Dreams help us regulate our emotions and adapt to stressful events. Repetitive content can be a failed attempt to incorporate challenging experiences.
Dreaming in the same scenario over and over is a well-known phenomenon – nearly two-thirds of the population reported having experienced an episode of recurring dreams. Being stalked, finding yourself naked in a public place, facing a natural disaster, losing your teeth or forgetting to go to an entire class for an entire semester are typical themes of these recurring dreams.
Where does this phenomenon come from, whose subjects return from one person to another? Dream science suggests that recurring dreams may reflect unresolved struggles in the dreamer’s life.
I work in the Dreams and Nightmares Lab of the Center for Advanced Study in Sleep Medicine at the Hospital of the Sacred Heart in Montreal. As a PhD student in neuroscience, I am interested in how our memories are reactivated, transformed, and integrated into our dreams.
Recurrent dreams are dreams that an individual can have repeatedly. We note that they often occur in times of stress or over long periods of time, sometimes over several years or even a lifetime. These dreams present not only the same 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 person, there are common themes among individuals, and even between different cultures and eras. For example, one of the most common scenarios is that you get chased, fall down, not ready for an assessment, arrive late, or try to do something repeatedly.
The majority of recurrent dreams contain negative content to some extent, which includes feelings such as fear, sadness, anger, and guilt; And more than half of them represent a situation in which the dreamer is in danger. But some of the recurring features can also be positive, even joyful, such as dreams where we discover new rooms in our home, exciting dreams or those in which we have the ability to fly.
In some cases, recurring dreams that appear 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 dissipate again when the situation is over.
Read also: Why do we have more nightmares with Covid-19?
Why does our brain play these same dreams over and over again? Studies show that dreams, in general, help us regulate our emotions and adapt to stressful events – incorporating emotional content into dreams will allow the dreamer to internalize a painful or difficult event.
In the case of recurrent dreams, the repetitive content may represent a failed attempt to incorporate these challenging experiences. Many theories agree that recurring dreams are associated with unresolved difficulties or conflicts in the dreamer’s life.
The presence of recurrent dreams was also associated with a lower level of mental health and the presence of symptoms of anxiety and depression. Such dreams tend to reappear during stressful situations and stop when a person resolves their personal conflict, indicating improved well-being.
Recurring dreams often metaphorically reflect the emotional fears of dreamers. For example, dreaming of a tsunami is common as a result of trauma or abuse. This is a typical example of a metaphor that can represent feelings of helplessness, panic, or fear that occur upon awakening.
Likewise, wearing inappropriate clothes in a dream, being naked, or not being able to find a private bathroom are all common factors to represent scenarios of embarrassment or humility.
These themes can be thought of as “ready-to-dream” texts or scenarios that provide space to digest our conflicting feelings. Thus the same scenario can be reused in different situations where we feel similar feelings. This is why some people, in a stressful situation or facing a new challenge, may again dream that they arrive unprepared for a math exam, even years after entering school. Although circumstances are different, a similar feeling of stress or a desire to challenge yourself can trigger the dream scenario again.
a continuum of repetition
William Domhoff, an American researcher and psychologist, suggests that there is a continuum of repetition in dreams. In the extreme, there are painful nightmares that directly lead to the reproduction of an experienced trauma, such as “flashback”, the presence of which is one of the main symptoms of PTSD.
Then there are recurring dreams, in which the same dream content is partially or completely reproduced. Unlike painful dreams, recurrent dreams rarely directly reproduce an event or conflict, but instead reflect it metaphorically through a central emotion.
Moreover, there are frequent themes in dreams. These dreams tend to repeat a similar situation, such as being late, chased, or lost, but the exact content of the dream varies from time to time (being late for a train rather than for one exam).
Finally, at the other end of the continuum, we find the repetition in the same person of certain elements of dreams, such as characters, actions, or objects. It is said that all these dreams reflect, on different levels, an attempt to resolve some emotional concerns.
Moving from an intense level to a lower level in the repetition cascade is often a sign of an improvement in a person’s psychological state. For example, gradual, positive changes in the content of traumatic nightmares are often seen when people who have experienced trauma recover from the difficulties they are experiencing.
Why are the topics often shared from person to person? One possible explanation is that some of these “scripts” could have been preserved in humans due to their evolutionary advantage. By making simulating a threatening situation possible, a stalking dream, for example, provides a space to practice perceiving and evading predators during sleep.
Some typical themes can also be partially explained by physiological phenomena that occur during sleep. A study conducted by a research team in Israel in 2018 found that the famous dream of losing a tooth was not specifically associated with the dreamer’s anxiety symptoms, but rather gnashing of teeth during sleep or dental discomfort upon awakening.
When we sleep, our brains are not completely disconnected from the outside world. He may continue to perceive external stimuli, such as sounds or smells, or internal bodily sensations. Thus, other topics, such as not being able to find a toilet or undressing in a public place, can be linked to the need to urinate during the night or to wear loose-fitting pajamas to bed.
Certain physical phenomena of REM sleep, the stage of sleep in which we dream the most, can also play a role. In REM sleep, our muscles are paralyzed, which can cause dreams of heavy legs or paralysis in his bed.
Similarly, some authors have suggested that dreams of falling or flying are caused by our vestibular system, which contributes to our balance and which activates automatically during REM sleep. Of course, these bodily sensations are not sufficient to explain the recurrence of these dreams in some people and their sudden occurrence in times of stress, but they are likely to have a significant impact on the construction of our typical dreams.
Get out of the loop
People who experience a recurring nightmare are somehow stuck in the way of responding and anticipating the dream scenario. Certain treatments have been developed to try to resolve this recurrence and break the vicious cycle of nightmares.
One technique is to visualize the nightmare upon awakening and rewrite it, i.e. modifying the scenario of that by changing one aspect, for example the end of the dream, to something more positive. Practicing becoming lucid in dreams may also be a solution.
Lucid dreams are dreams in which we are aware that we are dreaming and where we can sometimes influence the content of the dream. Becoming lucid in a recurring dream can make it possible to think or react differently to the dream and thus change the recurring nature of these dreams.
However, not all recurring dreams are bad in themselves and can be beneficial because they tell us about our personal struggles. Thus, paying attention to the recurring elements in our dreams can be a way to better understand and resolve our desires and torments.
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