Well, that last part might not always be the case. Some dreams come back not just once, but again and again.
If you have recurring dreams, you might wonder what they mean and whether your brain is trying to tell you something.
Having the same upsetting dream regularly can even start to stress you out or make it tough to get a good night’s sleep.
Why do these dreams happen? Is it possible to get rid of them? Do they have any significant meaning?
Here’s what we do (and don’t) know about them.
While you probably won’t experience the exact same dream as someone else, some dream themes do remain pretty consistent from person to person.
They may not always feel frightening, but they’re more likely to involve negative or stressful experiences than positive ones.
The most commonly reported themes include:
- being chased or attacked
- being naked
- getting stuck or trapped somewhere
- going back to school
- losing your teeth
- losing your ability to speak
- missing a test
- showing up late for a first day or important occasion
- moving in slow motion or being unable to run
- crashing or losing control of a vehicle
Your dreams may not be completely identical each time.
For example, you might regularly dream about driving on bridges that drop suddenly. This still counts as a recurring dream, even if you don’t drive along the same bridge in every dream.
Since recurring dreams sometimes begin in childhood, they might change a little over time to reflect your changing experiences and worldview.
In fiction, especially fantasy genres, recurring dreams often suggest a character has supernatural powers, the ability to see the future, or other special talents.
Scientific research hasn’t found any evidence to suggest recurring dreams have any deep or significant meaning beyond exposing potential areas of stress in your life. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.
Dreams are notoriously difficult to study, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about them.
Experts believe recurring dreams generally reflect important themes in your life, including:
- unmet needs
- areas of frustration
- issues from the past that you haven’t addressed
You’ve probably had some variant of the “forgetting a final exam or research paper” dream. While very real stress related to final exams and research papers may have triggered this dream initially, it can easily come up again later in life, long after graduation.
Since this dream most likely relates to your desire to succeed and your worries about failing, you might have this dream anytime you face an event that provokes similar feelings. This could be an event like a job interview, a big date, or a research proposal.
Some theories about dreams suggest they help you process day-to-day experiences.
When you face something that poses a threat or keeps you from achieving goals — anything from workplace insecurities to relationship troubles to difficulty making decisions — you might feel frustrated or stressed. That, in turn, can seep into your dreams.
This idea is backed by
A group of 200 adult students were asked to evaluate whether their psychological needs were met or unmet.
These needs included:
- autonomy, or the need to feel like you have at least some control over your life
- competence, or the need to have a meaningful impact on your life
- relatedness, or the need to both care for and be cared for by others
Then, they described the recurring dream they had most often. Researchers asked them to rate how positive or negative the dream was, using terms like “hopeful,” “exciting,” “sad,” or “frustrating.”
Those who reported more unmet needs tended to report negative dream themes and describe their dreams with negative emotions.
Unpleasant or traumatic events from the past often remain in your memory. People often don’t realize, however, that distress associated with trauma can also linger in bodily and emotional responses. These traumatic events can include:
- family conflict
If you’ve experienced trauma or abuse but haven’t fully acknowledged or processed the experience, you might notice recurring dreams that reflect your emotions related to what happened.
Dreams of drowning, for example, might reflect an overwhelming sense of helplessness, while a dream of being trapped or running in slow motion might suggest you still feel unable to escape.
Recurring dreams can also reflect more everyday internal conflicts.
Maybe you’re struggling with an important decision or feel uncertain about a recent choice you made.
Until you make your choice and come to terms with it, you might experience recurring dreams of being lost, failing a test, or otherwise making a mistake.
Have you had any recent dreams about wearing masks or people without mouths? Maybe you keep dreaming about being stranded alone somewhere or of giant insects.
Stress related to current events can show up in your dreams.
If COVID-19 news and updates permeate your waking life, there’s a good chance you’ll experience some of this tension in your dreams, too.
These themes may show up clearly (masks and isolation) or more symbolically (bugs, which your brain might translate to virus), according to dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, PhD, in an interview with The Harvard Gazette.
You’re more likely to experience upsetting dreams when you feel anxious or distressed during the day.
If you feel more worried about the future than usual, that’s perfectly understandable. But you may not be able to ease that fear and tension when you sleep until you take steps to manage it during the day.
If a bad dream upsets you the first time you have it, having it multiple times probably won’t make you feel any better.
You can’t always directly control dream content, but it’s often possible to take more indirect action by working to resolve any problems causing stress in your life.
In therapy, you can:
- identify and explore causes of unwanted emotions
- address their effect on your life
- learn helpful methods of coping with anxiety and stress
It’s generally not possible to eliminate all stress. Changing the way you respond, however, can help reduce any associated frustration and lead to improvements in your mood, your outlook, and your dreams.
Barrett also offers lucid dreaming as a potential strategy for managing unwanted recurring dreams in a 2013 interview with Popular Science.
In a lucid dream, you recognize your dream as just that. Some people use this awareness to control the dream and alter its course.
Others might simply watch the dream as a bystander, knowing that whatever happens, they’re safe, because it’s just a dream.
Interested in lucid dreaming? Try these tips.
Dreams don’t always make a lot of sense, but they can still offer some insight to your emotions and desires.
Recurring themes in your dreams can sometimes provide a key to more concrete issues you’re facing.
Taking the time to explore these challenges, with the help of a professional, can improve your sleep quality and emotional health.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.