For years, dreams about my teeth cracking, loosening, or falling out disturbed my sleep. My loved ones have repeatedly dreamed of flying, rolling over in a self-driving car, or being late for school or work. This is not an ordinary nightmare, which usually happens once. These are some of the most common recurring dreams, which tend to be negative and require work to overcome.
“Recurrent dreams are more likely to be about very deep lived experiences or just a matter of character logic that are guaranteed to recur in waking life because they are a part of who you are rather than one-time events,” said dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, a psychology lecturer in the department of psychiatry at Harvard. Medical School.
Since our dreams are usually non-recurring, all it takes is dreaming the same dream two or more times for it to be considered recurring, says Barrett. They're more common in childhood, says Barrett, but can last into adulthood. And recurring dreams don't always occur close to one another — they can occur several times per month or years, says Barrett.
Recurring dreams may be the same every time, or they may simply recycle the same types of scenarios or worries, experts say.
“It's difficult to assess the prevalence of recurrent dreams because it's not something that occurs regularly for most people,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek, senior lecturer in the psychology department at Ben-Gurion University. from the Negev in Israel, via email. “And when people are asked about past dreams in their lives, they may be influenced by memory distortions, interest in dreams (or lack thereof), or other factors.”
Anything that pops up repeatedly is worth investigating, says sleep medicine specialist Dr. Alex Dimitriu, founder of Silicon Psych, a psychiatry and sleep medicine practice in Menlo Park, California.
“People have this kind of touch-and-go approach with things that are uncomfortable or generate fear, and I think dreams are, in some ways, the same,” says Dimitriu. “As a psychiatrist, I tend to say that there are a few messages that you might want to get across. And the answer, maybe to figure out what they are. And I think when you do, you might be able to put the thing to rest.”
Here's how to find out what triggers your recurring dreams.
What's in a dream?
For some recurring dreams, the message is direct — if you've been repeatedly dreaming of being late for school or work, you may be nervous about being unprepared for those things. But others, despite their similarities, may not have universal significance, requiring you to do some soul searching to learn more.
“In interpretation, we really don't believe there's a universal symbol, but it's an individual's personal system of symbols and their relationship to things,” Barrett said.
In addition to unpreparedness, other common themes of recurring dreams include social embarrassment, feeling inadequate compared to others, and danger in the form of car crashes or natural disasters, say Barrett and Dimitriu.
Some people have dreams around test anxiety even if they haven't been to school in years, says Barrett. It could reflect a general fear of failure or a feeling of being judged by an authority figure. Dreams of losing or decaying teeth may have to do with losing something else in your life, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, or health problems.
When faced with a recurring dream, ask yourself what the message is, says Dimitriu. What is your relationship with the object or person in the dream? What are your fears and belief systems about those things? What are the top five things in your life that might be triggering or related to it? What are you really worried about?
“I really think it's OK to do some informal dream interpretation, either alone or with a close and trusted person who may just see things to question in it that you don't know about,” says Barrett.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety are more likely to have recurring dreams, especially those of an anxious nature, says Dimitriu. PTSD dreams stem from trauma so severe they keep coming back as nightmares.
“The brain is trying to finish something and rest it,” he adds. But “in people with PTSD, their dreams are so vivid they wake them up from sleep. And that's a problem because those dreams are never processed. … And that's why they get repetitive — it's work unfinished.”
Sometimes recurring dreams can also indicate a biological source. “People with sleep apnea will report dreams, like, drowning, choking, giant waves, gasping for air, being under water or choking,” says Dimitriu, when they actually develop breathing difficulties due to the condition.
There can also be environmental triggers, such as a car alarm on the street or a dripping faucet, he adds, that can trigger dreams with images of those things.
How to solve it
Once you have a better understanding of your worries, writing them down before bed can help reduce recurring negative dreams and stress in general.
“For my patients and myself, journaling is a very powerful tool,” says Dimitriu. Meditation can also help.
When you figure out what fears are behind your dreams, Dimitriu recommends processing them through the three-column method used in cognitive-behavioral therapy: What are your automatic thoughts? What are your automatic feelings? Finally, what is alternative, more reality-based thinking?
Dream training therapy, also known as image training therapy, can be effective for recurring dreams and nightmares. This approach involves writing down in detail the narrative elements of the dream, then rewriting it so that it ends in a positive way. Right before falling asleep, you will set an intention to redream by saying out loud, “If or when I experience the beginning of the same nightmare, I will be able to have this much better dream with a positive outcome.”
If your recurring dreams are making you stressed or unhappy, causing other symptoms, or starting to interfere with your ability to function regularly, it's time to seek professional help, experts say.
There may be other reasons
Recurring dreams can also stem from poor sleep hygiene, says Soffer-Dudek.
“A lot of awkward things happen at night when people don't get enough sleep, drink caffeine too late, drink alcohol too late, work too late or get four hours of sleep a night because they stay up,” he says. “The core and fundamental foundation of a healthy dream life starts with healthy sleep.”
Dimitriu also recommends limiting distractions that interrupt your time to reflect and process, such as spending unnecessary time on your phone or always filling up silence.
When your mind is always busy, “what happens is all of those processes have to happen somewhere,” he says. “So now there's more pressure for that to happen in your dream life.”
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