It’s 7:59 a.m., and you have less than a minute to get to the other side of Hall A for your Psych 101 exam, but you can’t sprint fast enough. You never do. You’ve had this dream before.
Not getting somewhere in time is just one prevalent theme in recurring dreams (or nightmares). If it’s not being late for class, it’s being chased, or showing up naked. In a study published recently in The Conversation, researchers Claudia Picard-Deland and Tore Nielsen of the University of Montreal found that recurring dreams may be metaphors for unresolved conflicts, which can also help us regulate emotions and stress. Some of them can even keep repeating for your entire life.
Sometimes, the dreams you dread may actually be your subconscious coping mechanism for getting through a stressful situation. Dreams and neurobiological functions are not mutually exclusive. There are some situations which your brain can process best in your sleep, and if you find yourself in a vicious cycle of stress, you might be seeing the same thing repeatedly because some neural systems are trying to give you a form of therapy. This is no substitute for an actual therapist, but REM sleep could have something to do with making sense of emotions.
There are recurrent dream themes tied to every type of stress you experience during waking hours. Not everyone sees the same types of scenes even with the same experiences, but some are particularly common. Naked in front of an entire auditorium? You might have endured something majorly embarrassing. Being unprepared for that exam years after you graduated college (and passed Psych 101) is a way of confronting new stresses. Dreaming of a tsunami can be metaphorical for the type of psychological destruction caused by abuse and trauma.
Recurring nightmares are another beast. Not all recurring dreams have direct interpretations, especially when they are linked to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Many times, the actual stressors that trigger these dreams are so deeply buried in metaphor that it may be difficult to interpret them as representing a particular aspect of trauma. There is a minority of people who suffer from chronic recurring nightmares. While their dreams may not always be the same, there are themes that keep coming up in a way that is similar to other recurring dreams.
Sometimes, nightmares that are on constant playback are the brain’s way of recreating a traumatic event. This is seen by many psychologists as a symptom of PTSD.
Even in non-traumatic dreams, themes tend to repeat themselves in many individuals. Picard-Deland and Nielsen believe that humans possibly evolved to preserve certain “premade” dreams that acted as a primitive virtual reality system and simulated threatening situations so people would know how to react if they actually did run into a saber-tooth tiger. There are also things we unknowingly do in our sleep — like clench our teeth — that bring on the same dreams night after night. When asleep, we are still aware of some physiological phenomena.
It explains that scene in The Simpsons where Bart had to go to the bathroom so badly he kept dreaming of rivers and lakes and water in general, until he finally woke up and ran there.
Dreams that keep coming back to haunt you are not always repeated exactly like a scene in a movie. Sometimes the content changes, but the situation is always the same. If you’re not late for a test, then you forgot to go to class for a day, a week, sometimes an entire semester. In other dreams, the content changes, but the elements that represent emotional concerns are always there in some form or another. There is one thing all recurring dreams do have in common: As they become less frequent, that indicates an improvement in the dreamer’s psychological state.
If you’re seeing the same dream visions often, think about what is stressing you out — and please remember there is no shame in getting therapy to help deal with it.