Recurrent dream themes often start at a young age, but can begin at any time, and persist for the rest of one’s life. The theme of missing an exam, to take one example, commonly begins during college years, when the stress of performing well may be more intense than ever before. However, this theme may then carry forward as a recurring dream for many years, even as one moves on to a career. The “missing the exam” dream may reappear the night before an important job interview or an evaluation at work. The circumstances may change, but the same feelings of stress, and the desire to perform well, can trigger the relevant recurrent dream.
Theorists suggest that these themes may be considered “scripts” (Spoormaker, 2008) or perhaps “complexes” (Freud 1950); as soon as your dream touches any aspect of the theme, the full script unfolds in completion. Dream theorists generally agree that recurring dreams are connected to unresolved problems in the life of the dreamer. In a previous post I discussed the idea that dreams often portray a Central Image, a powerful dream image that contextualizes a certain emotion or conflict for the dreamer. The Tidal Wave dream is an example of a Central Image that represents overwhelming emotions such as helplessness and fear. The Tidal Wave dream is a common dream to experience following trauma or abuse, and often becomes a recurrent theme that reflects a person’s struggling with integrating and accepting the trauma. Resolution of this theme over time is a good sign that the trauma has been confronted and adaptively integrated in the psyche. Empirical research has also supported findings that resolution of a recurrent dream is associated with improved well-being (Zadra, 1996). This is one way that keeping track of your dreams can be extremely informative and helpful in a therapeutic, or even self-help, process.
Many people have the same or a similar dream many times, over either a short period of time or their lifetime. Recurring dreams usually mean there is something in your life you’ve not acknowledged that is causing stress of some sort. The dream repeats because you have not corrected the problem. Another theory is that people who experience recurring dreams have some sort of trauma in their past they are trying to deal with. In this case, the dreams tend to lessen with time.
Nightmares are dreams that are so distressing they usually wake us up, at least partially. Nightmares can occur at any age but are seen in children with the most frequency. Nightmares usually cause strong feelings of fear, sadness or anxiety. Their causes are varied. Some medications cause nightmares (or cause them if you discontinue the medication abruptly). Traumatic events also cause nightmares.
Treatment for recurring nightmares usually starts with interpreting what is going on in the dream and comparing that with what is happening in the person’s life. Then, the person undergoes counseling to address the problems that are presumably causing the nightmare. Some sleep centers offer nightmare therapy and counseling. Another method of treating nightmares is through lucid dreaming. Through lucid dreaming, the dreamer can confront his or her attacker and, in some cases, end the nightmares.