Why Do Some Dreams Recur?

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Most dreams contain messages that serve to teach you something about yourself. However, soon after you wake up to go about your daily routine, you tend to quickly forget what you dream about. The message in recurring dreams may be so important and/or powerful that it refuses to go away. The frequent repetition of such dreams forces you to pay attention and confront the dream. It is desperately trying to tell you something.  Such dreams are often nightmarish or frightening in their content, which also helps you to take notice and pay attention to them.
Recurring dreams are quite common and are often triggered by a certain life situation, transitional phase in life or a problem that keeps coming back again and again. These dreams may recur daily, once a week, or once a month. Whatever the frequency, there is little variation in the dream content itself. Such dreams may be highlighting a personal weakness, fear, or your inability to cope with something in your life – past or present.

Why Do Some Dreams Recur?
Why Do Some Dreams Recur?
The repetitive patterns in your dream reveal some of the most valuable information about yourself. It may point to a conflict, situation or matter in your waking life that remains unresolved or unsettled. Some urgent underlying message in your unconscious is demanding to be understood.

You suddenly realize that your final exam starts in five minutes—but you have not even begun to study! Not to mention, the exam takes place on the other side of campus! You hurry to gather all your materials and start racing through the hallways. But every corridor is crammed with students, the clock is ticking, and the doors are locked! Now you’ll fail for sure …

This is a common example of a recurrent dream that an individual may experience, perhaps during times of stress or change, or even throughout their life. Recurrent dreams are often comprised of typical dream themes, (click here to learn more). What differs about recurrent dreams is that they are experienced frequently and repetitively in one individual’s life, whereas typical dream themes refer to the universal or inter-individual commonness of dream themes.

Recurrent dreams occur in between 60% and 75% of adults, and more often in women than men (Zadra, 1996). The common themes include: being attacked or chased, falling, being stuck, being late, missing or failing an exam, and even losing control of a car. Theoretically, recurrent dreams are assumed to reveal the presence of unresolved conflicts or stressors in an individual’s life. This is corroborated by findings that recurrent dreams are usually accompanied by negative dream content, and that they are associated with lower psychological well-being (Zadra et al., 1996).

However, even negative recurrent dreams are not necessarily maladaptive. Recent research actually suggests that, for students, dreams of failing an exam can be correlated with better performance on the test. Researchers collected dream reports from medical students on several nights preceding a major exam and found that dreams concerning the exam on the night before, or multiple nights before, predicted proportionally higher scores, even though the dreams generally were negative and ended poorly (Arnulf et al 2014). These results could be interpreted as showing that dreaming of the exam, even negatively, reflects a stronger desire and motivation to succeed. Further, the dream could even work towards consolidation of memory traces relevant to the learning material, similar to prior findings that dreaming of a learning task is associated with improved performance (Wamsley et al 2010). Thus, negative recurrent dreams may still serve an adaptive function.

Recurrent dream themes often start at a young age, but can begin at any time, and persist for the rest of one’s life. The theme of missing an exam, to take one example, commonly begins during college years, when the stress of performing well may be more intense than ever before. However, this theme may then carry forward as a recurring dream for many years, even as one moves on to a career. The “missing the exam” dream may reappear the night before an important job interview or an evaluation at work. The circumstances may change, but the same feelings of stress, and the desire to perform well, can trigger the relevant recurrent dream.

Theorists suggest that these themes may be considered “scripts” (Spoormaker, 2008) or perhaps “complexes” (Freud 1950); as soon as your dream touches any aspect of the theme, the full script unfolds in completion. Dream theorists generally agree that recurring dreams are connected to unresolved problems in the life of the dreamer. In a previous post I discussed the idea that dreams often portray a Central Image, a powerful dream image that contextualizes a certain emotion or conflict for the dreamer. The Tidal Wave dream is an example of a Central Image that represents overwhelming emotions such as helplessness and fear. The Tidal Wave dream is a common dream to experience following trauma or abuse, and often becomes a recurrent theme that reflects a person’s struggling with integrating and accepting the trauma. Resolution of this theme over time is a good sign that the trauma has been confronted and adaptively integrated in the psyche. Empirical research has also supported findings that resolution of a recurrent dream is associated with improved well-being (Zadra, 1996). This is one way that keeping track of your dreams can be extremely informative and helpful in a therapeutic, or even self-help, process.

However, even if recurrent dreams are vanquished for a certain time, they will sometimes return again during a new period of stress. One subject in our lab reported a recurrent dream of being unable to speak, a common theme that might involve teeth falling out or lips being glued shut. The Central Image captures a sensation of being unable to speak and may reflect shyness or difficulty expressing oneself. In this case, the subject had this recurrent dream many times as an adolescent, though the dream disappeared during college, presumably after having overcome this challenge. However, after moving to another country and having to learn a new language, the dream came back. While the original conflict of shyness had been overcome, the new situation of communicating in a foreign language triggered the same “script” of being unable to speak. Thus are old scripts sometimes revived in new, different times of stress.

In general, recurring dreams indicate the presence of an unresolved and persistent conflict in an individual’s life, and the theme or Central Image of the dream provides a stage for this conflict to play out. The cessation of a recurrent dream may indicate that the conflict has been successfully resolved. Thus, being aware of and working with recurring dreams in your personal life or in therapy is a useful tool for resolving conflicts and improving well-being.

Overcoming Recurring Dreams

Following are some tips to help you in overcoming your recurring dreams.
  1. To start to understand your recurring dream, you must be willing to accept some sort of change or undergo a transformation.
  2. You need to look within yourself and confront whatever you may find no matter how difficult it may be.
  3. Look at the dream from an objective point of view. Try to get pass the emotional and reactive elements of the dream and get down to the symbolic images. Often times, dreams are masked by elements that are disturbing, thus preventing you to delve any deeper. This is a  defense mechanism that your unconscious is putting up.
  4. Each and every time you have a recurring dream, write it down in great detail. Look for any subtle variations. These variations are the most significant as it indicates that you are one step closer to understanding why the dream recurs. 
  5. Pay attention to what is going on in your waking life when you have these recurring dreams. You may start to notice a pattern.
  6. Be patient. Do not get discourage if these dreams still recur even after you thought you have come to understand them.
  7. Learn to accept yourself truly and fully. 
Once you discover what your recurring dream is trying to tell you, these dreams will change or altogether disappear.

…or more Why Do Some Dreams Recur?

Have you ever felt like you were having déjà vu in your dreams? If you have reoccurring dreams, you just might feel that way.  Recurring dreams are important and need your attention.

What are Reoccurring Dreams?

A reoccurring dream is any dream you have more than once. Generally these dreams repeat several times over a period of weeks, months, or even years.

You may get the same dream once a week, once a month, or once a year.  It doesn’t matter how far apart the dreams are, the important piece here is that the dream repeats.

Many people find reoccurring dreams disturbing, if only for the fact that they seem to be stuck on repeat.  Recurrent dreams tend to stand out in your mind.  And if you have a sense that your reoccurring dream is meaningful, you’re right…

Why do Dreams Recur?

Dreams in general provide valuable insights about your life.  When you pay attention to your dreams and take appropriate action on them, you integrate the lesson and your dreams move on to what’s next.

Even if you don’t actively use your dreams, most dreams will not reoccur.  Sometimes, however, there is something *so* important that it needs your attention.  If you do not act on and integrate the dream, your dream will repeat.

The main difference between reoccurring and one-off dreams is that reoccurring dreams have an important message that you are not hearing.  So the dream repeats itself again and again and again and again… until you finally pay attention AND take appropriate action.

The repetition shows that the same situation is still present in your life.  Once you take action on your reoccurring dreams, the dream will transform and eventually stop.  The end of the recurrent dream is a sign that you’ve integrated its lessons.

Understanding Reoccurring Dreams

To understand why you are having a particular dream, it’s helpful to look at two separate occurrences of the dream:
  • The first dream
  • The most recent dream
Once you have identified the first and most recent occurrences of your dream, look for patterns and similarities between the two instances.

When did you FIRST have this dream?:Get out your dream journal or think back to the first time you had your reoccurring dream.  Knowing the exact date the dream started is not important.  What is important is the time period of your life, what was going on, and what your life was like.
Reoccurring dreams often start during periods of change, such as after getting married or starting a new job.  Recall if there were any changes happening in your life when the dream started.

What was the most recent occurrence of the dream?:Now, think back to the most recent occurrence of the dream.  What was going on in your life at that time?  If the dream is still occurring, what is going on in your life now?

Look for Patterns:Look at both the first and most recent occurrences of your dream and look for patterns.  What similarities do you see?  What is the same in your life?  How does the dream relate to the events of your life both now and then?

Of course, your life circumstances probably won’t be exactly the same, especially if the dream has been reoccurring for years.  Look for similarities in the way you feel, how you behave, and the way you show up in the world.

How Reoccurring Dreams are Helpful

Since we all tend to repeat certain patterns, reoccurring dreams often point to a reoccurring pattern in your life.  For example, you might have the dream when you feel stressed, devalued, underappreciated, or when you need a change in your life.

The recurrent dream acts as a reminder that you are doing the same thing over and over again.  They can show you that you are repeating the same behaviors that haven’t worked in the past or that you are holding on to beliefs that no longer serve you. Reoccurring dreams teach us that if we want to have different results, we need to take different actions.

Dream Variations

Sometimes reoccurring dreams have different variations. Maybe one of the dream characters did something different, or maybe you reacted differently.Pay attention to these differences.  They provide clues and more details about your situation.  Often they reflect what is going on right now in regards to the situation in the dream.Further, dream variations may be showing you what you need to do next or how you have changed.

Reoccurring Dreams and PTSD

Reoccurring dreams are a common symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  PTSD is common in veterans, rape victims, and people who were abused as children.

With PTSD, you may find yourself reliving the trauma through your dreams.  These dreams can be vivid and terrifying.  The dreams show you that the trauma you suffered is still very real for you and that you have not worked through it yet.

If your reoccurring dreams are related to PTSD, it’s important to seek help from a trained therapist or psychologist.  He or she can help you process the trauma and relieve the PTSD symptoms.
As with any reoccurring dream, once you have successfully processed the trauma, you will stop having the dream.

Putting it all Together

In short, reoccurring dreams show you that there is something important you need to know and act on. When you don’t understand the dream or fail to take appropriate action, the dream will repeat until you do.To begin working with your reoccurring dreams, find the parallels between your dreams and your waking life.  Ask yourself:
  • When did you first have the dream?
  • When was the most recent dream?
  • What patterns can you see in your life between the first and last instance of the dream.
Remember, it’s not enough to simply recognize patterns.   To honor the dream, you need to take action in your waking life.  Look to the dream to help you find the appropriate action to take.
Once you understand the dream and take action, you’ll notice the dream start to transform and eventually stop.

It’s your turn, Dreamer

I’d love to hear your stories.  What is your experience with reoccurring dreams?  Were you able to act on the dream to resolve it?  Comment below.
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