What science tells us about recurring dreams

Repeated dreaming in the same scenario is a known phenomenon – about two-thirds of the population has experienced an episode of recurring dreams. Being chased, seeing yourself naked in a public place, experiencing a natural disaster, losing your teeth or forgetting to go to class for an entire semester are typical themes of these recurring dreams.

Where does this phenomenon come from, the subjects of which flow back from person to person? The science of dreams indicates that recurring dreams may echo unresolved conflicts in the dreamer’s life.

I work in the Dreams and Nightmare Laboratory of the Center for Advanced Study in Sleep Medicine at the Hpital du Sacré-Coeur in Montreal. As a doctoral student in neuroscience, I am interested in how our memory is reactivated, transformed, and incorporated into our dreams.

Recurrent dreams are dreams that a person may have repeatedly. We see that they often occur during times of stress or over a long period of time, sometimes over many years or even a lifetime. These dreams not only stage a single theme, but also a particular story that can be repeated from one night to the next.

Although the exact content of recurring dreams is unique to each individual, there are common themes between individuals, and also between cultures and different eras. For example, being chased, knocked down, unprepared for evaluation, being late, or trying to do something repeatedly are some of the most common scenarios.

Not all recurring dreams have a negative meaning. Some, like having the ability to fly, can be generous © Shutterstock (via The Conversation)

Most recurring dreams have a negative content, including feelings such as fear, sadness, anger, and guilt; And more than half represent a situation where the dreamer is in danger. But some recurring themes can be positive, even euphoric, such as dreams where we discover new rooms in our home, erotic dreams or those where we have the ability to fly.

In some cases, recurring dreams that emerged in childhood may persist into adulthood. These dreams may disappear for a few years, reappear in the presence of a new source of stress, and may disappear again when the condition is gone.

unresolved conflict

Why does our brain play these dreams over and over again? Studies show that dreams, in general, help regulate our emotions and adapt to stressful events – incorporating emotional content into dreams allows the dreamer to assimilate a traumatic or difficult event. Meets.

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In the case of recurring dreams, the repetitive content may represent a failed attempt to integrate these difficult experiences. Many theories agree to say that recurring dreams are related to difficulties or unresolved conflicts in the dreamer’s life.

The presence of recurring dreams has also been associated with lower levels of psychological well-being and the presence of symptoms of anxiety and depression. These dreams reappear during stressful situations and indicate better well-being when the individual has resolved his or her personal conflict.

Recurring dreams often metaphorically reflect the dreamer’s emotional concerns. For example, it is common to dream of a tsunami as a result of trauma or abuse. It is a typical example of a metaphor that can represent feelings of helplessness, nervousness, or fear experienced upon awakening.

Some people, in a stressful situation or facing a new challenge, may again dream that they are late or unprepared for a math test, even years after setting foot in school © Shutterstock (via conversation) From)

Similarly, wearing inappropriate clothing, being naked, or not being able to find a private bathroom in dreams are all alike to represent scenarios of embarrassment or complacency.

These themes can be thought of as ‘ready-to-dream’ scripts or scenarios that provide space for our conflicting emotions to digest. Thus the same scenario can be reused in different situations where we experience similar emotions. This is why some people, in a stressful situation or facing a new challenge, can dream again that they come unprepared for a math test years after they set foot in school. Although the circumstances are different, a similar feeling of tension or the desire to challenge oneself can trigger this dream scenario again.

continuation of repetition

William Domhoff, American researcher and psychologist, suggests the existence of a repetition continuum in dreams. In the extreme, there are traumatic nightmares that directly reproduce an experienced trauma like a “flashback”, and whose presence is one of the main symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Then there are recurring dreams, where the same content of the dream is partially or completely repeated. Unlike traumatic dreams, recurrent dreams rarely reproduce an event or conflict directly, but instead reflect them metaphorically through a central emotion.

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Also there are recurring themes in continuum dreams. These dreams repeat a similar situation, such as being late, being chased, or lost, but the exact content of the dream varies from time to time (rather than being late for a train at a time). Examination).

Finally, at the other end of the continuum, we find the repetition of certain elements of dreams, such as characters, actions, or objects, in the same person. All these dreams are said to represent an attempt to resolve some emotional concerns at different levels.

Moving from a rapid to a low level in the recurrence continuum is often a sign of an improvement in a person’s psychological state. For example, gradual and positive changes in the content of traumatic nightmares are often observed as people who have experienced trauma recover from their difficulties.

physical event

Why are topics often common from person to person? One possible explanation is that some of these “scripts” may have been conserved in humans because of their evolutionary advantage. By making it possible to simulate a dangerous situation, dreaming of being chased, for example, while sleeping provides a place to practice understanding and avoiding predators.

Some recurring dreams, such as losing your teeth, may be related to tooth clenching during sleep or dental trouble upon waking © Shutterstock (via Conversation)

Some specific themes can also be explained by physiological phenomena when we sleep. A 2018 study by a research team in Israel found that the well-known dream of losing a tooth was not specifically related to symptoms of anxiety in the dreamer, but to teeth clenching during sleep or tooth discomfort upon waking. was related.

Our brain is not completely isolated from the outside world when we sleep. He may continue to experience external stimuli, such as sounds or smells, or internal bodily sensations. Thus, other themes, such as being unable to find a toilet or being naked in a public place, may be linked to the need to urinate during the night or to wear loose pajamas in bed.

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Certain physiological events specific to REM sleep, the stage of sleep where we dream most, may also come into play. In REM sleep, our muscles become paralyzed, which can lead to dreams of having heavy feet in bed or being paralyzed.

Similarly, some authors have proposed that dreams of falling or flying are caused by our vestibular system, which contributes to our balance and which automatically reactivates during REM sleep. Of course, these physical sensations are not enough to explain the repetition of these dreams in some people and their sudden occurrence in times of stress, but they can have a significant effect in the formation of our most typical dreams.

exit the loop

People who experience nightmares over and over again find themselves stuck in some way or the other in how to respond to and anticipate the dream scenario. Some treatments have been developed to try to address this recurrence and break the vicious cycle of nightmares.

One of the techniques is to visualize the nightmare upon awakening and rewrite it, that is, modify its scenario by changing one aspect, for example the end of the dream, to something more positive. One solution can also be to practice visualizing vividly in dreams.

Lucid dreams are dreams where we are aware that we are dreaming and where we can sometimes affect the content of the dream. Being lucid in a recurring dream may make it possible to think about or react to the dream differently and thus change the repetitive nature of these dreams.

However, not all recurring dreams are bad in themselves and can be helpful as they inform us about our personal struggles. Thus paying attention to the repetitive elements of our dreams can be a way to better understand and resolve our greatest desires and sufferings.

This analysis was authored by Claudia Picard-Deland, a doctoral student in neuroscience, and Torrey Nielsen, professor of psychiatry (both at the University of Montreal – Canada).
The original article was published on the website
Conversation.

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About the Author: Abbott Hopkins

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