All Your Questions On Recurring Dreams, Answered By Therapists & Dream Experts
Sometimes dreams are random, unique, and never to be had again in your life. And other times, you have the same dream over and over (and over) again. Here's what dream experts want you to know about recurring dreams—from why they happen, to what they mean, and how to stop having them.
What is a recurring dream?
Just as it sounds, a recurring dream is a dream that keeps coming back. Therapist and dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., explains to mbg that recurring dreams are often (though not always) nightmares or bad dreams "and are generally a sign that something important requires the dreamer's attention."
It's important to note that recurring dreams are not always identical but rather may have repeating elements or themes, Ellis says.
"If this is the case, it's helpful to pay attention to the subtle changes that do happen, as they are often a good sign," she notes, adding, "For example, if a traumatic dream begins to weave in current life places and people rather than replay the trauma exactly, it's a sign that integration of the traumatic experience has begun."
What causes it?
According to Ellis, this is a million-dollar question. "I think the most relevant theories suggest that dreams are helping us process our emotional memories," she says. A recurring dream, then, is about an emotional issue that has not been "put to bed," she adds.
"For example, I've worked with a client who experienced a very long grief process, and the dreams of their loss continued for years as they worked through the feelings around it. A certain amount of repetition is normal, particularly in terms of dream themes. Our dreams tend to follow consistent patterns throughout our lives, so it's normal for the same themes to circle back around again," Ellis explains.
And as dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg tells mbg, recurring dreams are also connected to recurring behavior patterns in our waking lives. If you exhibit a particular behavior repeatedly, she explains, you'll probably keep having the accompanying dream.
"These are usually lifelong recurring dreams, when you get the same sort of dream or dream theme for as long as you can remember, likely because it's connected to a recurring behavior pattern," she explains, adding a recurring dream about being chased, for example, can indicate a behavior pattern of avoidance. When the behavior changes, the dream will likely stop (but more on that later).
Potential explanations for recurring dreams:
- An unresolved emotional issue
- Recurring behavior
Stress dreams vs. recurring dreams.
Stress dreams and recurring dreams certainly have some overlap, though they're not always one and the same. A stress dream may not be recurring, and a recurring dream may not necessarily be related to stress.
As Loewenberg explains, if you're engaging in a recurring behavior pattern that's negatively affecting you or stressing you out, it can certainly seep its way into your dreams.
"A good example of a stress dream that's recurring for a lot of people is the tornado dream," she says, which is often thought to represent stress and a lack of control. She adds that it's "a good example of a dream that's connected to a recurring behavior pattern and ongoing issue."
And as Ellis adds, there's a chance that we dream about the most predominant emotion in our lives at that time. "Stress dreams are interesting in that most people have a hallmark stress dream that places them back in high school, often about to take an exam for a class they haven't attended all year," she explains. "It's as if the dream is picking up on our stress levels and giving us the paradigmatic stress experience to make its point," she adds.
Common recurring dreams.
We've all had our fair share of unique dreams, but there are also a handful of recurring dream themes that have become almost universal.
Here are Ellis and Loewenberg's potential interpretations of a few common elements of recurring dreams that might show up for you:
If you're dreaming about the same place:
Whether you're dreaming of your childhood home, your high school, or somewhere you've never been, according to Loewenberg, that place actually represents something to you. It's not about the literal location, she explains, but rather a part of yourself or a part of your personality.
To dream of a house you've never been to, for example, can actually give you clues into how you're feeling. "It's important to pay attention to the type of house it is, how well it's furnished, etc. If it's run-down, for example, that's an indication you have recurring bouts of feeling run-down," Loewenberg says. A mansion, on the other hand, could indicate you have grand ideas or you want to grow and expand.
If you're dreaming about the same person:
Ellis notes that sometimes, dreaming about someone repeatedly is straightforward; you've been thinking about them a lot, so naturally, you keep dreaming about them. Other times, though, it's not so simple. Sometimes, she and Loewenberg both explain, the person you frequently dream about represents something that's important for you to assimilate.
"Dreams about people can be read on the literal level if it makes sense to do so. However, if it's someone that you can't simply reconnect with—like a movie star or someone who has died—it is clear this person represents something else," Ellis explains, adding, "I often ask what qualities stand out about that person, and what it would be like to become more like that—which can bring helpful and surprising information."
If you're dreaming about a relationship:
While you might think dreaming about a particular relationship could mean you desire it in real life, this isn't always the case either. Loewenberg tells mbg that you always want to turn the dream on yourself first, so in this case (and similar to above), this person you keep dreaming about could represent a part of you.
"If it's a friendship from the past or an ex from the past, ask yourself what you were like when that person was in your life—and how is that part of you at play right now?" she explains, adding, "Dreams borrow from the past in order to show us something that's going on in the present similar to back then."
How to stop recurring dreams.
Now that you know all about recurring dreams, you're probably wondering if there's any way to stop the one you've been having for years. And according to Ellis and Loewenberg, there certainly is.
The best way to stop having a recurring dream, Ellis says, is to take the time to figure out what the dream is asking of you—and then begin to take steps to do it.
"If it's a stress dream around an exam, for example, maybe you need to prepare better for what's coming. If it's a traumatic dream, maybe you need to spend time processing the associated memory, ideally with a trauma therapist. If it feels manageable on your own, try going back into the recurrent dream in your mind's eye, immerse yourself in it, and let it carry forward to a resolution. This usually changes things in some way, and sometimes the dream simply doesn't return," Ellis tells mbg.
As Loewenberg adds, recurring dreams indicate a "stuckness," so stopping the dream is about becoming unstuck. "When you get that recurring dream, it's the subconscious' way of nagging us. And it has to keep telling us the same thing over and over again until we get the message and act on it—so acting on the recurring dream is the best way to make it stop," she explains.
Ellis and Loewenberg are also both proponents of dream journaling, which can help you interpret your dreams right after they happen. This can be particularly helpful if a dream wakes you up, as jotting down your thoughts on the dream can help clear your mind so you can get back to sleep.
And of course, if your recurring dream is also a stressful one, it's important to work on mitigating the stress in your waking life so it doesn't creep into your dreams—which brings us to our next point.
Better sleep & less stress are key.
As you decode your dreams' messages and work on stopping your recurring dream, it's also important to prioritize quality sleep and less stress in general. Not only will doing so help you feel better overall, but you may just de-stress enough to stop having that recurring stress dream.
For better sleep, remember to keep a consistent sleep schedule (wake time and bedtime!), eat a healthy diet, and get plenty of movement. On top of that, avoid caffeine, alcohol, screens, and large meals before bed, have a solid wind-down routine, and try a sleep supplement like mbg's sleep support+ if you need a little extra help.*
For less stress, many of the same principles apply, including getting enough sleep and exercising regularly, as well as not overburdening yourself with too many responsibilities. You can also try meditation, aromatherapy, or even a stress-busting supplement like mbg's calm+.*
If your latest recurring dream is making bedtime feel daunting, it's worthwhile to get to the bottom of it. With a little dream interpretation, some inspired action, and perhaps a few stress-reducing techniques and supplements, you'll be able to sleep more soundly–and maybe even stop the dream altogether.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.