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6 Ways Your Dreams Affect Your Waking Life

Ever woken up furious because you just dreamed your partner cheated on you? It may seem crazy, but what you dream about at night can set the tone for the rest of your day. A 2013 study from the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that certain types of negative dreams (like a partner cheating on you) and the emotions that go along with that dream (jealousy, anger, sadness, etc.) were associated with “less intimate feelings and more conflict with their partners on subsequent days.” But dreams don’t always have to be harbingers of doom. Here are six ways your dreams can affect your waking life.

1. Dreams push you to grow.

Dreams, especially the difficult ones, can be instrumental in your personal growth. If you wake up wrestling with how a dream made you feel, take time to meditate on it or even journal about it, says dream expert and psychologist Michael Lennox, Ph.D. “If you spend the rest of the day avoiding it or trying to push it down, it’s only going to get worse,” he says. Be willing to sit with those uncomfortable feelings so that you can get something out of the process. “Relish the dreams about issues that disturb you," he says. "It’s in that disturbance that we’re growing, and in avoidance of that, we stay stuck in our old patterns.”

2. They can signal something big.

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While bad dreams can be profoundly troubling, sometimes it’s your subconscious trying to alert you to something from your waking life, says holistic health psychologist Katherine Kelly, Ph.D. For example, if you dream about breaking up with your partner, while that’s not a reason to break up in real life, it could be a sign that your brain is picking up on tiny cues of a relationship in distress. “So as the relationship — in the waking life — is already brewing toward an ending, in your unconscious mind, you are fully aware that a relationship is on its way to ending,” says dream expert Dr. Michael Lennox. Dreams like these are often a signal to pay attention to nudges from your intuition.

Read more: 9 Signs Your Relationship Is in Trouble

3. Dreaming is part of your brain detox.

Even though you’re fast asleep, there’s an important physiological process going on in your brain while you dream. During REM sleep — the stage in which dreams are most vivid — your brain clears out all the metabolic waste that’s been building up. “All those brain cells that are firing all day produce waste,” says dream expert Dr. Michael Lennox. Once you enter REM sleep, your brain cells shrink and the area around them fills up with cerebrospinal fluid. As your brain cells shift back to their normal size, they squeeze out the fluid, which also washes away the waste from around the cells, Dr. Lennox says.

4. They’re your internal therapist.

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From a psychological standpoint, your dreams are important because they can help you sort out issues that plague you during your waking hours, says psychologist Dr. Katherine Kelly. But dreams are often symbolic instead of literal, she says, so sometimes you need to explore the deeper meaning behind them. Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious,” and according to him, the aim of dreams is to connect us to our unconscious. In a dream, you can explore a variety of possibilities that can help you make decisions once you wake up. “By dreaming, we’re actually practicing what it is to be human,” says dream expert Dr. Michael Lennox.

Read more: 16 Common Dreams and Their Interpretations

5. Dreams inspire you to action.

Dreams have the power to inspire you. If you have one of these inspirational dreams, try to remember that sensation when you wake up and revisit it throughout your day. “Going back to the imagery of a positive dream will get you in touch with your aspirational nature,” says dream expert Dr. Michael Lennox. “What did it feel like in that fabulously beautiful dream? Go back to that rather than what you think it might have meant.” Then see where your dream takes you! It may take you to the actual place of your dream — like climbing a mountain or starting a new business — or it may take you somewhere totally unexpected.

6. Dreaming helps you learn.

During REM sleep, your brain processes what you did during the hours you spent awake. One of the reasons you often dream about what you did that day is because your brain is actually going through the day’s events and re-experiencing certain things, says dream expert Dr. Michael Lennox. “The frontal cortex is lit up reviewing all of that material and turning some of that into short-term memory and discarding the extraneous.” Along with reviewing and storing, you’re also learning from those experiences, he says. So you’ll know how to handle your difficult co-worker better next time as well as acing that upcoming test, all because your brain processed that information while you slept.

What Do YOU Think?

What have you been dreaming about recently? Have you tried to interpret them? What do you think they’re trying to tell you? How have your dreams affected your waking life? What have you done to harness the lessons learned from your dreams, both positive and negative? Share your advice in the comments section below!

Read more: 11 Habits That Are Ruining Your Sleep (and How to Fix Them)