Chances are you can think of one or more storylines that seem to pop up again and again in your dreams. You might find yourself showing up to work in your underwear or facing a final exam feeling woefully unprepared.
A recurring dream is a specific dream narrative that repeats itself over multiple nights. This type of dream often features negative themes and might be linked to frustration and anxiety in waking life. At least 6 in 10 adults report having recurring dreams.
Although they can be unpleasant, recurring dreams don’t have to disrupt your sleep. Find comfort in understanding why repeating dreams may be occuring and learn strategies for curbing unwanted recurrent dreams.
What Do Recurring Dreams Mean?
While researchers are still trying to understand exactly why people dream, some believe that recurring dreams may be signs of frustration, stress, anxiety, or trauma. Sleepers with seizure disorders may also be more likely to have recurring dreams.
For thousands of years, people have tried to find the hidden meaning behind their dreams, often attaching a spiritual significance to them. In the early twentieth century, psychologists such as Sigmund Freud developed new theories for interpreting dreams. However, these theories have been largely replaced by modern research.
Recent evidence points to dreams helping people process their emotions. Most recurrent dreams depict disturbing experiences or involve unpleasant emotions. Negative recurring dreams may reflect a variety of daytime struggles.
Having troublesome recurring dreams may be a sign that your needs are not being met or that you’re feeling frustrated with something in your daily life.
Some psychologists believe that meeting three basic intellectual needs are required to flourish in life:
- Autonomy, or the need to feel in control of your decisions and goals
- Competence, or the need to feel capable of achieving your goals
- Relatedness, or the need to feel connected with the people around you
When these needs are satisfied, it’s easier to feel energetic and engaged in day-to-day life. But when one or more of these needs goes unsatisfied or is actively undermined, a person may feel frustrated and unhappy. Studies show these feelings can influence the emotions in a person’s dreams and may lead to repeating themes.
A well-known relationship exists between anxiety and sleep. Persistent anxiety can cause continual sleep disturbances, including trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
Anxiety and stress can also find their way into your dreams. If you are going through a particularly tense period in life, you may have more frequent nightmares and dreams with negative narratives.
Like nightmares, recurring dreams tend to feature disturbing situations and emotions. It stands to reason that general anxiety and stress could also trigger recurring dreams. Further research may reveal whether, and to what extent, anxiety contributes to recurring dreams.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Repeatedly dreaming about a past traumatic event is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a complex mental health condition that occurs in some people after experiencing a dangerous, frightening, or shocking incident.
People with PTSD often experience symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and avoidance of people or situations that remind them of their trauma. They also have re-experiencing symptoms, which are unwanted memories or thoughts related to the traumatic event.
One of the most common re-experiencing symptoms is nightmares. Up to 72% of people with PTSD have recurring nightmares about their trauma.
In contrast, children with PTSD are less likely to have recurring dreams that include content which is specifically related to the traumatic event. Instead, they may have nightmares that feature other scary or upsetting themes and sensations.
A less common cause of recurring dreams is epilepsy. Epilepsy is a general term for a number of neurological disorders that cause seizures in about 1% of the U.S. population. Seizure disorders impact normal brain activity and can also have a strong effect on sleep and dreaming.
People with epilepsy commonly have dreams about their seizure symptoms. Subjects in one study described dreams about previous seizures accompanied by a feeling of déjà vu. Researchers believe that these recurring dreams may stem from how epilepsy affects a person’s daytime experiences and mood.
Other factors such as anti-seizure medications and co-occurring symptoms like depression may also influence dreaming in people with epilepsy. More research is needed to explore the link between epilepsy and recurring dreams.
Common Recurring Dreams
Just like sleep, dreaming is a universal experience. You typically spend two hours dreaming at night. While you may not remember every dream you have, you can likely recall a few of the topics and narratives that make up your dreams.
Recurring dreams can begin in childhood and often have a negative undertone. Every episode of a recurring dream can be a little different, but the subjects, storylines, and associated feelings may repeat.
For children and teens, recurring dream topics might include:
- Confronting a monster or animal
- Threats of attack or kidnapping
- Being chased
- Car accidents
- Injury or illness
- Home invasion
- Being late or getting lost
- Getting stuck or trapped
For adults, recurring dreams may involve subjects such as:
- Being attacked or chased
- Being frozen with fear
- Being late
- Being locked up
- Failing an exam
- Being inappropriately dressed
- Being smothered
The contents of recurring dreams can be similar between childhood and adulthood. However, as people mature, so do their dreams. For example, both children and adults have recurring dreams of being chased. But while children tend to dream about being pursued by a monster or wild animal, adults usually dream about being chased by another person.
Many people also have recurring dreams of losing their teeth. Unlike with other recurring dreams, research suggests that stress, anxiety, or negative moods may not be to blame for this type of dream. Instead, it may be related to tension in the teeth or jaw while a person is sleeping.
How to Stop Recurring Dreams
Occasional bad dreams and nightmares are normal for both children and adults. But frequent, repeating nightmares can wake you up at night, fragmenting your sleep and interfering with your daily life.
It’s hard to overstate just how important sleep is for your overall well-being. Several proven strategies may help you curb unpleasant recurring dreams and get better sleep.
- Work with a therapist: For people with persistent, recurring nightmares, therapy can help identify and address any underlying causes such as PTSD or anxiety. A therapist may also recommend specific techniques for relieving the frequency of nightmares.
- Consider your medications: Certain medications may trigger frequent nightmares. If you find yourself experiencing recurrent nightmares after starting a new prescription, speak with your doctor about adjusting your dose or finding alternatives. Don’t adjust or discontinue any medications before consulting your physician.
- Improve sleep hygiene: Implementing good sleep hygiene practices can help reduce how often you have bad dreams. Start by avoiding large meals, alcohol, caffeine, and exercise close to bedtime. Keeping your bedroom cool and quiet, establishing a relaxing bedtime routine, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule may also help.
- Reduce stress: Find healthy outlets for coping with life’s stressors. Take breaks from scrolling through the news and social media. Get regular exercise. Experiment with deep breathing, stretching, or meditation. Make room in your schedule for your favorite hobbies and spending time with your loved ones.
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