An ex-boyfriend and I broke up a good four years ago. Just recently, however, I began having this recurring nightmare about him. It’s a rather simple dream, which involves us getting back together and being completely happy and confident in the decision—but just before waking up, I realize it’s a horrible idea and start panicking. Then I jolt myself back to reality, out of breath and with a racing heart.

This may not be your typical nightmare, but it is a truly terrifying alternate reality for me, which I suffer in at least a few times a month. And what’s perhaps the most frustrating part is pinpointing exactly why I’m having this dream—being that him and I never talk, nor does he frequent my thoughts.

I’ve searched high and low for an explanation—and after a couple years of coming up emptyhanded, I just may have my answer. A new study “Linking psychological need experiences to daily and recurring dreams” from the University of Cardiff says that this nightmare may simply be a reflection of everyday frustrations. More specifically, this research shows that people whose basic psychological needs are not met are more likely to have a recurrent bad dream.

We have a habit of searching for underlying messages in our dreams, but science tells us that they’re simply our brain’s way of cleaning out the day’s events and making room for new information. This study, however, is the first to specifically investigate whether our daily frustrations relating to psychological needs affect our dreams—and according to Netta Weinstein of the University of Cardiff, lead author of the study, “walking-life psychological need experiences are indeed reflected” in them.

To reach this conclusion, the research team conducted two different experiments: the first asked 200 study participants about their most common frequent dream, while the second analyzed dream journal entries from 110 subjects, which they made over the course of three days. The subsequent results from both showed frustrations and feelings related to certain psychological needs do, indeed, guide one’s dreams. Those whose needs were not met felt more frustrated and reported having more nightmares or dreams which brought about negative emotions, while those who psychological needs were met detailed more positive dreams.

“Negative dream emotions may directly result from distressing dream events and might represent the psyche’s attempt to process and make sense of particularly psychologically challenging waking experiences,” said Weinstein. She went on to explain that recurrent dreams may also be more sensitive to stressful or disturbing psychological experiences an individual still needs to confront and process: “Researchers and theorists have argued that recurring dreams challenge people to process the most pressing problems in their lives, and these may be thought to result from their failure to adapt to challenging experiences. As such, dream content may be more affected by enduring need-based experiences.”

Before stumbling upon this study, I was convinced that my dream about my ex was random. I know, how silly of me—who has a recurrent nightmare about an ex from four years ago for no good reason? It didn’t make much sense to me either, but I truly couldn’t understand or explain its relevance to my life today. Now, however, I understand that this breakup probably affected me in ways I couldn’t fully realize—or simply didn’t want to admit. And while they’re certainly not fun dreams to have, they serve a good purpose: they show me that I still need to face and process this difficult event in my life.

Springer (2017, November 30). Recurring Nightmares Could Reflect Your Daily Frustrations. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 30, 2017 from

Weinstein, N., Campbell, R., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2017, November 30). Linking psychological need experiences to daily and recurring dreams. Motivation and Emotion. Retrieved on December 1, 2017 from