Why Do We Dream, Anyway?

Although we experience them four to six times for 2 hours every night, experts still don’t know what dreams actually are and why we have them. Our most vivid dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, when our brain is more active.

These dreams may be weird, unsettling or downright scary, but they aren’t meaningless — experts believe they’re a more abstract continuation of our thought processes throughout the day. Dream interpretation therapy can help us work through what subconscious issues our dreams reflect about our waking lives.

Different Types of Dreams

The dreams we have can manifest in many different ways. Here are the most common kinds of dreams people experience.

  • Daydreams. Daydreaming, or “zoning out,” happens when you get lost in your thoughts while fully conscious. Although you may feel like you’re fully awake, a 2021 study demonstrated that daydreaming causes slow brain waves, similar to those of deep sleep, in the frontal cortex.
  • Recurring dreams. Having the same dream over and over again is very common. It’s usually linked to recurring behavior patterns or unresolved issues in your waking life.
  • Lucid dreams. The elusive lucid dream occurs when you become aware within a dream that you’re dreaming and are able to control what happens. Even if it feels completely real, you understand that what you’re experiencing isn’t real.
  • False awakening dreams. This dream state is characterized by believing you’ve awakened and started your day. False awakening dreams are similar to sleep paralysis; they both occur in the sleep stages between semi-consciousness and unconsciousness. The difference is that in false awakening, you’re mentally asleep but feel as if you’re physically awake.
  • Nightmares. Everyone has nightmares from time to time, but dreams that are scary enough to wake you up are especially disturbing. People who have mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder or PTSD or who are under a lot of stress tend to experience nightmares more frequently.

Common Dream Themes (and What They May Mean)

Oneirology, or the study of dreams, is far from a perfect science. Although humans have been fascinated by dreams and their interpretations since the dawn of time, there’s no scientific consensus on their universal meanings. However, there are some recurring themes, as well as images and emotions that tend to correlate with situations in our waking lives.

Dream meaning therapy can help us understand our subconscious concerns and work through them. Here are a few of the most common themes and how you might interpret them in your own life.

  • Falling. Falling is the most common recurring dream of all. Although it can represent fears of losing control in your waking life, it may also have a physical explanation. When we drift off to sleep, our muscles relax. Sometimes the brain misinterprets this feeling as falling and jerks us awake with an involuntary startle response known as hypnic jerk.
  • Flying. Although more common in children than adults, dreams of flight can occur when you feel like you’re “reaching new heights” in some area of your life.
  • Being chased. Running away from someone — or something — in a dream can symbolize running away from a problem. People who prefer to avoid confrontation or procrastinate in their waking lives have this dream frequently. Think about your life: Is there something hanging over your head that you’ve been avoiding?
  • Teeth falling out. Dreaming you’re losing your teeth might be a sign that you’re dealing with feelings of insecurity, shame or self-consciousness about how you appear to others. Some dream experts believe that dreams involving the mouth symbolize communication issues.
  • Being naked in public. Finding yourself naked in your dreams reveals you’re feeling exposed in some way. Maybe there’s been a situation recently where you’ve felt scrutinized, embarrassed or vulnerable. On the other hand, if you’re naked in your dream but nobody cares, that may convey openness, freedom or letting yourself be seen and accepted for who you really are.
  • Pregnancy. Dreaming that you’re pregnant doesn’t necessarily mean you are! Pregnancy represents a creative process. If there’s a project or personal goal you’re hoping to bring forth into the world, you’re likely to have this dream. Pay close attention to how you feel about the dream pregnancy or the end result — it can give you insight into how your project is evolving.
  • Being back in school. Even if it’s been years since you’ve graduated, dreams about missing an important class, failing to study for a final exam or even being unable to find your locker or classroom can feel all too real. These back-to-school dreams might relate to high-pressure areas in your current life where you fear you’re falling behind or failing to meet expectations.
  • Being in a childhood home. It’s common to dream of a place you spent a lot of time in during your formative years. Whether these dreams are positive or negative, they indicate that you’re working on reclaiming a part of your past somehow.

Dream Analysis and Trauma

People with mental health conditions like general anxiety disorder (GAD) tend to experience recurring dreams more than those without. Furthermore, up to 71% of trauma victims diagnosed with PTSD experience frequent nightmares, compared to just 2%–5% of the general population. Experts theorize these dreams help the subconscious mind work through trauma and can provide meaningful insight into unresolved issues.

If recurring dreams or nightmares are causing you distress in your waking life, speak to your doctor or a therapist about your concerns.

Dream Interpretation Therapy

Research suggests that therapist dream analysis can be a great way to enhance self-knowledge by bringing underlying psychological concerns to light. Dream therapy benefits include directly involving clients in the therapeutic process, leading to better results.

If you want to discuss your dreams but have difficulty remembering them, dream journaling might be the answer. Instead of jumping out of bed when your alarm goes off, have a pen and paper by your bedside and jot down what you remember. It also helps to have a mantra, like “I want to remember my dreams tonight.” Although it may seem unscientific, establishing intention can prime you for better recall.

Sunlight Recovery Can Help

Are you interested in learning more about what your dreams may be telling you about your waking life? Our compassionate team at Sunlight Recovery is here to answer your questions 24-7, so reach out today.