Why you keep having recurring dreams and what it means
For years, dreams of my teeth cracking, loosening or falling out plagued my sleep. Some of my loved ones have repeatedly dreamed of flying, rolling away in a self-operating car or running late for school or work. These aren’t typical nightmares, which usually happen once. They’re some of the most common recurring dreams, which tend to lean negatively and can take some work to overcome.
Video above: Here's what your recurring nightmares actually mean
“Recurring dreams are likelier to be about very profound life experiences or just very character logic issues that are kind of guaranteed to recur in waking life because they’re part of you rather than a one-time event,” said dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, a lecturer of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Since our dreams typically don’t repeat themselves, all it takes is dreaming the same dream twice or more for it to be considered recurring, Barrett said. They’re more common in childhood, Barrett said, but can last into adulthood. And recurring dreams don’t always happen in close proximity to each other — they can pop up multiple times per month or years apart, Barrett said.
Recurring dreams might be the same every time, or they might just recycle the same types of scenarios or worries, experts said.
“It is difficult to assess the prevalence of recurrent dreams because it is not something that happens on a regular basis for most people,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, via email. “And when people are asked about past dreams in their life, they may be influenced by memory distortions, interest in dreams (or lack thereof), or other factors.”
Regardless, anything that comes up repeatedly is worth investigating, said sleep medicine specialist Dr. Alex Dimitriu, founder of Silicon Psych, a psychiatry and sleep medicine practice in Menlo Park, California.
“People have this kind of touch-and-go approach with things that are uncomfortable or fear-inducing, and I think dreams are, in some way, the same way,” Dimitriu said. “As a psychiatrist, I’m inclined to say that there is some message that might be trying to be conveyed to you. And the answer, then, might be to figure out what that is. And I think when you do, you might be able to put the thing to rest.”
Here’s how to figure out what’s triggering your recurring dreams.
Meaning of recurring dreams
For some recurring dreams, the message is straightforward — if you repeatedly dream about running late for school or work, you’re probably just often nervous about being unprepared for those things. But others, despite their commonness, might not have a universal meaning, requiring you to do some soul-searching.
“In interpretation, we really don’t believe there are universal symbols, but that (it’s) what an individual’s own sort of personal symbol system is and their associations to something are,” Barrett said.
In addition to unpreparedness, other common themes of recurring dreams include social embarrassment, feelings of inadequacy compared with others, and danger in the form of car crashes or natural disasters, Barrett and Dimitriu said.
Some people have dreams revolving around test anxiety even if they haven’t been in school for years, Barrett said. It can reflect a general fear of failure or a sense of being judged by authority figures. Dreams of tooth loss or damage might have to do with a loss of something else in your life, feelings of hopelessness or defenselessness, or health concerns.
When faced with a recurring dream, ask yourself what the message could be, Dimitriu said. What is your relationship to the things or people in the dream? What are your fears and belief systems about those things? What are the top five things in your life that might be triggering it or related to it? What are you really worried about?
“I definitely think it’s fine to do informal dream interpretation, either on your own or with a close, trusted person who may just sort of see things to question in it that you don’t,” Barrett said.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety are more likely to have recurring dreams, especially ones with anxious natures, Dimitriu said. A PTSD dream stems from trauma so severe it keeps returning as a nightmare.
“The brain is trying to resolve something and lay it to rest,” he added. But “in people with PTSD, their dreams are so vivid that they wake them up from sleep. And that becomes the problem because the dream never gets processed. … And that’s why it recurs — it’s unfinished work.”
Sometimes recurring dreams can point to biological sources, too. “People with sleep apnea will report dreams of, like, drowning, suffocating, giant waves, gasping for air, being underwater or being choked,” Dimitriu said, when they’re actually experiencing breathing interruptions because of their condition.
There can be environmental triggers as well, such as a car alarm down the street or a dripping faucet, he added, which can set off dreams with imagery of those things.
How to cope
Once you have a better sense of what your worries are, writing about them before bed can be helpful to alleviate negative recurring dreams and stress in general.
“For my patients and myself, journaling is such a powerful tool,” Dimitriu said. Meditating could also help.
When you know what fear is behind your dream, Dimitriu recommended processing it via a three-column method used in cognitive behavioral therapy: What is your automatic thought? What’s your automatic feeling? Lastly, what’s the more reality-based alternative thought?
Dream rehearsal therapy, also known as imagery rehearsal therapy, can be effective for both recurring dreams and nightmares. This approach involves writing down in detail the narrative elements of the dream, then rewriting it so it ends positively. Right before falling asleep, you’d set the intention to re-dream by saying aloud, “If or when I have the beginnings of the same bad dream, I will be able to instead have this much better dream with a positive outcome.”
If your recurring dreams are making you stressed or unhappy, causing other symptoms or starting to impair your ability to function on a regular basis, it’s time to seek professional help, experts said.
There could be another reason
Recurring dreams could also stem from poor sleep hygiene, Soffer-Dudek said.
“A lot of awkward things happen in the night when people are sleep deprived, drink caffeine too late, drink alcohol too late, worked too late or slept four hours last night because they stayed up too late,” he said. “The fundamental core and foundation of healthy dream life starts with healthy sleep.”
Dimitriu also recommended limiting distractions that interfere with your time to reflect and process, such as spending unnecessary time on your phone or always filling the silence.
When your mind is always occupied, “what happens is all that processing has to happen somewhere,” he said. “So now there’s more pressure for that to happen in your dream life.”