While some recurring dreams are simply annoying, others are downright terrifying, taking you back again and again to a place you fear or a situation you dread. In order to stop these unique types of nightmares from re-materializing, you'll need to get to the root of why they're happening in the first place—and what your own mind is trying to tell you.
Below, you'll find intel from dream experts on the psychological meaning of recurring dreams, common themes in repetitive dreams, and dream analysis techniques you can use to decode the message behind *your* recurring dream and put it to rest.
What does it mean if I keep having the same dream over and over?
The meaning of recurring dreams is often linked to an unresolved point of conflict or tension, or an unhelpful behavioral pattern in the person's waking life, says dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg, author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life.
That might sound especially ominous, but it's important to remember that dreams stem from within your own subconscious mind... meaning, you do wield some control over them, even if it's less control than you have over your conscious thoughts.
It’s also worth reiterating that dreams are a part of the natural process of working through life’s events. Some of those events just take, well, a little more processing than others (hence a recurring dream's repetition).
“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 relay something that you may need to address imminently in real life, she says.
Can recurring nightmares be a sign of trauma or stress?
The short answer: Yes. 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 astrologer and dream interpreter Stephanie Gailing, author of The Complete Book of Dreams. While that may certainly be an unresolved conflict, in the case of a repeating nightmare, it can also be an untreated psychological or mental health issue.
Research shows that complex trauma1, stress2, and anxiety3 are all closely linked to sleep disturbances, nightmares, and recurring dreams. A high stress level, in particular, can affect sleep quality—and in turn, dream quality—in several ways: It can cause you to wake up more often throughout the night and struggle to fall back asleep (which can increase your likelihood of recalling a bad dream4), and it can lead you to spend longer periods of the night in the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage5, which is when most vivid dreaming occurs, thus upping your chances of having and remembering a bad recurring dream.
Are there common themes in recurring dreams for most people?
While we all lead vastly different lives and experience things through a unique lens, there are commonalities in the ways we experience recurring dreams. Some of the most common themes in recurring dreams include:
- Falling or flying
- All of your teeth falling out
- Being late to class or missing a test
- Being naked in public
- Getting cheated on
- Failing a class
- Getting fired
- Getting in a car accident
- Getting attacked and not being able to fight off the attacker or scream
But while the content of a recurring dream will often embody one of these common themes of dreams, your particular dream might also reflect something else entirely, depending on how you're interpreting a situation in your life.
Interpreting recurring dreams
Recurring dreams can happen in a concentrated time period (perhaps immediately following an emotional or traumatic incident) or repeat themselves in different iterations throughout your life, but it's important to note that they will always 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 suggests decoding the meaning of any recurring dream by considering its time frame and what situation or feeling in your current waking life might connect. The best way to do that? Use the common dream analysis technique of dream journaling: Log the details of your recurring dream in a journal immediately upon waking, each time it happens, so as not to forget key moments or symbols.
In certain cases, the real-life circumstance connected to your dream might be immediately obvious (cue: nightmares from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic). This is often the case for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who are experiencing repetitive stress dreams: "They can typically pinpoint elements from that past trauma in the dream," says Gailing. (For example, maybe the dream keeps occurring in the same place where a traumatic event occurred.)
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, says Gailing. Perhaps, in this case, there’s an unresolved relationship for which the dream may be pushing you toward finding closure.
How can I interpret the meaning of symbols in my recurring dreams?
A repetitive dream might have a specific recurring element or symbol, says Loewenberg—such as spiders, or fish, or even something seemingly mundane, like your wallet. That thing can also be a person: Maybe you repeatedly dream about your ex or a stern teacher from your elementary school days.
The best way to interpret this repeating symbol, person, character, or other element is first to record all aspects of it that you can remember each time you wake up from a new version of the dream, including the emotional context of the interaction(s) you had with it (or them) in the dream.
From there, Loewenberg says you can begin decoding its meaning with a dream analysis technique 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,” says Loewenberg. “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 to stop a dream from happening on repeat
If you find yourself dreaming of the same things repeatedly, know that you shouldn't be wishing you didn't dream at all. 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. (That's to say, it's not out to get you.)
With that 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, and giving yourself 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, again, recording all the details of the dream in a dream journal each time it happens.
“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,” says Gailing. “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 ultimately diminish altogether. From there, you can reclaim your nights. Up first on that agenda? Learning how to have good dreams instead.
- Hartmann, E. “Nightmare after trauma as paradigm for all dreams: a new approach to the nature and functions of dreaming.” Psychiatry vol. 61,3 (1998): 223-38. doi:10.1080/00332747.1998.11024834
- Kim, Eui-Joong, and Joel E Dimsdale. “The effect of psychosocial stress on sleep: a review of polysomnographic evidence.” Behavioral sleep medicine vol. 5,4 (2007): 256-78. doi:10.1080/15402000701557383
- Nadorff, Michael R et al. “Bad dream frequency in older adults with generalized anxiety disorder: prevalence, correlates, and effect of cognitive behavioral treatment for anxiety.” Behavioral sleep medicine vol. 12,1 (2014): 28-40. doi:10.1080/15402002.2012.755125
- Li, Shirley Xin et al. “Prevalence and correlates of frequent nightmares: a community-based 2-phase study.” Sleep vol. 33,6 (2010): 774-80. doi:10.1093/sleep/33.6.774
- Suchecki, Deborah et al. “REM Sleep Rebound as an Adaptive Response to Stressful Situations.” Frontiers in neurology vol. 3 41. 2 Apr. 2012, doi:10.3389/fneur.2012.00041
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