The Relationship Between Childhood Dreams
and Illness in Adults:
A Review of the Literature
By Alan James Strachan, Ph.D
This review summarizes five studies in which a meaningful connection is made between a childhood dream and an adult illness.
Saul and Bernstein (1941) described the case of a woman patient, approximately 25 years old, who suffered from chronic migraines and outbreaks of hives. They discovered that “Her deepest wish, judging by her frequently recurring dream, which began in earliest childhood, was for a good mother, actually for her concept of her own mother whom she had lost at the age of 2” (pp. 353-354).
Saul and Bernstein then made a connection between the childhood dream and the patient’s chronic body symptoms.
Grown to womanhood, she retained these intense longings of her childhood but was unable to satisfy them through a normal sexual life, because of her fears. . . . When her perpetually frustrated longings were increased. . . then she would become upset, frequently eat uncontrollably, be irritable, develop migrainous headaches, and also weep, or else . . . break out with hives. (p. 354)
Saul and Bernstein described two therapy sessions in which the patient reported that she had a recurrence of the childhood dream. In the first session she said that she awoke weeping; she then developed a case of hives during the therapy session. In the second session the patient reported that she awoke from the dream with a case of hives.
Lockhart (1977) recounted a case in which a cancer patient reported the following dream which had recurred since childhood:
I open the door of a darkened bedroom, and with the light shining from my back across the room to a window, I see a glowing face outside the window looking at me. I immediately become paralyzed, lift up off the ground so that I am floating, and begin floating slowly toward the face. The dream never resolves beyond this point. (p. 14)
Lockhart wrote that “It was only when the dreamer completed the dream by exposing himself to the awesome emotional power of the face that he experienced a release. . . . The dream has not returned, nor has his cancer” (p. 15).
Schneider (1973) treated a man in his mid-40s who had experienced a heart attack. The man reported a nightmare which he had dreamed recurrently since childhood:
I am running all night. I am running along the rooftops of the city because I am being pursued. My pursuer changes shape. At first I am pursued by a woman, then she turns into a witch, then she turns into a cat—and I keep running as though my life depended on it. . . (p. 367)
Schneider (1973) believed that the dream was directly related to the heart attack, interpreting the “I am running” image as “the heart pounding and running all night long, so that it can be said that in his sleep the heart attack man does not consistently really totally rest.” (p. 368)
Although Schneider did not specifically mention another childhood dream, he did make the general observation that “heart attack personalities” often have experienced the shock of massive anxiety as early as 3 years of age, and that “Dreams reflect each stage of alarm very precisely” (p. 366). He cited, for example, a separate case in which a man had a symbolically significant dream hours before suffering a severe coronary. Schneider wrote that
The events and the dream bring into sharp focus a repetitive obsessive-compulsive pattern fused with a running stream of anger which had been characteristic of him since early childhood and had now reached its inevitable self-destroying zenith. From the night-terrors of his childhood to this horror-dream of his sick adulthood—he had moved to this shocking climax. (p. 364)
Lippman (1954) discovered three kinds of dreams associated with migraines. He classified these dreams as the nightmare, the nostalgic technicolor dream, and the waking dream. Each of the dream types had five characteristics in common: recurrence, brilliant colors, appearance at specific times in the life-span, certain emotional tones which usually carried over into the waking state, and, in some cases, persistence as a visual hallucination after the patient was wide awake. If a patient described dreams which could be classified as one of the three types, then Lippman used the dreams as a diagnostic aid and advised treatment for migraine.
Lippman described “The Nightmare” as follows:
Dream Pattern #1: The Nightmare. These dreams begin in early childhood, recurring frequently until the 10th or 12th year. Some patients remark that their dream “began as far back as they can remember.” In rare cases the dream may recur infrequently in adult life, usually during or following periods of illness. In such instances, it is remarkable that the dream is identical in detail with that of the early childhood years. (p. 273)
Lippman went on to say that the nightmare is characterized by intense terror and panic which his patients typically described as being completely out of proportion to the dream situation. This feeling continues into the waking state, sometimes lasting for hours. Lippman provided case material on five patients, each of whom suffered from migraines, and each of whom experienced the recurrent nightmare dreams in childhood.
Mindell cited one case (1985) in which a physical symptom was related to a childhood dream. The patient was a 40-year-old man with a recurring backache. As a child, the man had a dream in which he had tripped over his mother’s feet, whereupon his mother had turned into a cow. The cow head grew ever larger until it filled his vision, with its mouth open in a silent scream. As they worked on the dream, the man said that the cow had a lot of pain that he could feel in his stomach. Mindell amplified the pain by applying pressure until, still with the man’s encouragement, he was using a great deal of force. The man gave no indication of being in pain, and eventually they realized that he was exhibiting a cow-like nature. Both the dream and the backache were telling the man that he needed to express his pain.
It is interesting to note that although Jung (1938-39) did not cite a specific childhood dream and its relationship to a physical problem experienced by an adult, he did make the general observation that such dreams can, in later life, affect an individual’s posture, movements, and ability to feel his or her body.
To summarize, these articles described a connection between childhood dreams and a variety of physical symptoms that manifested in adulthood. The symptoms were migraines (Lippman, 1954; Saul & Bernstein, 1941), cancer (Lockhart, 1977), heart attack (Schneider, 1973), hives (Saul & Bernstein, 1941), and backache (Mindell, 1985). Migraines were the only symptom that appeared in more than one case.
Although the symptoms varied considerably, the cases have a number of elements in common. Lockhart, Schneider, Lippman, and Saul and Bernstein all noted that the dreams were recurrent. In all five articles, the dreams were characterized by extremely strong affect. In two instances the authors emphasized the antiquity of the dreams, noting that they began “in earliest childhood” (Saul & Bernstein, 1941, p. 353) and “as far back as they can remember” (Lippman, 1954, p. 273). Finally, in each case, the dream was in some way incomplete. For example, Saul and Bernstein’s patient was left with intense, unresolved longings; Lockhart’s patient floated toward but never reached the large face; Schneider’s patient was endlessly pursued; Lippman’s patients recounted a variety of unresolved terrors; and Mindell’s patient dreamt of a cow whose mouth was open as if to scream. Both Lockhart and Mindell worked with their patients to help them complete the dreams. In Lockhart’s case, the patient went into remission, while Mindell did not describe the effect of the work on his patient’s physical symptom.
These articles support the theory that there can be a meaningful connection between childhood dreams and the subsequent development of illness in adulthood, and identify the key elements of such dreams: recurrence, strong affect, antiquity and incompleteness.
Jung, C.G. (1938-1939). Psychological Interpretation of Children's Dreams, Zurich lectures, (unpublished).
Lippman, Caro W. (1954). Recurrent Dreams in Migraine: An Aid to Diagnosis. J. of Nervous and Mental Disease, 120, 273-276.
Lockhart, Russell A. (1977). Cancer in Myth and Dream: An Exploration into the Archetypal Relation Between Dreams and Disease. Spring, NY: Spring Publications.
Mindell, Arnold. (1985). Working With the Dreaming Body. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Saul, Leon J., and Bernstein, Clarence Jr. (1941). The Emotional Settings of Some Attacks of Urticaria. Psychosomatic Medicine, 3/4, 349-369.
Schneider, Daniel E. (1973). Conversion of Massive Anxiety into Heart Attack. American J. of Psychotherapy, 27, 360-378.
(Originally published in Dream Network, 1995, 14/1-2, 26-27.)