You’re not the only one who keeps having that “falling” dream.
A familiar moment: You sit straight up in bed after having a nightmare—the nightmare you’ve been having night after night lately. You’re clammy, jarred, and understandably upset. And you don’t understand why you’ve been having the same dream over and over again. Recurring dreams are a natural, and at times, distressing, part of the sleep experience. But what are they—and is there any way to prevent them from happening? Dreams are still a notoriously hard-to-understand phenomenon, but here’s what current sleep experts and the research tell us about recurring dreams.
What Are Recurring Dreams?
“Recurring dreams are dreams that a person experiences repeatedly over time,” says Paula Freedman, PsyD. “There isn’t a set frequency to classify a dream as recurring, but if someone perceives they are having the same or a very similar dream multiple times, then it can be considered recurring,”
According to an October 2023 study from Amerisleep, the most common subjects of recurring dreams involve falling, being chased, and being back in school. The Sleep Foundation reports that between 60 and 75 percent of Americans experience recurring dreams.
“They can be identical each time or have slight variations," Freedman says. “Sometimes the content or storyline of the dream differs, but can have recurring themes.”
This explains why you might not have the same exact dream about being back in school, but the general idea is always there (i.e. you’re not allowed to graduate, or you’re taking a test as an adult).
Common Themes of Recurring Dreams
Freedman says people have recurring dreams about various things, but the most common ones include:
Being undressed in public (or in a similarly embarrassing or vulnerable situation)
Losing a loved one
Dreaming about death
What Causes Recurring Dreams?
Recurring dreams can happen for any number of different reasons. For instance, unresolved issues, including unaddressed emotions or experiences in a person’s life, can contribute to a recurring dream.
“For example, if a person feels guilty about something or is worried about a particular relationship they have, this can manifest in their dreams,” Freedman says. “Certain traumatic events may also contribute to recurring dreams, such as car accidents, natural disasters, experiences of abuse, or interpersonal violence.”
She goes on to list other reasons that recurring dreams may take place—they include fears or anxieties, or simply exposure to certain content (such as regularly watching a certain TV show before bed or having similar conversations or routines during the day). These types of dreams can sometimes occur when someone has been avoiding a particular issue, task, interaction, or emotion—or on the flip side, if they've been spending a lot of time or energy on a particular issue, person, task, or emotion.
What Do Recurring Dreams Mean?
Even though Sigmund Freud claimed to be able to analyze dreams, Freedman says that there’s no universal, guaranteed way to “correctly” analyze a recurring dream.
“At best, we can speculate on what a particular dream, or set of recurring dreams, means, and if an interpretation resonates for someone in a way that is helpful, that’s great,” she says. “While some people believe their dreams reflect unresolved emotions or ongoing life situations, the specifics can only be determined by examining the dream's details and the dreamer's context. It could be the individual’s way of signaling that it’s time to work through a trauma or process that’s holding them back.”
Freedman also points out that a recurring dream could also mean absolutely nothing. “Sometimes, dreams are just random bits of information getting processed from things you’ve heard on the radio, seen in media, or encountered throughout the day that really don’t have a deeper meaning at all,” she says. “Dreams are a natural part of most people’s experience, and while recurring dreams can be distressing, they are sometimes random, and other times just our subconscious mind’s way of telling us we need to process something in our lives."
Can You Prevent Recurring Dreams?
If any event in your life is causing you to experience distress, through recurring dreams or anything else, Freedman advises seeking the help of a mental health professional.
“If your dreams are signaling that you may be avoiding certain emotions, situations, or topics, therapy can help the individual address those topics while you are awake so that perhaps they will not plague the person while sleeping,” she says.
Additionally, she recommends dream journaling. “Dream journaling can help identify whether a recurring dream might continue popping up and help the individual make sense of the themes and details involved,” she says.
By keeping a log of the occurrence of a dream, the content of it, and recent events in your life that might provide some context, you can start to make connections and possibly even identify what’s triggering them.
If you wake up suddenly from a recurring dream that’s distressing in nature, Freedman suggests that it can be helpful to “complete the story” with a peaceful or positive ending by imagining in your mind how you want the story to end before falling back asleep.
For more Real Simple news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read the original article on Real Simple.