Because dreams stem from within your own mind (however much it might feel like they’re happening to you), it’s worth reiterating that they’re part of the natural process of working through life’s events. “Dreams reflect your subconscious mind speaking to you, not literally or linearly, but metaphorically,” says Loewenberg. In the case of recurring dreams, that process is on overdrive, attempting to help you better understand something or to relay something that you may need to address in real life, she says.
“Dreams reflect your subconscious mind speaking to you, not literally or linearly, but metaphorically.” —Lauri Loewenberg, dream analyst
The repetitive nature of a recurring dream helps to turn our focus toward something to which our psyche may really want us to pay attention, says Stephanie Gailing, astrologer, dream guide, and author of The Complete Book of Dreams. While the dream itself often embodies one of the common themes of dreams—like being chased (signaling a pattern of avoidance), crashing your car (reflecting a situation that might spin out of your control), or losing your teeth (speaking to communication difficulties)—it also might reflect something else entirely, depending on how you're interpreting a situation in your life.
Decoding the meaning of your recurring dream
While recurring dreams might happen in a concentrated time period (perhaps immediately following an incident) or repeat themselves in different iterations throughout your life, they tend to reflect your personal interpretation of some event, behavior, or thing happening in the present.
“Dreams are always about the right now,” says Loewenberg. “So, while they can be connected to an issue from your past, they’ll usually only happen if there’s something going on now that feels similar, or if you’re behaving in a certain way now because of an event from your past.” To that end, Loewenberg says to start decoding the meaning of any recurring dream by considering its time frame and what situation or feeling in your waking life might connect.
In certain cases, the real-life circumstance connected to your dream might be immediately obvious. This is often the case for people experiencing a recurring dream that's connected to post-traumatic stress, who are often able to pinpoint elements from that past trauma in the dream, says Gailing. The same goes for those having a recurring dream in which a lost loved one appears, most of which typically occur in the nights just following the loss, she says. Perhaps, in this case, there’s an unresolved relationship for which the dream may be pushing you toward finding closure.
In other cases, a repetitive dream might just have a specific recurring element, says Loewenberg—like, maybe, spiders or fish or even something seemingly mundane like your wallet. To decode the meaning of this repeating element, Loewenberg suggests doing an exercise where you pretend you’re writing a dictionary definition for whatever the thing is, describing its nature and purpose.
“The way you describe it might align with something real in your life,” she says. “For example, if you were to always see your cell phone in dreams, and then try to describe it, you might say, ‘I use this to communicate,’ which could turn your attention toward a communication breakdown happening in your waking life.”
How you might stop a dream from happening on repeat
It’s important to note that there’s nothing inherently dangerous or abnormal about having a recurring dream, says Gailing. And no matter how disturbing or frightening your dream may appear while it’s happening, it’s helpful to remember that a dream is still “a message from you, to you, about you—in order to improve you,” says Loewenberg.
With that in in mind, if you do want to put a recurring dream to rest, it's typically helpful to reach an understanding about the underlying issue or behavioral pattern tied to its presence in the first place, says Gailing. In practice, this might look like confronting the issue head-on—by, say, dealing with a project you sense might go off the rails, or reaching out to a friend with whom you aren't on the best of terms. Or, if you wake up in the middle of the night from the dream, it could look like setting an intention (as you’re aiming to fall back asleep) to work on resolving whatever the issue is the next day, along with a positive affirmation that you’re capable of handling it, says Loewenberg.
Interacting more with an upsetting or scary recurring dream can also, paradoxically, minimize its scariness factor. To practice this, Gailing suggests talking through your dream with a licensed therapist (particularly if it reflects past trauma) and recording details of the dream in a dream journal.
“Just the process of writing down a recurring dream will allow you to be in a deeper relationship with it and more clearly reflect upon it,” Gailing says. “And if you include ancillary factors, like outstanding events of the day or emotions you feel before bed or just upon getting up, you might begin to see a common thread that can help you better understand the dream and figure out its message.” After that point, its power is likely to become much less potent—and may eventually diminish altogether.
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