Bad Dreams: The 10 Most Common Nightmares & Their Meanings

7 Min Read | By Brett Janes

Last Modified 9 May 2024   First Added 5 July 2016

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

We all have bad dreams and nightmares – whether it’s being chased, our teeth falling out or finding ourselves naked in the middle of the high street. Just like dream meanings, most of us wonder what exactly our nightmares mean too.

Experts have clarified that our nightmares echo patterns of human behaviour and are often linked to the experiences we’ve been through. They reflect who we are and what’s on our minds. So, while decoding bad dreams is not an exact science, knowing what the most common ones mean will help to explain why we may be having these scary dreams.

Key Takeaways

  • Nightmare themes: Common themes include failure, helplessness, accidents or experiencing physical aggression, with women experiencing more nightmares around aggression and men experiencing helplessness more often.
  • Common Meanings: Many of the most common dreams revolve around feelings and emotions, from not feeling able to express yourself to being worried about falling behind or a lack of confidence.

The Most Frequent Nightmares

Our Sleep Survey found that 14% of people have disturbed sleep because of nightmares or night terrors, while a study into nightmare themes discovered 44% of their participants had at least one nightmare a month. But what are these nightmares about?

  1. Failure or helplessness in a scenario – 18%
  2. Experiencing physical aggression – 18%
  3. Accidents – 15%
  4. Being chased – 14%
  5. Health-related concerns or death – 12%
  6. Interpersonal conflicts – 10%
  7. Worries and anxieties – 7%
  8. Disasters – 5%
  9. An evil presence – 4%
  10. Insects or vermin – 2%

Women surveyed had more nightmares about physical aggression or health-related worries than men. At the same time, men had more about failure, helplessness or accidents.

Why Do We Have Nightmares?

Like all dreams, nightmares are part of complex brain functions and help process thoughts, emotions, and memory. When we have high levels of anxiety or stress, they more commonly manifest as bad dreams because that is what is at the forefront of our minds.

However, there are a whole host of strange causes for nightmares. The medication we take, withdrawal from alcohol, and even the snacks we have before bed can influence the scary episodes we have during sleep. Or it may just be that scary movie you watched that is trapped in your memory.

But why do some people have nightmares every night? A systematic review of nightmares in psychiatric patients found that 70% of people with mental health issues such as bipolar, psychotic disorders, and major depressive disorder have chronic nightmares, further highlighting the link between mental distress and bad dreams.



Can Common Nightmares Actually Be a Warning?

When we have a bad dream, we may jump to the thought that it is a warning. While we know that nightmares often reflect our unconscious thoughts and emotional state, particularly during stressful times, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that nightmares are warning signs.

Although prophetic dreams are a common belief – for millennia, humans have believed in the future-telling abilities of dreams – there isn’t much evidence to back this up. Often, our dreams can give us deja vu or a sense that we’ve experienced something before because we use them to process our daily lives. Your unconscious mind may have figured something out before your conscious mind, or you had a dream about an event in anticipation of it happening and forgot. This will give you an eerie sensation, but it doesn’t mean you’re psychic.

10 Common Nightmares & Their Meanings

Every night during sleep, each of us creates around five dream episodes. These dreams can last between 15 and 40 minutes, meaning we all spend around two hours dreaming every night.

With 8 billion dreamers on Earth, we collectively create 35 billion dreams in 24 hours. While many are abstract, absurd, or forgotten – there are also common themes. So, what are they trying to tell us?


1. Teeth Falling Out

Dreams about your teeth falling out can reflect your anxieties about your appearance and how others perceive you. Such dreams may stem from a fear of rejection, embarrassment or feeling unattractive. As teeth are used to bite, tear, and chew, dreams about losing your teeth can stem from a sense of powerlessness which means you may be experiencing self-confidence issues.

2. Being Chased Nightmares

Being chased in a dream suggests you are running away from something, causing you fear or anxiety in waking life.

It indicates that you have a tendency to run away or avoid a particular issue. The chaser can also represent an aspect of yourself, e.g., feelings of anger, jealousy, or fear can manifest as the threatening figure.


3. Unable to Find a Toilet

Having trouble finding a toilet means you may find it difficult to express your needs in a particular situation. It can represent feelings of your personal needs not being met by always putting others first. You may feel that you lack time for personal issues and need more privacy, self-care or self-expression.

4. Naked in Public

Being naked in a dream symbolises being unable to find yourself, uncertain, or wrongly accused. Being naked in a public place indicates feelings of vulnerability and a fear of not fitting in with the crowd.

If you are not the naked person in your dream but see a nude person and are disturbed by it, it means you are worried about exposing that person.


5. Unprepared for an Exam

Exam nightmares can be so real that we wake up convinced we failed an important test. They are often related to our stress during our education – even years later. They can mean you’re putting yourself under much pressure to do well or feel like you’re falling behind.

Whether this is true or not, it’s a sign to implement a relaxing bedtime routine for better sleep.

6. Flying Nightmares

A tough time flying in your dreams suggests that someone (or something) is stopping you from moving to the next step in life.

Being afraid to fly proposes that you might be having trouble keeping up with the high goals you set for yourself. If you are alone and struggling to fly, it implies you lack confidence in yourself.

7. Falling

Closely linked to flying nightmares, if you fall in your dream and are overcome by fear, it signifies insecurity and anxiety about a situation. Conversely, enjoying falling suggests that you are not afraid of changes.

8. Out of Control Vehicle Nightmares

Dreams of cars and other modes of transport can represent a time of change in your life and reflect if you feel in control of your direction. Therefore, nightmares about out-of-control cars or car crashes usually indicate that you have anxieties about where you are heading or that someone else is making important choices for you.

9. Being Trapped or Lost

Another common nightmare is dreaming you are lost or trapped somewhere, whether in a forest, a city you don’t know, an elevator, or maybe even the bad dream itself! As a common worry, we have all experienced, it is no wonder that it also rears up in dreams. These nightmares may reflect feelings about your life – maybe you’re looking for guidance or want change, but it’s causing stress and anxiety.

10. Being Late Nightmares

Dreaming that you are late is always a stressful experience. It can mean you feel like you’re behind or time is running out – especially for significant life changes. They are also a widespread nightmare before a big event, so try to alleviate some anxiety before heading to bed.

Tips for Sweeter Dreams & Better Sleep

One of the best ways to combat bad dreams is to go to bed feeling relaxed and ready for rest. If we tuck in for sleep while our minds are still racing, ruminating over stresses, worries, and problems, it will likely come up in our dreams.

It’s essential to establish a calming bedtime routine, for example:

  • Avoid social media and “doom scrolling” before bed (preferably at least an hour before!)
  • Do mindful activities such as meditation, yoga, or progressive body relaxation.
  • Complete your wind-down routine – shut off all the lights, do your skincare, brush your teeth, have a cooling shower, and put on comfy PJs.
  • Clear your mind of unhelpful thoughts and try positive affirmations.

Get more help with our top tips for better sleep and learn how to drift off peacefully.

List of common nightmares

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