What do Your Recurring Dreams Really Mean? Decoded By a Scientist-Turned-Analyst
I once had a boyfriend whose dreams became a token of our time together. From early on, it became a habit of ours to share our dreams; or rather, as my dreams then tended to involve tax returns and other such mundane affairs, he would share his with me. Each morning when we woke there would be tales of ancient alligators emerging from lakes with black, glassy surfaces. There were princes dethroning their fathers in ancient China and thrumming dance parties in the desert. The more I got to know him, the more it became evident that these visions were colourful reimaginings of his life, his relationships, his fears and his desires.
From that point on, I became obsessed – not just with his dreams, but with my own and even those of strangers. Here at THE FILE, dreams have become a major talking point. We’ve been sharing them with one another, taking turns at analysing and demystifying, reading Jung and Freud.
Indeed for Freud, dreams represent latent desires and anxieties wrapped within cryptic messages, in the process unveiling “many an unpleasant biological truth about ourselves and only very free minds can thrive on such a diet.” The father of psychology as we know it today was big on the whole idea of ‘no pain, no gain’ and, as we’re sure you all know, it often takes looking within at that which makes us uncomfortable to – in paraphrasing Kylie Jenner – “realise stuff and realise things”.
On that note, two weeks ago we asked you to share your recurring dreams to also help you realise things…and your responses blew us away. It was clear that we needed to call in the big guns, so we sent our best messenger pigeon out to Jane Teresa Anderson, a dream expert with a long list of credentials – originally trained as a scientist, now a dream analyst, therapist, author of six books, most recently The Dream Handbook, and host of The Dream Show. With more side hustles than a millennial, we felt incredibly #blessed when she agreed to take a deeper look into the inner-workings of your minds.
Get ready for an eye-opening glimpse into that which lurks below the surface…
Kathryn Dreams of Oceans and Safe Houses
Most of my dreams are ocean related. I’ve always had recurring dreams about the oceans, about waves and beaches. This has been going on for a while, though I would often find myself on a beach or sometimes in the water itself. Regarding emotions, usually in the dreams, I am quite calm. Most of the time I feel at peace even, especially with dreams of me on the beach or just driving past the ocean. However, there are times if there is a tsunami coming towards the beach and I would feel anxious and scared, almost like being swallowed up.
Three words that best describe me are dreamy, outgoing and sometimes a worrier.
A few significant points about the dream is that usually, there is a safe house or some sort. There would be hotels or beach houses. The most significant one is a glass house where all I could see when I was inside was the ocean. Another thing to note is that the color of the ocean varies from dream to dream. Sometimes it can be murky even though the ocean is calm, and sometimes it is crystal clear.
Dreams are unique and personal, and dream symbols have different meanings in different people’s dreams. In your recurring dreams, Kathryn, the ocean reflects your conscious and unconscious emotions, calm and peaceful in dreams where the ocean is relatively calm, and anxious and fearful when the ocean rises as a tsunami. In the tsunami dreams, you say you feel almost like being swallowed up. When you have the tsunami dreams, look back over the day or two before the dream: where, in those last couple of days, were you feeling almost swallowed up?
The safe house represents your need for emotional safety, and your ocean dreams give you a barometer reading on how safe or unsafe you’re feeling. If we were to explore your dreams in great detail, we’d discover why emotional safety is so important to you, whether you need to take more steps to find ways to feel safe, or whether you’re being overcautious and could benefit from taking more risks or being more adventurous in exploring the unknown.
The glass house allows you to see the ocean without being physically touched by it. If you feel a need for extra security or perspective in waking life, you can summon up the feeling of being in the glass house (while you are awake), helping you to monitor emotional or risky experiences without being caught up in them.
When the ocean is murky but calm, you are most likely feeling calm in a waking life situation despite not being able to see all the details clearly, or not having clear insight.
Your dream symbols come from your unconscious mind, so you can do exercises involving changing your dream symbols while awake – this is a process I call dream alchemy – to reprogram your unconscious mind for more positive life experiences. After a tsunami dream, close your eyes and imagine yourself back in the dream, only this time face the tsunami and watch it dissipate until it returns to calm. You have the power to do this as you are in control of this visualisation. Doing this helps reprogram your unconscious mind to feel less anxious in the face of whatever it is in waking life that leaves you feeling swallowed up. A wonderful spin-off is that you will automatically discover ways of changing that situation so that it is less overwhelming so that it becomes something you can handle with a sense of calm.
Courtney Dreams of Steep, Winding Highways
So my recurring dream is actually more about a PART of a dream that pops up in all very different dreams. And it has for probably 6+ years.
It’s a very steep highway in a city. Like roller coaster steep, but it’s a normal motorway. Sometimes I’m driving on it. Sometimes I’m a passenger in a car on it. One time I was struggling to walk up it. And a couple of times I’ve passed it in dreams and remembered parts of other dreams that occurred on it still within the dream.
To go into greater detail, the first memory I have on it, I was with my childhood best friend sitting on top of a van in lawn chairs going up and down the crazy highway into the city.
Another time I was driving a friend’s car but wasn’t a very good driver, and was navigating my way into the city on the steep highway.
Another time I was walking up one of the steep parts of the highway to get to the airport but I ultimately missed my flight. Another time in a calmer dream, I was driving on a different road and I saw the steep highway off in the distance and remembered being on it in the other dreams.
There are more iterations of it, but I only have mental pictures of the memory, not any specific details. It’s crazy. I have seen it from all different sides in many different dreams which were all insanely different with different people.
When I am ON the highway, either walking or driving, it’s very stressful in the moment. It has such steep hills that it either catches my stomach going down a hill, or I fear we’ll roll backward going up a hill. But when I am looking at the highway from afar in other dreams, I just remember very platonically and unemotionally the other times I was on it, and the city that it’s in. I suppose the dream is about me. So I’ll choose three words that describe myself. Warm, creative, chronic over thinker. My dreams are always very, very different from each other and I very often remember them. But I have always found it so interesting that this highway has shown up in just SO many of them. Nothing else is very consistent in any of my dreams!
The steep highway has been in your dreams for 6+ years, so the starting point, Courtney, is that it represents something that you’ve been navigating for that length of time. What changed for you just over six years ago? You mention the word ‘crazy’ a couple of times, and you also say that the dreams where this road appears are all ‘insanely’ different, so it’s likely that the road represents situations that feel crazy to you. When you see the road from a distance in dreams you feel calm, suggesting that, at those times, you have some calm perspective on those ‘crazy’ situations, whereas when you’re up close you’re more engaged in the crazy roller coaster energy of it all.
The first time you remembered the dream you were with a childhood friend, sitting precariously in lawn chairs on top of a van. I don’t know whether it felt precarious, but as we look back on the dream we can see that it was! The childhood friend is a clue: there was a part of you that felt like her, finding yourself on this crazy journey, carried along by an unknown force (unknown driver), perhaps trying to be cool and laid back (like the lawn chairs).
Your dreaming mind has chosen this road to represent the different ways you navigate a situation or issue at different times, and the other details in the dream – particularly the people you’re with – help pinpoint the issue and give clues about what you can do to make positive changes. You say you have seen the road from all different sides, meaning your dreaming mind is trying to look at this from many different angles.
In an ideal world the road would have a gentle incline all the way to the top, with no fear of falling backward, no fear in the pit of your stomach from being hurtled forward. The road comes up in your dreams when you’re feeling very stressed by the steep challenges in your life, perhaps challenges to ‘get to the top’ combined with fear of falling behind (falling backward) or not being able to ‘take off’ (catch the plane). You mention that you’re a chronic overthinker, and it may be your over thinking that causes you to stress at what you see as possible outcomes: falling backward, not making it to the top.
You say that it’s roller coaster steep but that it’s a normal highway. It might help to think of the challenges in your life as being normal and navigable but thrown into crazy mode when you over think and bring all the what if’s into your mind to destabilise the journey. Each time you have a stressful version of the dream, wake up and imagine what you could do to make the road better: see it straightened out, or see a chairlift to the side of the road that you could take, or an elevator that zips straight to the top. Keep replaying the new version of the road in your mind’s eye, and see and feel yourself arriving at the top calmly and confidently.
Anita Dreams of Her Boyfriend's S-EX-ual Encounters
I have a recurring dream of my boyfriend of 3 years having sex with his ex-girlfriend. In the dream I usually am either arriving home or sometimes I enter the dream straight into the act. It’s when I realise what’s going on that I lose the ability to move in my dreams, including not being able to close my eyes. As they are having sex in front of me it becomes very full on and it’s also as if the ex is focusing on doing whatever to get a reaction out of me. In some instance,s she has approached me and whispered in my ear that “he’s mine”. Throughout the dream, I am never able to control what is happening and usually, the only way I exit is either from waking myself up or my partner waking me up as he has heard me crying in my sleep. I usually wake up quite upset and breathless.
When I first entered the dream and realised what was happening in front of me I was initially quite furious. I remember wanting to go and hit his ex. When I realise I can’t move is when I start to feel like I’m having an anxiety attack. I usually can feel my chest getting tight and then I feel like I can’t breathe. I would describe his ex as I know her as manipulative, childish and attention seeking. My boyfriend is loving, optimistic and funny!
Before interpreting the sex part of your recurring dream, Anita, let’s look at what’s happening when you find yourself unable to move, and the anxiety attack begins, your chest gets tight, and you feel that you can’t breathe. There are two possibilities here:
Your fury and fear in the dream triggers your physical body into ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode, and you freeze. Your body releases the fear and stress hormones into your blood, and your physiological body takes over. You feel all of this even while you’re still in the dream, and you feel the remnants of it when you wake up. That’s one possibility.
The other possibility for the freeze is related. When we dream, our muscles are prevented from moving very much, which is a good thing because otherwise we’d be up and about and acting out our dreams. This effect is ‘sleep paralysis’ and it keeps us safe. However, if you feel fear in a dream and begin to wake up before the sleep paralysis has turned off, you’ll find yourself half awake, half dreaming, unable to move, with a sense of a heavy weight on your chest (or tight chest), and difficulty breathing. If you try to shout out for help nothing comes out. It feels like an anxiety attack, or like someone holding you down and preventing you from moving.
So the not being able to move and the feeling of having an anxiety attack may be more physiological than something to be interpreted as part of the dream.
Dreams process your conscious and unconscious experiences of the day or two before, so with a recurring dream, each time it comes up take note of what was happening and what you were feeling in the 1-2 days before, until you notice a pattern. This will give you a strong clue about what the dream is about.
The essence of the dream is that you are furious when you discover that you have been betrayed or cheated. Sex in the dream may just be a symbol that is rich with drama, intimacy, and hurt; instead focus on the feeling of being betrayed. Think beyond your relationship, for things in dreams are not what they seem. Is there an area in your life where you feel betrayed, or where you fear being betrayed? Is there an area in your life where you could be furious but you are trying to keep that fury down, not express it? When we try to repress strong emotions like fury and anger, they often erupt in our dreams, because they need to be expressed somewhere.
You say it feels like the ex is focussed on getting a reaction out of you. Where, in waking life, do you try to hold back on reacting? Is it the same situation where you’re trying to hold back your anger?
Everyone and everything in a dream represents something about the dreamer, so that manipulative ex represents how you feel about manipulation. My feeling, from your dream, is that you feel it would be manipulative (or childish, or attention seeking) to express your anger about a situation, so you hold back. In reality, we need to find ways to acknowledge our feelings so that we can free ourselves to make healthy decisions. Your fear of being seen as manipulative may drive you to be the exact opposite, frightened of making a move (as in the dream) or taking control, or it may drive you to try to stay in control of yourself too much. Look for a happy medium. Perhaps you are betraying your best interests, cheating yourself out of a more relaxed approach to life.
Kalina Dreams of Parallel Universes
Since I don’t experience a recurring scenario or story in dreams, but recurring and related locations, I’ll answer the questions a bit more broadly to describe my overall experience.
I’ve been experiencing dreams taking place in recurring locations since I’ve been 7 or 8 years old (I’m currently 25). These locations usually fall under one of three categories:
- exact copies of places I know in real life
- modified copies of places I know in real life
- completely made up places
The scale and level of detail I recognize in places vary as well – some like homes, shopping malls, schools, train stations and restaurants are detailed and easy to recall at all times, while random streets, out-of-town wastelands and certain buildings are unclear. I also tend to have an idea of the spacial relations between most of the often recurring locations – I can’t imagine a full map of all places, but I have an idea of the distances between them and general directions.
Almost all of the dreams I have happened in one of the types of locations described above. Most of them don’t evoke a consistent emotional response, but rather different emotions based on the current dreams. However there are a few locations where all dreams tend to be associated with negative emotions – they are also usually visually unpleasant places or have bad weather or decaying buildings.
One consistent thought/emotion all the recurring locations in dreams give me is a strong urge to remember details about them. When I wake up, the details of what happened in my dream tend to fade faster from memory than the location where it took place. I sometimes have a nagging feeling that I’m forgetting an important detail.
Overall, I’d describe the experience as interesting, thought-provoking, but also a bit boring in the long run, since I don’t get to see that many new places in my dreams.
While it’s very tempting for us to wonder whether the various places we visit in our dreams are places we inhabit in parallel universes, or are scenarios from past lives, the most rewarding approach is to consider all aspects of our dreams as representing aspects of ourselves. To know our deep inner universe – the totality of our being – gifts all-encompassing wisdom, meaningfulness, and purpose.
Look at your dream locations, Kalina, as all representing aspects of yourself. For example, the places with bad weather possibly represent your moods at the time of the dream, and the places with decaying buildings possibly represent what you feel is coming to an end in your life, or in need of renovation. You are correct in saying that you feel these dreams are associated with negative emotions, so it seems you have a good handle on that. If you could remember more details about the storyline of the dreams, you’d be able to discover the origins of these negative emotions – conscious or unconscious – how they affect your life, what needs to be healed, what you might like to change.
Places you know in waking life most likely represent situations and issues you’re more aware of. Modified places most likely represent changes: for example, a common dream is to return to a childhood home and see it changed. The changed childhood home records, symbolically, what has changed within yourself since you were a child, or records the changes in your perspective looking back on your childhood.
The completely made up places most likely represent the raw stuff of the real you, the wild and beautiful, or potentially beautiful, aspects of your being, lost aspects you can reconnect with, or those about to resurface. For each dream place, ask yourself, ‘What is the personality of this place?’ and let your answer guide you to explore that place within yourself.
The more you work with your dreams in this way, the more you’ll see different places emerge in your dreams, and more dream details too.
Image, Louisiana Mei Geipi. With special thanks to Jane Teresa Anderson.
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