When I ask people about their dreams, many times they will recount experiences of crazy landscapes where anything can happen (and probably will). But more often than not, what I hear about is the regularly recurring, repetitive dream that has haunted the dreamer their entire life; I hear over and over again from people that they "always dream of ______" (fill in the blank). It is not that these people have no dream imagination; it is much more about the effectiveness of the dream process as a tool for helping the mind achieve balance.
As an example, say you are someone who has a recurring dream of driving a car up a hill. The hill is steep. You keep going, only to get to the point where finally you are at such an incline your car can no longer move forward; you begin to slide backward, out of control. The feeling is terrifying as you completely lose control while the car careens backward, and you are left panicked and useless as you plummet to what is certain death. And then, of course, you wake up.
You dream this dream frequently, perhaps monthly, and have done so for years. This is simply a function of your mind's dynamic response to this particular image: it is perfectly suited to accurately express the various stresses of your individual life. It hardly matters what it is in your waking life that inspires the dream. An argument with a friend or a large credit card bill that you are worried about paying on time could both illicit the very same dream. Both waking-life circumstances are clearly very different in nature, but the dream that helps your restore your psychic balance is the same.
Recurring dreams are not necessarily the most common dreams that people have, but they are the ones that are most readily remembered and frequently talked about when I do workshops. I assume that this is because of the fact that they recur, keeping them in the forefront of the mind of dreamers. And this is, of course, what the underlying purpose of a recurring dream actually is. If a dream comes again and again, it is attempting to do something very specific: it is trying to get your attention.
Stress is a constant companion to us in the Western world. We are born into it, and for most of us, it is a way of approaching life that has become a macabre sort of paradox as an actual tool for getting through life. Presented with obligations and obstacles, we have grown to believe that the ensuing stress itself is what helps us to effectively meet those obligations and overcome those obstacles. This is, of course, a magnificent lie that is not only tragic in its utter fallacy; it is a misconception that is fatal. Stress kills.
There are all kinds of beneficial and scientifically proven stress combatants, from exercise, meditation, medication, yoga, breath work; the list goes on and on. However, there is one prominent, organic tool for reducing stress that is built into the human mechanism, one that is—without a doubt—the most effective one there is: dreaming.
The stress an individual experiences throughout their lives changes. The stressful areas of life that are causing anxiety will change as you age and move through various circumstances and stages of life. What will not always be different, however, is the way in which the unconscious mind will use dreams to regulate that stress and reduce it to non-lethal levels, allowing you to wake up each morning and do it all over again.
Because the human mind is economical, it will often turn to a recognizable image that has worked in the past to convey certain emotional states. We experience this in the form of a recurring dream. These are those pervasive dreams that trouble us from time to time, such as being chased, falling, or being naked in public, to name a few common ones. These are not usually filled with elaborate plots and characterizations, but are rather simplistic with a familiar theme.
Here are the five most common, stress-related, recurring dreams:
- Being Chased: A person who regularly dreams of being chased will likely not have much detail beyond the act of running from the enemy, who is often unknown to them. Then unknown enemies are remembered as frightening and usually leave the dreamer with residual anxiety. This common dream serves an important purpose when our waking life presents us with scary life experiences. A person under excessive stress might experience this dream image in order to process the unconscious fears that come up as the result of chaos in their lives. Their ability to survive the danger or panic present in the dream may actually be helping them navigate their daytime obstacles. It is in living out the raw blast of unbridled fear in their dreams that allows them to wake up feeling a sense of balance that without the dream would leave them emotionally ragged.
- Falling: Falling is actually the only fear with which we are naturally born. Everything else we come to fear are notions we add to the mix, but gravity is a very real thing that we must contend with; disrespect its laws and it can be fatal. We spend our entire lifetime controlling our environments in an attempt to protect ourselves from the dangers of gravity. Extend that out a bit and you can see that we also attempt to control all sorts of things in anticipation of perceived dangers, some that exist and most that are imagined. Falling in a dream is to feel out of control. You never know when or where you're going to land, and it's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop. This dream will come when you are feeling that you have no control over some circumstance in your life.
- Back To School: The dream of returning unprepared to a high school setting also falls into the category of helping with daily stress and chaos. It will often recur when one is not feeling ready or prepared for whatever life is presenting. At a moment where the ability to perform is under scrutiny, a person might dream of being back in high school and unprepared for a test. Any dream that points out this sort of vulnerability is helping to balance out underlying feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, or overwhelming responsibility. Since it was in high school that we were first faced with accountability, the same need to prove ourselves in adult life may spark such a dream.
- Apocalypse: The world coming to an end seems like an awful thing. However, behind this frightening and destructive scenario there is a built-in redemptive quality just beyond the devastation: there will be a new world that emerges in the future. All change includes some element of the death-rebirth cycle; something must be sacrificed in order for something new to emerge. In this way, any image that involves this principle is actually a positive expression about change being at hand. An apocalypse implies that the entire world is coming to an end and is a symbolic expression of so much change all at once, it feels as if everything you know is shifting and transforming. Change is scary.
- Tsunami: Water connects to our emotional nature and the unconscious mind, whereas land represents the conscious. A tsunami is an enormous wave that is completely unavoidable, and that surges up from the depths and destroys everything in its path. Emotions can act in the same way, rising up from the unconscious parts of ourselves of which we are not typically aware. They overwhelm us. Many people engage in complex inner avoidance mechanisms that will, eventually, cease to work. It is this fear of being overwhelmed by emotional content that is being expressed in a dream of a pending tsunami.
- Bonus: Teeth And just for good measure, I'm going to throw in one of my favorite, though less ubiquitous, recurring dream images: the one where your teeth crumble, disintegrate, or simply fall out of your mouth. Your teeth accomplish several things. Firstly, they aid in digestion by preparing the nutrition in your food to be absorbed by your body. In this way, they relate to self-care and nurturing. Secondly, when you reveal them in a smile, you draw people to you. In this way, they are related to attracting love. Conversely, if you reveal your teeth in a snarl, you can protect yourself through aggression. Nurturance, love, and protection: without these things, life would feel pretty unsafe—and you would naturally feel quite insecure. This is a dream sparked by moments of insecurity and is usually helping you navigate through a moment when life is causing you to doubt yourself.
So the next time you have any one of these dreams, ask yourself where in your life might you be experiencing the stress that may have caused it. Your dreams are trying to tell you something; the more you pay attention, the more they can reveal. The most important thing to remember is that as disturbing as these dreams can be, they are happening for your benefit. You do, after all, survive the terrifying onslaught to wake up and do it all over again.