Although not overly common, recurring dreams have their place in our cultural vocabulary. Most commonly used as tropes in film and television—generally seen as premonitions of events to come— recurring dreams can get a bad (and scary: hello, Nightmare on Elm Street) rap.
But in reality, recurring dreams tell us more about our past than the future. “It’s during REM sleep when most of our dreaming takes place,” says sleep psychologist Katherine Hall. “Dreaming is normal, especially when we have something on our mind.” It is when dreams turn to nightmares that we need to worry; not because Freddy Kreuger is coming to get us, but because frequent nightmares and recurring dreams can severely impact our quality of sleep.
Why Do They Happen?
“Dreams have always been an enigma,” says Dr. Hall, who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). “Even after decades of research, the science isn’t yet sold on the exact reason as to why we dream. What we do know, however, is that there are patterns, and that recurring dreams generally reflect important issues in our lives.”
Dr. Hall explains that though not necessarily always frightening, recurring dreams tend to involve more negative experiences and themes than positive ones. To add to the mystique of dreams, certain themes show up more than others in terms of recurring dreams— think flying, falling, being chased, or getting trapped. Sound stressful? There’s a reason for that.
What Do They Mean?
“Recurring dreams seem to indicate the presence of stress or worries in one’s life and in many cases can stem from unresolved past traumas,” says Dr. Hall. “However, recurring dreams can also seem to ‘appear’ which is usually a sign of more short term issues such as a career change or family conflicts.”
What Can Be Done About Them?
Although we can’t control our dreams (unless we’re talking about lucid dreaming), we can control how we cope with stress. Resolving issues in your personal life, working with a therapist, or finding a new job are all difficult steps to take, but identifying the stressors and working to overcome them will both improve your overall well being and help eliminate those recurring dreams.
Katherine Hall is a sleep psychologist with 13 years of clinical experience. She primarily specializes in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). You can find her at Somnus Therapy, an online sleep therapy program to help those suffering from sleep problems.
Featured image: @theoriginaljcg