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Jackie Schuld Art Therapy Blog

Big Emotions in Dreams

Ever wonder how to make sense of you dreams? Maggi Colwell, an art therapist and specialist in dreams, is here with a guest post to help us gain some insight.


Dreams give us a way to look at our internal, psychic world using images and metaphors. Dreams tell us something that we are not aware of consciously but are ready to integrate into our waking lives. Dreams can show us where our conscious attitude may be out of proportion, skewed, holding us back, or in need of healing. So, with that said, let’s talk about how big emotions show up in dreams.

One way is through the idea of flooding. Flooding is a term in psychoanalytic psychology that refers to the unconscious overwhelming consciousness, or in other words, the ego. The way this might look in modern popular terms would be “being triggered” or having an emotional meltdown. Like a volcanic eruption, emotional flooding can come on suddenly and can make you feel out of control.

In a dream this might look like drowning in a tidal wave, flooding, or navigating a boat on a road rather than a river. People often describe falling in love or heartbreak in this way. Other people experience these feelings with suicidal ideation. For some such an experience might be more akin to identifying as a highly sensitive person or a person with big emotions.

Interestingly, a typical way to work with accessing emotions in art therapy is through using watercolor. For a person untrained in watercolor techniques, using watercolor can be hard to control due to its high fluidity. That sounds like a metaphor for emotions right?

"Flooding" created by Maggi Colwell

Another way to see emotional content in dreams is through dissonance. Dissonance shows up in dreams when something appears really bizarre or wacky. Dissonance shows where a complex, or psychic wound is in play. Complexes show up in our lives when we have automatic, or knee jerk reactions to things. A complexed reaction usually also contains high amounts of emotions along with it and can leave us feeling raw, upset, or ranting afterwards.

So questions to ask yourself about the dream may include:

  1. How do I feel similarly about something going on in my life?

  2. What is “wrong” or out of place in this situation in this dream? What isn’t working?

  3. What would the solution be in the dream to right the situation be like? (this gives you a hint of how to see or what to do differently in the corresponding life situation).

  4. What is the nature of this symbol? Google it for more details to learn about this and figure out how it has been portrayed in current events, history, and mythology. Myths are the dreams of a culture.

  5. Do I know how to swim, surf, sail, etc? Would it actually work? Do I have the skills necessary to get myself through this?

  6. Am I doing something superhuman? (being unrealistic)

  7. Would I die if this was real life in this situation? (this is a huge clue as to the peril set up in the dream. A final note on this: if the situation is not one you would ever find yourself, the dream is speaking to you about the unrealistic nature of your anxiety or fear. If it is a real situation, it may be talking about a bad situation you are in denial about.)

Keeping a short journal about your day at night and then writing down your dreams first thing every morning are a great way to notice how your inner and outer world reflect one another. The more you write down, the more you will notice helpful patterns in your dreams. I have more tips on starting a dream journal here:

Finally, the support of a therapist in group or individual therapy can help you figure out where your blind spots may be.


Maggi Colwell, MS, ATR-BC is an art therapist and dream pattern analyst in Columbus Ohio. They work with individuals and lead dream groups to guide people through navigating the depths of their inner psychic worlds. Personally, Maggi considers their art a conversation with their soul. You can find out more at


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