Before diving into why we have recurring dreams, it’s important to understand what recurring dreams are, as well as what triggers them.
You’ve heard this scenario before: The night before a big presentation, you dream you’re in front of a crowd, naked, with the whole room laughing at you. This isn’t the first time you’ve had this dream and, most likely, it won’t be the last.
Does everyone get them?
Nearly 60 to 75 percent of adults have recurrent dreams, and they’re more common for women than men. Often in these dreams you’ll be chased, attacked, stuck, lost, late — basically, find yourself in stressful situations that are assumed to indicate unresolved issues in your life.
These dreams may involve conflicts you haven’t fully dealt with from the past, are avoiding now or are planning to sidestep down the road. Like a recurring Google calendar alert, these dreams will continue until what dream researchers call the “daily residue” is processed.
Meaning: It’s important to decompress from your day-to-day life, as well as to deal with your fears.
When do they start?
Though they usually began at a young age, recurring dreams can occur at any time in life. They can also disappear for a while, only to return when you’re confronted with a stressful situation.
Even if the content of your dream changes — in one you’re being chased, but in the next you find you’re lost — the underlying issue is the same. And still there. You’ll continue to experience these recurrent dreams until you deal with whatever it is you’re avoiding.
“I believe we all have unique lessons to learn in our life and sometimes these lessons are lifelong,” says Jeffrey Sumber, a psychotherapist who studied global dream mythology at Harvard University. “Recurring dreams tend to build upon a particular theme and typically change subtly as we grow into a different understanding of ourselves as well as the obstacles we face.”
Are they always bad?
Studies have found that recurrent dreams usually contain negative content, and are associated with “lower psychological well-being.” That’s why Sumber suggests paying attention to how you’re feeling before and after a significant dream.
Being in touch with your feelings can help you identify certain triggers, and thus continue to grow emotionally.
They’re not invincible
Research suggests that recurring dreams can actually spur better performance and motivate you to succeed.
For example, in a recent study, researchers had medical students keep a dream journal before a big exam. While the dreams were negative, the students received much higher scores than they’d originally expected.