For years, I experienced distressing dreams where my teeth would crack, become loose, or even fall out while I slept. Similarly, some of my loved ones frequently dreamt of soaring through the sky, riding in self-driving cars, or rushing to school or work, always running behind schedule. These dreams aren’t your typical nightmares that occur once and fade away. They are among the most common recurring dreams, often carrying negative connotations and requiring some effort to overcome.
According to Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher and lecturer of psychology in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, recurring dreams are more likely to revolve around profound life experiences or deep-seated issues that persistently manifest in our waking lives. They become a part of our being rather than being limited to a one-time event.
According to Barrett, our dreams typically do not repeat themselves. However, if we happen to have the same dream more than once, it qualifies as a recurring dream. While recurring dreams are more common during childhood, they can persist into adulthood. It’s worth noting that recurring dreams do not necessarily occur closely together in time. They can resurface multiple times within a month or even years apart, as explained by Barrett.
Experts suggest that recurring dreams may either consist of identical content each time they occur or revolve around similar scenarios or concerns, repeating familiar patterns. Assessing the prevalence of recurring dreams is challenging since it is not a regular occurrence for most individuals. Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, mentioned via email that when people are asked about their past dreams, their responses may be influenced by memory distortions, personal interest in dreams, or other influencing factors.
Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a sleep medicine specialist and the founder of Silicon Psych, a psychiatry and sleep medicine practice in Menlo Park, California, emphasizes that regardless of the nature of recurring dreams, anything that occurs repeatedly is worth exploring and investigating. It is important to pay attention to these patterns and delve deeper into their potential meanings and implications. By doing so, valuable insights and understanding can be gained.
According to Dr. Alex Dimitriu, who specializes in sleep medicine, people tend to have a tendency to avoid or ignore things that make them uncomfortable or elicit fear. He believes that dreams function in a similar manner. As a psychiatrist, Dimitriu suggests that recurring dreams may carry a message that is attempting to be conveyed to the dreamer. By unraveling and understanding this message, one may find a resolution or closure regarding the underlying issue. By actively exploring the meaning behind the recurring dream, it is possible to gain insights that can help put the matter to rest.
Meaning of Recurring Dreams
While some recurring dreams have straightforward meanings, such as feeling nervous about being unprepared for school or work when dreaming about running late, others may require introspection and soul-searching due to their lack of universal interpretations.
According to Barrett, dream interpretation does not rely on universal symbols, but rather on an individual’s personal symbol system and associations. Recurring dreams often encompass themes like unpreparedness, social embarrassment, feelings of inadequacy compared to others, and encountering danger in the form of car accidents or natural disasters, as mentioned by both Barrett and Dimitriu.
For instance, individuals may experience test anxiety dreams even if they have been out of school for years, reflecting a fear of failure or the perception of being judged by authority figures. Dreams involving tooth loss or damage may be symbolic of other losses in life, feelings of hopelessness or vulnerability, or health concerns.
When confronted with a recurring dream, Dimitriu suggests asking oneself about the potential message behind it. Explore your relationship with the elements or people in the dream, examine your fears and belief systems regarding those aspects, identify any triggers or relevant factors in your life, and contemplate your underlying worries.
Barrett also encourages informal dream interpretation either independently or with a trusted confidant who can help identify aspects to question that may not be apparent to you.
According to Dimitriu, individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety are more prone to experiencing recurring dreams, particularly those with anxious themes. In the case of PTSD, the dreams often stem from a traumatic event that was so severe that it continues to manifest as a recurring nightmare.
Dimitriu explains that the purpose of these dreams is for the brain to resolve and process the traumatic experience, ultimately finding a resolution. However, in individuals with PTSD, the dreams are exceptionally vivid to the point of waking them up from sleep. This becomes problematic because the dream is never fully processed, leading to its recurrence. Essentially, it is unfinished work that the brain needs to address.
Sometimes, recurring dreams can also have biological origins. For example, individuals with sleep apnea may report dreams related to suffocation, drowning, or struggling for breath. These dreams reflect the interruptions in breathing caused by their condition.
Additionally, environmental triggers can influence the content of recurring dreams. External factors like a car alarm in the vicinity or the sound of a dripping faucet can incorporate related imagery into one’s dreams, demonstrating the impact of environmental stimuli on dream experiences.
How to Cope
After identifying the underlying worries, practicing specific techniques before bedtime can help reduce negative recurring dreams and overall stress. Journaling, as emphasized by Dimitriu, is a powerful tool for both his patients and himself. Writing down thoughts and concerns before sleep can offer a sense of release and relief. Additionally, incorporating meditation into the bedtime routine can be beneficial.
When the fear behind a recurring dream is clearly understood, Dimitriu suggests utilizing a three-column method inspired by cognitive behavioral therapy. This method involves recognizing the automatic thought and corresponding feeling, and then developing a more realistic alternative thought.
Dream rehearsal therapy, also known as imagery rehearsal therapy, can be effective in addressing recurring dreams and nightmares. The process involves meticulously describing the narrative elements of the dream and rewriting it with a positive outcome. Just before falling asleep, one sets the intention to dream the revised version by affirming aloud, “If or when I experience the initial stages of the same distressing dream, I will instead have this much better dream with a positive outcome.”
However, if recurring dreams cause significant stress, unhappiness, accompanying symptoms, or impair daily functioning, seeking professional assistance is advisable. Consulting with a healthcare professional or therapist can provide valuable support and guidance in addressing the issue. It is important to recognize that recurring dreams may have underlying reasons beyond personal interpretation, requiring professional attention.
There Could be Another Reason
Soffer-Dudek points out that recurring dreams can also be linked to poor sleep hygiene.
According to Dimitriu, various awkward experiences can occur during the night when individuals are sleep-deprived, consume caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime, work late, or have insufficient sleep due to staying up late. He emphasizes that the foundation for a healthy dream life lies in maintaining healthy sleep habits.
Dimitriu also suggests limiting distractions that hinder reflection and processing time, such as excessive phone use or constant avoidance of silence. When the mind is consistently occupied, there is increased pressure for processing to occur within the dream realm.
In essence, ensuring adequate sleep, managing distractions, and creating space for reflection and processing can contribute to a healthier dream life.