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Recurring Dreams

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Sarah Shoen

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Dr. Nilong Vyas

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Between 60% and 75% of American adults experience recurring dreams, with more women experiencing them than men. Although recurring dreams are a normal part of sleep for most people, they can be distressing due to their content. While they can be pleasant, 77% of recurring dreams are negative, and common themes include tooth loss and car crashes.

Learning more about recurring dreams, including how common they are and the latest hypotheses about their meanings, may make it easier to understand your own. However, recurring dreams have also been linked with lower psychological health and conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. Those with generalized anxiety disorder frequently have bad dreams, though the dreams may vary in content. If you are distressed by or worried about your recurring dreams, it is important to speak to your doctor about your concerns.

What Are the Most Common Recurring Dreams?

Recurring dreams are personal and, like other dreams, often populated by people we recognize. Recurring dreams may be precisely the same every time or only recycle the same scenarios or fears. However, there are some plotlines or themes that are common in recurring dreams. These include:

  • Falling
  • Flying
  • Car crashes
  • Looking for a toilet
  • Being overwhelmed by house maintenance
  • Not being able to speak
  • Losing teeth
  • Being attacked
  • Public nakedness
  • Returning to school
  • Being unprepared for school or work
  • Being chased or trapped
  • Finding new rooms in the home or a familiar building

Some themes are more common than others. For example, over 53% of people experience recurring dreams about falling, while only 15.5% experience them about losing teeth. It is also not unusual to experience recurring dreams that have none of these themes or are based on personal experiences. Your recurring dreams may be vivid, or they may be difficult to remember.

What Recurring Dreams Do Children Have?

Although both adults and children experience recurring dreams, children may experience them more often than teenagers or adults. In one study, 35% of 11-year-olds reported having had a recurring dream in the past year, compared to 15% of 15-year-olds.

Children also have their own familiar plotlines, such as confronting characters from fairy tales, although themes like falling, being chased, and car accidents are also common. Children are less likely to have positive recurring dreams, though they have significantly more recurring dreams that inspire a neutral emotional response.

    What Do Recurring Dreams Mean?

    The idea that dreams have hidden meanings in their content was a popular component of Freudian dream theory. But, there is little evidence to support the idea that dreams with the same content or themes have the same meaning for everyone. However, examining what your dreams mean to you personally can still be meaningful, particularly in a therapeutic context.

    Experiencing recurring dreams may point at underlying issues regardless of the dream’s content. Adults who experience frequent recurring dreams tend to have worse psychological health than those who do not, and many experts theorize that these dreams may be a way to work through unmet needs or process trauma. Another theory is that recurring nightmares may have given our ancestors the chance to practice detecting and avoiding danger.

    People who are under more psychological stress tend to have more negative recurring dreams, although a lack of stress is not related to having more pleasant recurring dreams.

    Recurring Dreams and Mental Health Disorders

    Although most people experience recurring dreams from time to time, they can also be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People who experience these disorders have other significant symptoms as well.

    People with PTSD also tend to have different recurring dreams than people without this disorder. Their most common recurring nightmares involve reliving the trauma that caused their PTSD.

    Recurring Dreams and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

    Temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) is the most common cause of difficult-to-treat adult epilepsy. Recurring nightmares are a common feature of TLE and may be caused by nocturnal seizures or the effect of REM sleep on the temporal lobe. People who have TLE tend to have recurring dreams that are intensely frightening, extremely vivid, and may produce strong emotions or feelings of dread. These dreams often begin soon after a person’s first seizure and are less common in people undergoing successful treatment.

    Coping With or Stopping Recurring Dreams

    Although they may be a normal part of sleep for many people, recurring dreams that provoke negative emotions can be deeply upsetting and difficult to live with. If you are concerned about your recurring dreams, or if they make it difficult for you to sleep or cope with daily life, your doctor can help you decide on a treatment plan.

    There are also lifestyle changes that may help you cope with or reduce your recurring dreams. These include:

    • Therapy or Counseling: Recurring dreams are associated with a broad range of mental health conditions, from stress and frustration to PTSD. Therapy and counseling can be helpful in these circumstances, particularly a type called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that has proven helpful in treating stress, PTSD, and nightmares.
    • Exercise: People who exercise regularly have better emotional resilience and find it easier to cope with stressful situations. Exercising regularly also appears to improve sleep quality and duration.
    • Relaxation Exercises: Breathing exercises, meditation, and guided visualizations are a few of the relaxation exercises that have been shown to help reduce stress. These exercises can also be part of your nightly sleep routine.
    • Discussing Your Dreams: There is some evidence that therapeutic dream interpretation sessions may reduce recurring dreams.
    • Maintaining Good Sleep Hygiene: Good sleep habits and a relaxing nightly routine might make it easier for you to sleep properly, even when you are concerned about recurring dreams. Poor sleep can worsen anxiety and stress, so focusing on improving your sleep can also improve your mood.
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