Updated: Jan 9
It has happened to all of us.
You wake up from a dream, and all day you can't shake the nagging feeling that follows you. The dream keeps popping up--while you're making your coffee, on your way to work--you may even feel the need to tell somebody about it.
You can't help but wonder what it means. What is this dream trying to tell you?
It can be tempting to disregard our dreams as simply random firing in the brain (narrator voice: they are not), or ignore them because we’re too busy living our waking lives.
However, dreams are the direct product of the process by which our brains organize information gathered during wake. In other words, they’re windows into how we represent reality.
And sometimes, the meaning-maker that is the brain has something to tell you.
Listen up, buttercup.
1. Recurring dreams
In the recurring dream, the process that unfolds is nearly identical each time you have it. It's almost as if the dream following a script or formula, step-by-step.
These dreams are signaling that you’re stuck in an automatic behavior or habit. Your brain is trying to show you how this conditioned behavior is limiting you.
For instance, one recurring dream I have is the dreaded teeth-falling-out dream.
Here's how it goes, every time: First, I notice one of my teeth has fallen out.
More teeth fall out, and I'm trying and trying to hold them in my head and put back the ones that I've lost but I can't! And I always have the same thought as this is going on:
“It’s really happening this time! The other times were a dream, but this one is really happening!”
What was this dream trying to tell me?
In answering this question, it may be helpful to examine when I was having the dream. Historically, the dream would make an appearance during finals week, or when I had a lot of due dates coming up, or when I was about to defend my dissertation.
In other words, I would dream that my teeth were falling out when I was facing a difficult challenge.
It's also helpful to examine what emotions the dream evoked.
For me, the teeth-falling-out dream has always evoked feelings of powerlessness. It felt as though my strength was being taken away, and I was just trying to hold it together. I had survived all the other times, but this time—this was the one that would finally do me in.
Finally, it's important to explore the overall symbolism of the dream. We lose our teeth as a rite of passage, the transition from "baby" teeth to "adult" teeth.
It should come as no surprise that I often have this dream when undergoing a rite of passage, such as when I was transitioning from one semester to the next, or getting my PhD.
I still have the dream, but now I know when that dream shows up I am resisting a rite of passage for fear of leaving my comfort zone. I’m stuck in a habitual pattern of behavior that is limiting me from moving forward.
Recurring dreams are telling you to embrace the inevitable change ahead of you, as it is necessary for your personal growth. By letting go of what is no longer serving you, you will find the courage to face the challenges ahead.
2. Emotional dreams
You know what I’m talking about. The dream where you feel like your chest is caving in and you wake up sobbing.
Or you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. Or maybe it’s a fear dream, where you’re running for your life and wake up drenched in sweat.
Yup, these dreams are playing out an emotion you’re suppressing in your waking life.
The feeling of your chest caving in? That represents heartbreak. If this happens, ask yourself: Am I properly grieving in my waking life? Perhaps you've experienced a loss recently, and are avoiding doing the heartwork necessary to move you through the grief process.
Or maybe the heartbreak you feel in the dream is emulating the devastation associated with being denied something central to our needs as humans. Are you being honest about how you’re getting your needs met? If not, this could be the culprit.
The sock in the gut could represent an emotional void or powerlessness. Are you continuously giving your power up and being taken advantage of? Do you struggle to stand up for yourself?
The fear dreams have many origins, so look to the symbols themselves for clues. But in general, fear dreams indicate there’s a scary yet inevitable reality you’re trying to run away from. The suppression of this emotion is causing you severe anxiety, which is making its way to your sleep and dream life.
Luckily, it’s often like the proverbial pile of clothes in the corner: What looks like a monster in the dark becomes innocuous in the light of day.
3. Increasing intensity
Say you had a dream about hedgehogs. You wake up and think, “Huh. That was a weird dream.” Then, a few nights later, you have it again. Only this time, instead of a few hedgehogs, there are dozens of them. Then the next night, your entire house is filled with hundreds of hedgehogs.
What in the prickly heck is going on here?
If dreams are your brain’s way of saying, “Hey, this is important,” then recurring dreams that increase in intensity are your brain’s way of saying, “Hey! This is really important!”
Often, the dream is signaling that a process of honoring some deep truth about yourself is necessary for you to move forward.
Just like how it's easy to discount a seemingly random dream, it can be tempting to ignore your own behavior patterns that continuously land you in hurtful situations.
That temptation to write off the dream as random is understandable, especially when you have a busy morning and your mind is taken off it pretty quickly.
But you can't ignore it forever.
Just like how your pattern will continue to bring you unnecessary struggles that increase with each heartache, the dream will continue to increase in intensity until you finally get it.
4. Persistent symbolism
When our brains find a symbol that works, they hold onto it.
Persistent symbols differ from recurring dreams in that they comprise elements that are used frequently in different situations, rather than a word-for-word script.
Nevertheless, these dreams are signaling something to you, which is that this (whatever the symbol is referring to) is a recurring theme for you.
In other words, a struggle (or perhaps victory) has roots in your past and will continue to show up in your life.
You most likely have several recurring themes. These themes are flags indicating that your dreams are trying to tell you something important.
Learn to decode these recurring symbols and you’ll have developed a translator or cipher between your waking life and the dream world.
For instance, I have recurring dreams about my house, which I have come to realize represents my life and my self.
If my house is dirty and cluttered, I need to take time to evaluate the people and things in my life to give myself space. If my house has no walls or ceiling, I’m feeling exposed. If I discover a new wing in my house, I’m learning something new about myself.
If you want a crash course in your own dream language, make a list of the symbols that often show up in your dreams. For each item on the list, spend a few minutes free writing what that symbol makes you think of. Don’t let logic or reason cloud this process—let the associations flow.
Go back and analyze your dreams with your newfound insight. You’re bound to make new connections and deepen your understanding of what your dreams are trying to tell you.
5. You don’t usually remember your dreams, but now…
Perhaps you just never were much of a dreamer, but you’ve suddenly found yourself waking up every night with vivid memories of your nighttime escapades.
Or perhaps you used to dream a lot, but haven’t for a while—but now, it’s like your dreaming brain is up to its old tricks.
Always pay attention to the symbolism of sudden-onset, vivid dreams. When we’re asleep, our brains are processing information in a way that is meaningful and useful to us when we’re awake, creating new links between seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge.
This is an incredibly creative process, which allows for incredible feats of problem solving that we didn’t realize were possible.
For instance, to the waking brain, your desk job and the new washing machine you just installed seem to be completely unrelated.
However, a dream could highlight the sense of self-sufficiency and accomplishment you felt after installing a new washer all by yourself, a feeling you never had at your boring dead-end job.
Suddenly having a lot of dreams or having more vivid dreams is a sign you’re in the throes of emotional processing.
Did you move recently? Change jobs? Did a relationship suddenly end?
Your brain is trying to integrate this new information into its existing reality. Paying attention to your dreams will facilitate this process, and result in greater life satisfaction over time.
For real. One study of divorcées showed dreaming of the ex-spouse at the time of the breakup was related to a decrease in depression and an increase in overall life satisfaction one year later.
The idea is that the dreams helped subjects integrate or “work through” the stressful situation, and help them successfully heal over time.
This study, and dream work in general, shows us the brain’s incredible capacity to heal itself. Taken together, these 5 signs tell us your dreams are speaking to you, and the message is clear:
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