Why do you always have the same dream?

Claudia Picard-Deland is a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of Montreal. Tore Nielsen is a professor of neurophysiology and neurocognition of dreams and nightmares at the University of Montreal.

Dreaming, over and over again, of the same scenario is a known phenomenon — near the two thirds of the population report having already experienced an episode of recurring dreams. Being chased, being naked in a public place, dealing with 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, whose themes come back from one person to another? Dream science indicates that recurring dreams may echo unresolved conflicts in the dreamer’s life.

Recurring dreams are dreams that an individual may have repeatedly. We notice that they often occur in times of stress or over long periods, sometimes even over several years, even a lifetime. These dreams depict not only the same theme, but also a particular story that can be repeated from one night to another.

Although the exact content of recurring dreams is unique to each person, there are common themes between individuals, and even between cultures and different eras. For example, being chased, falling, being unprepared for an assessment, arriving late, or trying to do something repeatedly are some of the most prevalent scenarios.

The majority of recurring dreams have a rather negative content, involving emotions such as fear, sadness, anger and guilt; and more than half portray a situation where the dreamer is in danger. But some recurring themes can also be positive, even euphoric, such as dreams where we discover new rooms in our house, erotic dreams or those where we have the ability to fly.

In some cases, recurring dreams that emerge 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 has passed.

Unresolved conflicts

Why does our brain play these same dreams over and over again? Studies suggest that dreams, in general, help us to regulate our emotions and to adapt to stressful events — integrating emotional content into dreams would allow the dreamer to assimilate a painful or difficult event.

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

The presence of recurring dreams has also been associated with lower level of psychological well-being and in the presence of symptoms of anxiety and depression. These dreams tend to reappear in stressful situations and to cease when the person has resolved his personal conflictindicating an improvement in well-being.

Recurring dreams often metaphorically reflect the emotional concerns of the dreamers. For example, dream of a tsunami is common as a result of trauma or abuse. It is a typical example of a metaphor that can represent emotions of helplessness, panic or fear experienced when awake.

Being dressed inappropriately in your dream, being naked, or not being able to find a private restroom represent scenarios of embarrassment or modesty.

These themes can be considered as scripts or “ready-to-dream” scenarios that provide space to digest our conflicting emotions. The same scenario can thus be reused in different situations where we experience similar emotions. This is why some people, when faced with a stressful situation or facing a new challenge, may dream again of arriving unprepared for a math exam, even years after setting foot in a school. . Although the circumstances are different, a similar feeling of stress or the desire to surpass yourself can trigger this dream scenario again.

A continuum of repetitions

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

Then there are recurrent dreams, where the same dream content is replayed in part or in its entirety. Unlike traumatic dreams, recurring dreams rarely reproduce an event or conflict directly, but instead reflect them metaphorically through a central emotion.

Further down the continuum are the recurring themes in dreams. These dreams tend to re-enact a similar situation, such as being late, being chased, or being lost, but the exact content of the dream differs from time to time (being late for a train rather than a review).

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. All of these dreams would reflect, on different levels, an attempt to resolve some emotional concerns.

Moving from an intense level to a lower level in the repetition 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 seen as people who have experienced trauma recover from their difficulties.

Physiological phenomena

Why are the themes often common from one person to another? A possible explanation is that some of these “scripts” would have been preserved in humans because of their evolutionary advantage. By allowing to simulate a threatening situationthe dream of being chased, for example, offers a space to practice perceiving and escaping predators while sleeping.

Some typical themes could also be partly explained by physiological phenomena that take place when we sleep. A study conducted in 2018 by a research team in Israel found that the famous dream of lose your teeth would not be particularly linked to symptoms of anxiety in the dreamer, but rather to the clenching of the teeth during sleep or dental discomfort upon awakening.

When we sleep, our brain is not completely cut off from the outside world. He may continue to perceive external stimuli, such as sounds or smells, or even internal bodily sensations. Thus, other themes, such as being unable to find a toilet or being naked in a public space, could be linked to the fact of needing to urinate at night or wearing loose pajamas in bed.

Certain physical phenomena specific to REM sleep, the stage of sleep where we dream the most, could also come into play. In REM sleep, our muscles are paralyzed, which could cause dreams of having heavy legs or being paralyzed. 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 would reactivate spontaneously 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 probably have a significant influence in the construction of our most typical dreams.

Get out of the loop

People who experience a recurring nightmare are somehow stuck in a way of responding to the dream scenario and anticipating it. Certain therapies have been developed to try to resolve this recurrence and break the vicious cycle of nightmares.

One of the techniques consists of visualizing the nightmare while awake and rewriting it, i.e. modifying the scenario by changing one aspect, for example the end of the dream, for something more positive. Practice at become lucid in dreams could also be a solution.

Lucid dreams are dreams where we become aware that we are dreaming and where we can sometimes even influence the content of the dream. Becoming lucid in a recurring dream could make it possible to think or react differently in the dream and thus alter the repetitive nature of these dreams.

However, not all recurring dreams are harmful in themselves and can even be useful insofar as they inform us about our personal conflicts. Paying attention to the repetitive elements of our dreams could thus be a way to better understand and resolve our greatest desires and torments.

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Why do you always have the same dream?

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