Every night, after we fall asleep, we spend around two hours dreaming, in episodes between 15 and 40 minutes. Collectively, that means the entire planet produces no less than 35 billion dreams in 24 hours: dreams about flying or falling, about being chased or arriving late for an exam, funny, terrifying or nonsensical dreams that have us scratching our heads when we wake up. Throughout history, people have been fascinated with dreams and have even given them mystical connotations: in ancient Egypt, people believed that dreams were like oracles and that they carried messages from the gods, while Indigenous American tribes believed that dreams were a way to communicate with ancestors.
There may not be something mystical about dreams, but dreams do have a deep psychological meaning. Sigmund Freud said that dreams are a road to the unconscious and, by learning to analyse them, we can understand our unconscious desires. Modern theorists don’t quite agree with Freud’s interpretation of dreams, but they do emphasise that dreams can tell a story and connect with events and emotions we experience when we are awake.
We’ve put together a list of the most common dreams and their possible interpretations. But remember, these meanings aren’t set in stone. Depending on how the dream made you feel and various events that are happening in your life, it may mean different things to you.
Dreams of falling are quite common, but that doesn’t make them any less unpleasant. Sometimes, when you’re rolling off the edge of the bed, your brain can integrate that into your dream, and you’ll dream that you’re falling off a cliff or another high place. However, dreams about falling can also stem from feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, or insecurity. For example, you may feel unprepared for a situation or worry that you’re not doing well enough. When you’re not panicked about falling in your dream, that may suggest you’re confident about a change in your life.
Another common theme, dreams of being chased are your mind’s way of telling you that you’re avoiding something. That something can be a responsibility, such as a complex project at work, a meeting with someone you don’t particularly like, or the chaser can even be a subconscious representation of your own emotions.
Back to school (and being unprepared for a test)
You may be well into your adult years and still dream that you’re back to school and taking a test you’re not ready for. In fact, this is one of the top five recurring dreams. Most of us haven’t stepped foot in a classroom for decades, so why do we have this dream? Psychologists argue that dreams about exams could mean you’re experiencing stress and anxiety in real life. If in your dream you’re about to sit in an exam that you haven’t revised for, maybe you’re going through some challenging times and you don’t feel prepared. You may also have self-esteem issues or worry that you’re not good enough.
Dreams of flying can mean different things, depending on how you feel in your dream and how much control you have. For example, if you’re blissfully floating or flying high over the city skyline, that’s an exhilarating sensation that could mean you’re happy with where you are and have complete control over your life. But if you’re struggling to stay in the air, or you’re hitting obstacles on your way down, that could mean you don’t feel capable of achieving your goals.
Dreaming of someone dying is one of the scariest experiences you can have in your sleep. When you wake up, you may even experience a strange sense of loss or worry that something wrong is about to happen to someone you love. But don’t worry, dreaming of someone dying doesn’t mean they will die in real life; in fact, these dreams have nothing to do with death. In dreams, death means different things, depending on who died:
- If you dream of yourself dying, that means you’re in the middle of a basic life transition
- If you dream that a friend is dying, your friendship might be going through changes
- If you dream that a pet is dying, you may be afraid of losing someone’s companionship
- Dreams of loved ones who passed away are usually seen as a way of coping with grief
In dreams, death is a metaphor for change, and it’s not so much the death that matters, but your attitude towards it. If you’re afraid, you might not feel ready for change yet, whereas if you’re at peace, you’re ready to embrace it.
Driving an out-of-control vehicle
Dream of driving a vehicle represents you are on a certain path, and the fact that the vehicle is out of control means that you feel confused about your direction in life or that you don’t feel “at the wheel” of your own destiny. The obstacles on the road in your dream are the equivalent of the obstacles that stand in the way of getting what you want.
Your teeth are falling out
Did you know that 39% of people have dreamt at least once of losing their teeth? Whether they crumble in your mouth or fall one by one, falling teeth in dreams can make us feel quite uncomfortable – and that’s because teeth represent the way others perceive us. Dreaming that you’re losing your teeth could mean that you’re insecure about your appearance or that you’re afraid of somehow embarrassing yourself. Since we use our teeth to eat and speak, dreaming of losing your teeth could also mean that you feel powerless or unable to express yourself.
Why am I having recurring dreams?
Recurring dreams are likely to stick with you for longer, and you may wonder what your subconscious is trying to tell you. According to Carl Jung, recurring dreams come up to demand your attention on something you’ve been ignoring or neglecting, as a way of compensating. It could be an unresolved conflict, unmet needs, problems you haven’t addressed, or aspects of your life that are causing you frustration. If your dreams seem to follow the same patterns, talking about them in therapy is a great way of understanding yourself.