Like death and education, dreams are one of the great equalizers. For up to two hours a night, people across all cultures, ages and credit card scores experience vision as they sleep. Depending on many various factors, nightmares may appear.
And while some of these REM-inspired emotional remixes are deeply personal (a deceased relative appears; your boss chasing you with a giant stapler), others are nearly identical to what others have experienced (teeth fall out, you fail an exam).
“The reason shared nightmares exist is because we all have similar waking experiences of anxiety-producing events,” says renowned psychoanalyst Anne Cutler. “Familiar scripts and images get recorded in the psyche and are available to come back subconsciously in the form of nightmares.”
Essentially, we experience the same dream patterns because we have the same behavioral patterns.
“[And] our brains want to tell stories and resolve emotional tensions,” adds dream psychologist Ian Wallace.
Here, Wallace and Culter explain some of the most common shared nightmares. Look for personal meaning at your own risk.
1. Teeth Falling Out
“In most cultures, we tend to show our teeth on two main occasions,” says Wallace, “When we’re happy and smiling, or when we’re snarling and aggressively asserting our power.”
In other words, teeth are all about power and confidence.
“If you dream that your teeth are falling out or crumbling, there may be a situation in waking life where you feel a loss of power or confidence — particularly in the face of someone aggressive or more dominant.”
2. Showing Up Naked or in Your Underwear
Unsurprisingly, this one is all about social anxiety.
“Showing up naked or undressed in a dream implies vulnerability in your waking life,” says Cutler. “You’re probably nervous about how people may see or judge you, or afraid that you’ll reveal more of yourself than you intended.”
3. Failing an Exam
“This dream often surfaces during periods of high stress when the dreamer is anxious about upcoming events or expectations,” says Wallace. “If you’re repeatedly having this dream, you’re probably an ambitious person with a strong fear of failure, which manifests into one of the most common scripts of being graded on your ability to succeed: a school exam.”
4. Dying or Death
According to Culter, dreams of expiring often suggest a fear of loss or not accomplishing what you want. But they can also be a signifier of something in general coming to an end.
“These can also symbolize the ending of a significant life phase, whether that’s a job or relationship,” she says.
As we’ve discussed before, there’s a physiological phenomenon called a hypnic jerk, which is your body releasing residual muscle tensions as you fall asleep.
“Often you’ll associate this reaction with imagery of falling off a curb or cliff,” says Wallace. “But if you’re falling in an actual dream, it suggests you may be holding on too tightly to a situation in waking life, and you need to relax.”
Rather than being concerned about losing control in this situation, you should let go and let everything fall into place.
“It’s about trusting yourself,” he says.
6. Being Trapped
“Our dreams represent metaphorical language and imagery of a psychological state we’re experiencing in waking life,” says Culter, who adds that we take these anxieties into our sleep state. “Being trapped, caged or held captive in a dream suggests there’s an equivalent real-life situation that you feel you can’t escape — perhaps an unfulfilling job.”
7. Being Chased
Spent the night sprinting from the clutches of some nefarious other?
“As a generalized theme, being chased in a dream overlaps with being trapped or held captive,” says Culter. “If a person is chasing you, that suggests there are certain relationship obligations you feel you can’t get away from.”
If you’re running away from an inanimate object, Culter says this hints at the Sisyphean.
“It could mean you’re trying to stay ahead of tasks that you never seem to get on top of, no matter what you do," she says.
8. Missing a Flight
Everyone can relate to the stress that comes along with travel, especially at airports.
“In dreams, a missed plane can represent the desired progress in your personal life or career,” says Wallace. “And the inability to make the ‘connection’ reflects frustration as you try to achieve the satisfaction you crave.”