I’ve had nightmares about every scary object or situation imaginable. They run the gamut from terrifying monsters to nerve-wracking social blunders like showing up to work naked. Up until recently, I never thought about their connection until I realized there are certain characteristics that pop up in each one—when I try to scream, nothing comes out; when I punch or kick, there’s no force behind it. Regardless of the dream’s content, I’m powerless in the same way.
Though the nightmarish aspects of my dreams differ, they’re still considered recurring dreams because of the consistent similarities. Many people experience recurring dreams throughout their lives, often rehashing the same subjects, facing off against a familiar figure, or running from a chronic concern. And as it turns out, they won’t go away until we wake up to the lessons they’re trying to teach us.
The Reasons for Recurrence
It’s almost impossible to have the exact same dream twice since our brains draw from daily events to create nighttime visions. However, the same images can repeat themselves in various dreams over a period of days or even years. Our dreams are filled with symbols chosen by the subconscious to send us messages. When we’re bombarded with the same ones over and over, that’s the brain’s way of making sure we pay attention and try to figure out what their recurrence really means.
These types of dreams happen because there’s something that we’re not dealing with, such as a traumatic event, insecurity, or anxiety. We push it to the back of our heads to avoid confronting whatever stresses us out, but our brains don’t like unfinished business. Instead, they want us to cope and release the unpleasantness. Every time the stressor comes up in our daily lives—feeling doubtful about a particular skill or being reminded of a tragedy from the past, for example—the subconscious nags us with whatever symbol it chooses to express that weakness or fear. And since most of us have at least one thing that worries us or challenges our confidence, recurring dreams are extremely common.
Pinpointing the Common Symbols
So now that we know that there’s a reason why we constantly dream about certain things, the tricky part is figuring out what’s eating at us internally and causing the repetition. Recurring dreams are usually nightmares because they tend to stick in our memories; the resulting fear and panic grabs our attention and often stays with us after waking. While the form that the symbols take vary based on individual experiences, there are a few circumstances that come up often:
- Being chased
- Perception of falling
- Nudity in public
- Losing teeth
- Losing one’s voice or strength
- Unprepared for something important (a test, a work meeting, etc.)
- Back in school and doing poorly
- Drowning or suffocating
- Being paralyzed or held down
- Losing control of a vehicle
These occurrences can allude to what we’re battling inside. If you dream about someone or something chasing you, it could mean that you have a problem running away or avoiding issues. Being unprepared for work or class points to insecurities about one’s aptitude for success in life. When I first learned to drive, I used to regularly dream about running red lights, or going too fast and spinning out of control. By dreaming about it so often, my brain was forcing me to acknowledge my fear about driving and emphasize the importance of being safe behind the wheel. Because I kept having the same night visions, it was impossible to ignore the messages my brain was trying to send me.
A Change Would Do Us Good
Recurring dreams are often unpleasant and leave us feeling shaken—not exactly the best way to start a day. And who wants to waste what could be a peaceful slumber on anxiety-ridden images? The only way to rid ourselves of the recurrence is to figure out what our subconscious is trying to convey. Starting a dream journal is the first step. Keeping careful record of what happens in the dreams, including images that stand out or how you feel while it’s happening, will help you recognize patterns and get that much closer to unveiling the subtle meaning.
Looking for similarities between your waking life and the recurring dreams also provides important insight. For example, dreams in which I can’t speak or can’t physically defend myself seem to occur when I feel like I can’t stand up for myself in real life. Whenever I have dreams involving that particular kind of helplessness, it’s a reminder that I need to be stronger and more confident. However, coming to that realization and actually doing something with it are two very different things.
The hardest part of overcoming recurring dreams isn’t realizing the message behind them, but making the necessary changes in real life—gaining courage, eradicating reckless behavior, etc.—that cause the dreams. Those types of changes are difficult and take a great deal of time and introspection, but unless we learn to implement them in our lives, we can look forward to nighttime reruns of shadowy figures, speechlessness, and suffocation for years to come.
Updated July 20, 2009