The recurring dream

As functioning human beings, we are supposed to feel restful after a good night's sleep. However, this can be difficult if plagued by the phenomena of a recurring dream. Not always fretful, recurring dreams can still have a tendency to leave us feeling confused, disturbed and sleep deprived, never knowing when they will come and go. 


What is a recurring dream?

A recurring dream is repeated frequently and often over a long period of time. They can follow similar themes each night such as being chased, feeling lost or trapped, being naked in a group of people, falling or seeing insects.  

Ultimately their true meaning will be unique to each individual and, for many of us, will go ignored. The recurring dream can be the same images played over and over or the dreamer can be confronted with a different scenario, however, there will always be a central emotion that reoccurs for the dreamer such as fear, loneliness, or grief.

We know that dreaming is actually a normal biological and psychological process that we all go through at night. Our brain helps us to try to understand and process what it is that we have consciously witnessed and experienced throughout the day. We have perhaps all been confronted with a difficult decision and thought to ourselves "I'm going to sleep on it..." This is because we trust that our brain has the ability to help us to process that conscious decision that we are battling. We trust our brain to make sense of that decision and hope that we will wake up the next day feeling more confident about the choice that we want to take. 

This is also true of all of our thoughts and memories; the good, the bad and the ugly.  The brain holds for us all of our fears, desires, unwanted behaviours and emotions no matter what the content. Some of these will be shunned by us as human beings - perhaps too painful, too raw, or too difficult to want to contemplate. However, they don’t simply go away; they can become repressed and sent away into our unconscious only to play out at night. 

Recurring dreams and unresolved trauma 

This too is true of trauma, which is a literal shock to the system which is stored instead of released. When trauma occurs, your brain temporarily pauses your memory processing system, and the experience is stored as fragments of pictures or bodily sensations. These fragments are unprocessed and can surface unexpectedly as nightmares, recurring dreams, flashbacks, and/or anxiety and depression.

Our brain is a complex organ that tries to make sense of our world in order to help us to resolve parts better, and it can do this often by using very vivid and repetitive images. It can be said then that our unconscious is trying to bring to us a message that just can’t be ignored. That dream image that we keep seeing might be a way of telling you to focus. It is trying to bring something that is unresolved to the surface. 

What can I do about my recurring dream?

It can be difficult to admit to anyone that you are being plagued at night by upsetting or frightening images. People don’t often want to know about that faceless person that chases you along a dimly lit school corridor or circus tent. After all, it's totally nonsensical….right? But actually those set of images, to the dreamer, can feel very real and unsettling. Recurring dreams can cause us to dread going to sleep, if we let them, causing fatigue and exhaustion. Unresolved trauma can cause debilitating illnesses. 

So, although dauting, the first step can be to remain curious about that strange recurring dream and to start to wonder what could it mean?  Like most problems that we are confronted with in life, we have to turn our attention to it in order to process it. 

These traumatic events can include:

  • abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
  • bullying and/or harassment 
  • witnessing or being in an accident 
  • family conflict
  • natural disasters 

Working with a professional 

It can be really helpful to begin to work with a therapist to explore the dream in its entirety. A therapist that is comfortable in helping you to explore your dreams will enable you to bring your dream world into waking life so that you can better understand it. Together you can try to consider aspects using imagery, drawings or by talking. Your therapist might explore the following: 

  • What is happening in the dream, who/what is there?
  • How do you feel within the dream and when you wake up?
  • Is that a feeling you experience in the waking day? If so why?  
  • What is the environment in the dream like? Hot/cold? Friendly? Frightening? Familiar? Smells?  
  • Do you feel safe/unsafe and why?
  • Are any of the colours/symbols familiar to you? 
  • If you could change it, what could happen instead?
  • What would you want to say to yourself in the dream and/or to the perpetrators?

A therapist will not try to interpret that dream for you, after all, the dream is coming from your world not theirs. They will also not judge the content or the images that you see - the idea is that you are able to focus on the feelings that come up for you and, in turn, this might become more revealing than you first realised. You might start making relevant connections to your waking life, enabling you to start talking about this further.    

A therapist can also look at working with you to establish some grounding techniques. It Is important with challenging dreams that can make us feel disorientated to wake up fully and to return to the present moment before returning to sleep again. Sometimes, by drawing certain aspects as a form of art therapy, they can appear less frightening and can help you to see the issue/trauma differently. 

Often clients have said to me that just by confronting that dream in their waking hours, it has altered the sequence of events or changed the ending somehow. By voicing their fears or talking through a difficult time in their life, their brain has been better able to re-order, process and store those memories. Taking the time to explore these challenges, with the help of a professional, can really help to improve your sleep quality and overall your mental health.

If you are experiencing a recurring dream and want to work with a therapist to better understand it, reach out to me via my profile below. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sidcup DA14 & London SE9
Written by Alexandra Weir, Therapeutic Counsellor, Psychotherapist Dip. Couns, MBACP
Sidcup DA14 & London SE9

My name is Alex Weir and I am a qualified Integrative Therapist that works in private practice with adults both online and in person. My therapy room is located in Sidcup and I have experience working with issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship struggles and bereavement.

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