What are recurring dreams?


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What are recurring dreams?

Recurrent dreams or nightmares are exactly what they sound like. They are dreams or nightmares that occur repeatedly across different nights or dreams.


What are recurring dreams? Why do we have the same dreams repeatedly? Part 1 #dreams #dreamtok #dreamintrpretation #dreammeaning #dreamscience #mentalhealth

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Types of recurring dreams

There are several different types of recurring dreams or dream elements. 

First, there are repeated dream elements. These are simple like dreaming of a specific character repeatedly like a mother, a vampire, or even an imaginary dream character. Locations can also appear repeatedly in dreams like a childhood home, school, work, malls, bathrooms, and so on. 

Second, there are recurrent dream themes. A dream theme is simply what the dream. Falling, flying, being chased, being late to school or work, getting lost, and so on are some examples of dream themes. 

It is important to note that dreams largely reflect our waking life and our waking life concerns. As a result, it is expected that dreams would repeatedly reflect things that are in our waking life like our home, workplaces or schools, people we interact with or think about, and so on. 

Third, there is the recurrent dream, where the dream story is nearly identical each time it repeats or recurs. This is the what scientist and researchers refer to when they investigate recurring dreams. 

Finally, there are trauma related recurring dreams. The content of the dream could be similar to the traumatic event or exactly the same as the traumatic event. xx

How frequent are recurring dreams?

Based upon a recent study, nearly 50-75% of people have had a recurring dream at some point in their lives. However, it seems difficult to assess how frequent recurring dreams are within a person’s life. In other words, even though we know that most people have had at least one recurring dreams, we don’t really know what percent of dreams are recurring dreams.

What happens in recurring dreams?

Recurring dreams largely contain negative emotions. Based upon the same recent study, it was shown that nearly 75% of recurring dreams contain negative emotions. Only 25% of recurring dreams contained positive emotions.

The most frequent theme for recurring dreams that contain negative emotions is “failure or helplessness”, followed by “being chased”, and “interpersonal conflicts”. The least common themes for recurring dreams that contain negative emotions are “insects/vermin”, “evil presence”, and “environmental abnormality”. As a result, it seems that negative recurring dreams largely represent waking life concerns. They are less related to more stereotypical nightmare themes like monsters, insects, or evil presences. 

Of the 25% of recurring dreams that contain positive motion, the most common theme was
“romantic and sexual interactions”, followed by “experiencing something pleasant”, and “positive social interactions”. The least common themes were “flying” and “see a person that was dead as alive”. Again, this suggests that recurring dreams reflect waking life concerns.

Why do we have recurring dreams?

There are some recurring dreams that are specifically related to trauma. In this case, it is clear that the cause of the recurring dreams is trauma.

The most frequently stated rationale for recurring dreams is that they are associated with stress and they represent some unresolved conflict in a person’s life. However, this rationale has been stated in nearly exactly the same way for the last 25 years.

In 1996 Antonio Zadra writes:

If recurrent dreams signal the presence of an unresolved conflict, then the cessation of a

recurring dream should indicate that the conflict has been successfully dealt with. Dream theorists from many different perspectives have suggested that this is the case (Bonime, 1962; Cartwright, 1979; Delaney, 1991; Jung, cited in Mattoon, 1978, p.84; Sharpe, 1978; Ullman and Zimmerman, 1979; Weiss, 1964). 

20 years later Aline Gauchat writes in 2015:

Many kinds of contemporary dream theories converge in their view that recurrent dreams are related to unresolved difficulties in the dreamer’s life (e.g., Bonime, 1962; Domhoff, 1993; Fantz, 1987; Fosshage & Loew, 1987) and researchers have shown that the occurrence of recurrent dreams during adulthood is associated with stressors and lowered levels of psychological well-being (Brown & Donderi, 1986; Cartwright, Lloyd, Knight, & Trenholme, 1984; Robbins & Houshi, 1983; Zadra, O’Brien, & Donderi, 1998)

And finally in 2022, Michael Schrel writes:

Accordingly, many dream theories maintain that recurrent dreams are related to emotional preoccupations or unresolved conflicts in waking life (Bonime & Bonime, 1962; Domhoff, 1993; Fosshage & Loew, 1987; Perls, 1969).

The explanation that recurrent dreams arise during times of stress and represent unresolved conflicts may be compelling, but it does not look like any work to develop or test this theory has been conducted over the last 25 years. Additionally, while 75% of recurrent dreams contain negative emotions, 77% of dreams in general contain negative emotions.


In sum, recurrent dreams are dreams in which the identical dream story is experienced in different dreams. These are different than traumatic dreams in which the story can be repeated, but are directly related to a traumatic event. 50-75% of people have had at least one recurrent dream. 75% of recurring dreams contain negative emotions. While it is thought that recurring dreams represent unresolved conflict, little work has been done to develop or test this hypothesis in the last 25 years.

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