Recurring Dreams

Many dreams contain recurrent elements that have appeared in previous dreams. These elements include characters you have encountered before, in settings where you have been before, doing things you have done before. The long-term consistency of your dreaming offers a unique window into the nature of your personality and the foundational realities of your waking life.

When specifically asked to describe a recurrent dream, people will usually share a common dream scenario with intense emotionality and/or counter-factual weirdness. For example:

“I’m speeding downhill in a car with no brakes…”

“I discover surprising new rooms in a familiar house…”

“I’m back in school taking a test on a subject I don’t know…”

These dreams can be extremely vivid and memorable just by themselves. As a repeating series, they become even more attention-grabbing.

To interpret recurrent dreams like these, it helps to look at them as metaphors, as attempts to understand something we do not know in terms of something we do know. With the no-brakes scenario, we might ask the dreamer, is there anything in waking life that feels like you’re speeding dangerously out of control? With new-rooms dreams, where in your waking life do you feel moments of wonder and growth, or unexpected insights? With the school-testing dreams, is something happening in waking life that makes you feel unprepared, or out of your depths, or judged by others?

In describing a recurrent dream, people will often say the same single dream has happened many times, but after further discussion it usually emerges that the recurrent scenario almost never appears exactly the same way in each dream. In most cases there are shifts, differences, and changes to the basic scenario, some small, some big, all of which can be considered as meaningful variations on the theme. For instance, the no-brakes dreams might shift over time in what kind of car is being driven, where is it going, and what happens at the end. The new-rooms dreams might vary in what kinds of architectural spaces are discovered and what the dreamer discovers inside. The school-testing dreams could differ in the school and class settings, the subjects being studied, and the results of the test.

These variations on the recurrent theme can be very helpful in understanding why the dreams come when they do. If the basic scenario of a recurrent dream has metaphorical meaning, how do the changed details in a particular dream connect the metaphor to something happening in the waking world right now? A key question with recurrent dreams is why they appear when they do. What is it in current life that has triggered another instance of this theme? Recurrent dreams are rarely about trivial matters. Something important is at stake, something so important that repeated efforts at sparking conscious attention are required. Perhaps the dream is a warning: watch out, you’ve been in this situation before! Perhaps the dream is highlighting an opportunity: hey, do you see that? Do you recognize its value?

By looking closely at the metaphorical dimensions of your recurrent dreams, at both their basic themes and their many variations, you can gain more insight into the ongoing psychological relevance of these lifelong companions of your sleeping mind.

Note: if you have distressing recurrent nightmares about a single repetitive theme with no variations, you might consider consulting with a mental health professional.

(This post was originally published on the website of Psychology Today, January 23, 2023.)


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