I always dreaded when it got dark and the day would end. Instead of seeking comfort in sleep, I saw it as a chunk of time I would never get back. I never remembered my dreams, anyway. So, in the past few years, I developed a habit of stalling when it came to dozing off.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved being in bed under my cozy duvet. But I wanted to stay alert, so I kept the curtains open so I wouldn’t be tempted to sleep. I needed to process the events of the day and replay the conversations I had, often spiraling into regret. Did I say the right thing? What did they mean when they said…? 

The way I saw it, the day is a scattered pile of emotions and memories. At night, I can start sorting through them. Otherwise, I wake up the next day with a mess in my head. The time before I fell asleep was precious. To preserve it, I slept the bare minimum amount of hours I needed to get by. It was worth it, for the clarity and sense of control I felt over myself. But I couldn’t keep it up for long. 

That’s when I had the most vivid dream of my life. I was in my childhood home, laying on my back in the hallway. People walked over me, chattering away and I could not get up. I shouted and shouted but no one noticed. Then I saw myself, an older me, trying to pass. I clutched onto her and she got stuck as well. 

I woke up feeling breathless. Grabbing one of my course journals, I scribbled what I could remember onto the page. Deep down, I knew my brain was trying to tell me something. I had a class to go to, so I left it there. But when I came back in the evening and read through it, I could see the parallels with my real life. I was holding myself back, skipping out on sleep, hanging onto each day, and clinging onto every single detail. That dream was a reality check, that I was harboring so much regret and that I needed to let my past slip-ups go. 

Maybe there was something worthwhile in dreaming, after all. The key is to recall those dreams, as 95% of them are typically forgotten a few minutes after we wake up. The reason this happens is that the hormone associated with memory is switched off. That night, I went to sleep almost as soon as I slid into bed. 

From then on, when I remembered something from my dreams in the morning—even the slightest detail like crawling in a desert—I would write them down into a spare journal. The act of writing my dreams down in a dream journal encoded them as a memory in my head. Keeping this up as a practice trained my brain to store my dreams, at least until the morning came.

Another trick I learned was through mental affirmations. Telling myself that I was going to remember my dreams and that they were important to me, made me more cognizant of them. I began to remember dreams in more detail and could start picking out patterns in my subconscious mind. 

Writing frequently in the morning, even in nonsensical bursts, became a way to start the day with a load off my chest. I felt lighter than ever. This should come as no surprise, as studies have shown that journaling has a positive impact on our personal wellbeing.

If you’re looking to start keeping a dream journal, remember that it doesn’t have to be complicated. There are great dream journal apps like Capture that help you keep track of your dreams with ease, and can even remind you at the beginning of your day. Write down what you remember before you do anything else so that it doesn’t slip out of your mind. If it is a complicated or even dark dream, I also add in what happened in the past few days that might have prompted those emotions. There are also countless templates online that can be followed, which I use every now and then to switch things up. 

At the end of the day, what I needed was time to process, as well as to feel like I was in control of my thoughts. I now enjoy the routine of waking up and writing down the bizarre images my brain cooked up the night before. Keeping a dream journal helped me look forward to shutting down for the night, which had amazing effects on my previously sleep-deprived self. Just as I have trained myself to remember my dreams, I can choose to forget the trivial things that used to keep me up at night. 

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  • Amal Al Shamsi is a writer with a BA in Literature from New York University Abu Dhabi, interested in the study of marginality in modern and contemporary fiction. She is passionate about integrating other mediums into her writing, such as film, visual art, and music as she engages with the cultural dialogue around the world.