream take place? Were there any sounds or songs playing?

This acronym isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of every possible thing that could occur to you in a dream. An acronym for doing that would be unwieldy. For example, it doesn’t ask about any possible objects you might have dreamed of. Its purpose is to jog your memory, to give a framework to your recollections.

It’s a really good idea to memorize and run through it when you’re trying to remember your dreams until it becomes second nature.


What did the dream mean to you? What did each particular feature of the dream mean to you? It’s best if you determine this for yourself. The subconscious is inclined to speak in symbols. Only you know what those symbols mean.

Writing your dream down in the SOM format can help uncover meaning. (Story, Objects, Meaning)

Be patient.

This is a process of self-discovery. That takes time. A possible meaning to your dream might not occur to you right away. One Lakota medicine man named Black Elk famously puzzled over the meaning of a vision he had as a nine-year-old boy until the day he died.

Each night’s sleep is a gift, an opportunity to understand and become enlighted about some aspect of our existence.

A Few Other Points

Paper is infinitely better than a computer or something like the Penzu app for keeping a dream journal. Maintaining one online doesn’t work as well as keeping one in a notebook. The notebook is easier to use. Do so can be counterintuitive in a day when we want to put everything online.

The main reason is that it’s difficult to draw on a website or in a phone app when you have to illustrate a symbol, cartoon, or drawing to show your dream. Depending on who you are, the need to draw something can be quite common, especially if you’re visually oriented. As they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” You should try to sketch out your dream when it seems easier than writing it out with words, even if you think you can’t draw well at all.

It’s quicker to write in a notebook than to log onto a secure website and input a username and password. Keeping a record in a journal is also less disruptive to your sleep.

Recording voice descriptions of your dreams may work for some people, but they’re difficult to go back through unless you intend to write them down the next morning. Again, you have the disadvantage that you can’t illustrate any scene from your dream.

Furthermore, you’re likelier to wake up your bed partner by speaking into a recorder if you have one. Keeping your journal in a notebook also forces you to be more concise. Your interpretation is the best. However, if you want feedback on your dream, you’re free to share them on sites like and’s dream community. While some might find feedback valuable, it probably won’t be. Only you know the meaning of the symbols.

If you’re worried about writing your dreams on paper because somebody might read them, consider relaxing. Most people aren’t as interested in your thoughts as you might think. 

Nevertheless, most people won’t understand your entries the way you will. The symbol language of your dreams is your own personal communication system. 

If you need to keep your diary especially personal, try jotting a few points down to aid your memory. Then, when you have more privacy, reconstruct the entry fully later.

Sometimes your dreams will deal with sensitive material that can be misunderstood by others. You don’t want to make the material freely available to others. They might not understand all the symbols the same way you do. A misunderstanding could backfire on your relationship in many ways.

The best way to avoid this is to be discreet.

Maybe you might want to go so far as writing your dreams down in a quick, easy-to-use secret code.

When you start, if you’re like most people, you’ll be amazed at how your mind works. For example, I never knew how much music meant to me. My subconscious used lyrics and melodies symbolically to convey numerous ideas, in around a quarter of my dreams during a stretch of several months.

Your experiences provide a palette of examples for your subconscious to utilize. When you start, you’ll find it does so in ways that are often astounding.

If you’ve tried the steps these instructions to remember your dreams and find that you have mixed results or still can’t do it to your satisfaction, try subliminal conditioning.

Dream journaling as a hobby

Ideally, a hobby should be something that benefits your whole life.

Since dream journaling can give you a level of insight that you’ve never had before, it can definitely be considered a good hobby. For the benefit you can receive compared to the cost, it makes sense.

A final word:

A lot of dream journalers are focused on lucid dreaming. That’s not what we’re teaching here, though it’s certainly true that dream journaling can help one have lucid dreams.

Lucid dreams are interesting and fun. They’re good in that they promote sleep and avoid the use of drugs that can cause harm to the brain.

The downside of lucid dreams for our purposes is trying to have them interferes with the subconscious’ expression. You’re telling the subconscious what you want to dream about. It’s like meeting a friend who starts trying to say something.

“No. Shaddup! Let’s talk about this instead,” you say.

You can do that, of course. You might have a good time as your friend goes along with you.

The better question is should you do that? Wouldn’t it be better to listen to what the friend has to say.

This system is focused on getting inspiration for problem-solving and self-knowledge, and lucid dreams aren’t particularly relevant.


For further reading:

Another way to journal a dream

How to journal the “theme of the night”


James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. He aims to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life. 


The Dream Recovery System contains affiliate links. What this means that if you click the link and make a purchase, we get a portion. Our opinions remain our own.

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