Why You Have Recurring Dreams And What They Actually Mean

Recurring dreams are likely tied to human emotion; identifying and understanding that emotion can help to stop the recurring dream.

By Brian Scheid | Published

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Every generation of human beings has contemplated the mystery surrounding our nightly dreams. From ancient philosophers to modern-day doctors of Psychiatry have attempted to answer questions about why we have them and what they could possibly mean. The type of dreams we are most curious about are the ones that recur either periodically or sometimes even nightly. In many cases, these dreams can be frightening, and understanding them could help us devise therapeutic solutions to avoid having them all together.

We are lucky enough to live in a time when we have scientifically discovered why we dream while we sleep. Our brains are still at work while we are sleeping, and they are processing all that day’s information so that it gets organized and stored properly so we can recall that information later. That understanding gives us a leg up on almost all our ancestors who had guesses as to why they occurred, but those guesses were often not based on any information but on their culture’s perception. 

What we know about our dreams is that most of them do not recur more than once, and even more frequently, we wake up and don’t recall even having a dream that night. Recurring dreams are more common in childhood but can last into adulthood, and they don’t always happen near each other. Sometimes they can recur years apart, which can cause a person who has had one not to recognize they have had that specific dream before.

The largest hurdle researchers have had is that the retelling of the dream can often be distorted due to their own perception and interpretation of it. The other difficulty is that we all have individual ideas and belief systems, so there is no universal map to guide us about the significance of an object, person, or place. ABC 7 spoke with Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher and psychology lecturer at Harvard’s medical school. She said, “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.”

The experts suggest when you realize you had a recurring dream write it down with as many details as you can remember. You will want to self-assess your dream either solo or with another person you trust. You will want to start with these three questions. What is your automatic thought, what is your automatic feeling, and what’s the more reality-based alternative thought?

Those questions are more than enough to get your ideas flowing and contemplate your current life stressors. This should help you narrow it down to a few possibilities. When you can identify the fear that is the underlying cause of the dream, you could try dream rehearsal theory which can be effective in warding off recurring dreams and nightmares. The process consists of writing down the details and structuring it with a narrative element, but you will rewrite the scary element out of the dream and insert a happy, fun ending.  Then right before bed read it either aloud or silently to yourself.  You would also make a statement to yourself saying something like if I have this dream tonight it will end with this positive outcome instead.

The last piece of advice for warding off recurring dreams is by limiting your use of unnecessary phone time and limiting distractions during your downtime. The more contemplating that you do while you are sitting around, the less work your brain will need to do that night to process the day’s information. That natural process is going to happen, you can help lessen the size of your nightly file download, which can help you skip those stressors since you took care of it while you were awake.