I always focus on the water in my dreams.
Whenever I find myself drowning in a wave or being flung around by a strong tide, I know there is something in my waking life that is making me feel like I don’t quite have a grip on things.
Similarly, every time I need to be somewhere at a particular time in the morning, I dream of being late for a bus, plane, or exam, just like clockwork.
I am not the only one to have such recurring dreams. Almost two-thirds of the human population report similar such experiences while they sleep, per Inverse.
Other common dreams include falling, flying, being chased, finding yourself naked in public, losing your teeth, or forgetting to go to class for an entire semester.
And just like how the water in my dreams reveals something about my emotional state, the science of dreams shows that recurring dreams may reflect unresolved conflicts in the dreamer’s life:
The majority of recurring dreams have negative content involving emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, and guilt. More than half of recurring dreams involve a situation where the dreamer is in danger. But some recurring themes can also be positive, even euphoric, such as dreams where we discover new rooms in our house, erotic dreams, or where we fly.
In some cases, recurring dreams that begin in childhood can persist into adulthood. These dreams may disappear for a few years, reappear in the presence of a new source of stress and then disappear again when the situation is over.
Interestingly, these themes traverse cultures and time, across different countries and in different periods.
Dreams have been shown to help us regulate our emotions, adapt to a challenge, or process a painful or difficult event, according to some studies.
A recurring dream, then, is the brain telling you that you have not processed something properly:
The presence of recurrent dreams has also been associated with lower levels of psychological well-being and the presence of symptoms of anxiety and depression.
These dreams tend to recur during stressful situations and cease when the person has resolved their personal conflict, which indicates improved well-being.
Dreams are often a metaphor of a person’s emotional state, and so an unresolved conflict can, quite literally, come back to haunt you.
Dreaming of a tsunami is common after an event of trauma or abuse, which brings up feelings of helplessness, panic, or fear.
Dreaming of being scantily dressed or fully naked in inappropriate situations can represent scenarios of embarrassment, shame, or loss of power.
Faced with a stressful situation or a new challenge, you might dream about forgetting to prepare for an exam, even years after finishing school.
William Domhoff, an American psychologist, has a concept called the “continuum of repetition” in dreams.
He proposes that moving from an intense level of conflict to a lower level on the continuum of repetition is often a sign that a person’s psychological state is improving.
In other words, as time goes by after a traumatic event, you should have fewer nightmares until your emotional state returns to normal.
It is a little different when it comes to dreams of losing teeth, falling, or flying, though.
These dreams might be a result of something physical happening during sleep, or an experience of external stimuli:
Some authors have proposed that dreams of falling or flying are caused by our vestibular system, which contributes to balance and can reactivate spontaneously during REM sleep.
Similarly, pain from clenching your teeth might make you dream that they are falling out, instead of it being a direct result of anxiety. Although, some argue that clenching your teeth while you sleep is a result of anxiety, anyway.
Lucid dreaming or rewriting the narrative of your recurring dreams are some of the ways that you can get rid of them.
With that, you should be able to make sense of some of your dreams and figure out what it is that you need to focus on resolving in your waking life.
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