What Are Recurring Dreams & Why Do They Happen?

5 Min Read | By Elisha Sketchley

Last Modified 15 September 2023   First Added 15 October 2021

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

As we approach the spooky season, Halloween isn’t the only nightmare on our minds. With the nights getting longer, we are meant to be peacefully catching up on those much-needed hours of rest. So, why are so many of us experiencing recurring dreams? And in many cases, recurring nightmares too.

What is a recurring dream?

Recurring dreams are those that you experience more than once. They often come in the form of nightmares, but even positive recurring dreams can be a little distressing. And as we all know the importance of a good night’s sleep, it’s important to understand why we have recurring dreams, what causes and what we can do to stop prevent them.

Stages of sleep

As we sleep, we go through four different stages. Most dreams happen in the REM stage of sleep, however, they can occur before.

Stage one is known as the drifting stage. This is when we simply drift in and out of light sleep before entering stage two.

Stage two is when our muscles begin to relax and our heart rate decreases. This stage of the sleep cycle is still considered light sleep.

Stage three of the sleep cycle is when we are at our most relaxed. This is thought of as the deepest stage in the cycle. This stage is thought to be the most difficult stage of sleep to be woken from.

As you enter stage four of the sleep cycle, the likelihood of experiencing a recurring dream rapidly increases. Throughout one six to eight-hour block of sleep, we go through stages 1 to 4 repeatedly until we wake. Interestingly, the length of the final stage of REM sleep increases with each cycle of sleep in any given period of slumber. That means we’re more likely to experience recurring dreams in the early hours of the morning when we’ve already had several hours of sleep.

REM sleep

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep begins about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. REM sleep is important because it stimulates the part of your brain that’s essential for learning and creating memories. Again, this is where dreams, or recurring dreams, takes place.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information:

“The occurrence of dreams can be tested by waking volunteers during either non-REM or REM sleep and asking them if they were dreaming. Subjects awakened from REM sleep recall elaborate, vivid, hallucinogenic and emotional dreams, whereas subjects awakened during non-REM sleep report fewer dreams, which, when they occur, are more conceptual, less vivid and less emotion-laden.”

What causes recurring dreams?

While the exact causes aren’t completely understood, it’s widely believed that recurring dreams can be a symptom of trauma, mental illness or a result of unresolved conflict, including:

1. Bullying

Bullying can cause anxiety, which in turn can lead to recurring nightmares. Common triggers of recurring dreams and nightmares in teens include medication, anxiety or depression.

2. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Dreams often reflect what we experience in our day-to-day life. If a recurring dream is disturbing, this could be due to past trauma.

3. Abuse/substance abuse

Substance abuse can interfere with the REM stage of your sleep cycle, which is the part where nightmares and dreams are most vivid.

Common themes

Recurring dreams often have common themes, like being chased, being naked or falling. Some of the most popular include:

1. Teeth falling out

Experiencing a dream about your teeth falling out is unfortunately a common nightmare. However, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer for this nightmare. If your teeth fall out in a dream, the reason could be due to personal loss, the end of a relationship or the start of something new.

2. Flying

Flying or floating dreams can be pleasurable. They can be a sign of experiencing a spiritual awakening and reaching goals in your waking life. On the other hand, dreaming about flying could mean you’re feeling like your life is out of control.

3. Being trapped

Like many dreams, those about being trapped can be a reflection of events that are happening in your day-to-day life. Being trapped in a dream could be a purely physical or an emotional response to your waking hours. Maybe you’re unhappy in a job, relationship or location. When looking to understand the meaning of dreams it’s important to consider what we are currently going through when we’re awake.

4. Losing the ability to speak

Struggling to speak in a dream could be the result of past trauma that you may not want to talk about. Being unable to communicate in a dream could also be a symptom of feeling unseen or unheard.

5. Being in school

Dreaming about returning to school (or worse, returning to school naked) could symbolise unresolved childhood issues. These sorts of dreams could also represent a lack of self-care.

How to stop recurring dreams:

If you experience recurring nightmares, it’s only natural to want to put a stop to them. Lifestyle changes may help here. You can:

  • Set a bedtime, and stick to it
  • Practice self-care, this could be anything from having less screen time to taking a bath
  • Take regular exercise
  • Avoid stimulants before bed (cigarettes, alcohol, coffee)
  • Talk about your recurring dreams with family or friends
  • Speak to a doctor about counselling or therapy. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CTB) could help reduce mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and PTSD, which could cause recurring dreams.

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