Dreams: A guide to why we dream and what our dreams mean

We all have a dream world — a mirror of our subconscious mind. This is where those monsters under your childhood bed live and your pantsless self in public, too (modern nightmares at their finest). We also can’t forget about your ability to fly or your new boyfriend… who is actually your best friend in real life, and now you feel weird.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about dreams, but one thing is for certain: They’re powerful. They can trigger intense emotions and cause us to question everything. Our life trajectory, our relationships, our past. For better or worse, we all have dreams. And we can take a little power back if we learn to understand them better.

So, we put together this deep dive about dreams. We answer the most frequently asked questions about dreams, which will help you understand why we have them, what your dreams might mean, how to stop bad dreams, how to start controlling your dreams, and more. Read this article in full or jump to the sections that interest you most — the journey is yours.

What Are Dreams?

Dreams are a combination of thoughts, feelings, and images that occur in our minds when we sleep. These stories that we dream up can be fun, frightening, enlightening, or completely bizarre. Depending on their nature, when we wake up from a dream, we might feel happy, scared, motivated, or uneasy, among a range of other emotions.

Everybody dreams. If you’re one of those people who claim you never dream, you just don’t remember it. Dreams can happen at any stage of sleep, but the most vivid dreams occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) — this is when your brain is the most active.

What Are the Different Types of Dreams?

There are a few different types of dreams, including normal dreams, daydreams, lucid dreams, false awakening dreams, and nightmares. You’re probably familiar with most, but let’s take a look at each:

  1. Normal dreams: These are the dreams we’ve talked about thus far. These are the stories we create in our heads when we’re sleeping.
  2. Daydreams: These occur when we’re awake — they’re visions of our past, our future, or even our present. 
  3. Lucid dreams: These are dreams that you have complete control of. You know you’re dreaming and you can manipulate the thoughts, feelings, and images in your dream. 
  4. False awakening dreams: These are vivid dreams that make you feel like you’re awake when in reality you’re still sleeping.
  5. Nightmares: Also called bad dreams, these are disturbing and often make you feel scared. 

You probably have normal dreams, daydreams, false awakening dreams, and nightmares on a fairly regular basis. Lucid dreams, however, are a bit rarer. According to the Sleep Foundation, 55% of adults have had at least one lucid dream in their lifetime, while 23% of people have lucid dreams at least once a month. 

Why Do We Have Dreams?

Some people believe that dreams are reflections of our true feelings. Others believe that dreams give us a glimpse into our future. The truth is that all we have right now are speculations — researchers don’t yet agree on why we have dreams, but here are a few theories:

  • Emotion-processing: Some people believe that dreams help us confront our emotions, which is why you might have dreams about your recent breakup or a fight with your parents. With a little help from your brain, your unconscious self might process these emotions more readily when you’re sleeping.
  • Creativity: Another theory is that our dreams inspire creativity. Have you ever woken up from a dream with a new idea for that book you’re writing or that painting you’re working on? Your conscious self might block out ideas that seem far-fetched or silly, but your unconscious self embraces them. 
  • Fight or flight: Others believe that dreams prepare us for threats. This theory might explain nightmares about getting kidnapped, drowning, or being cheated on. These dreams trigger a thought process around what we would do in these situations. 
  • Memory storage: Another theory is that dreams help us store important memories and lessons learned. Have you ever been told to “sleep on it” after studying for a test? Research shows that sleep will help you better recall new information. 

It’s possible that dreams serve all of the above purposes, depending on the context of the dream.

What Do Your Dreams Actually Mean?

Unfortunately, the meaning of dreams isn’t super clear either. However, as with their purpose, there are some commonly held beliefs about what different types of dreams might mean:

  • Flying: If you have a dream about flying, this might be a sign that it’s time to let go of something. Many believe that this is a sign of an out-of-control situation.
  • Falling: One-third of people dream about falling, which might symbolize a major problem in your life that needs to be managed. 
  • Getting chased: This dream might signify it’s time to confront an issue that has been bothering you. 
  • Running late: Another common dream this one might mean you have too much on your plate and need to take a step back.
  • Being naked in public: If you’re dreaming about being naked in public, ask yourself if you feel anxious or vulnerable. These dreams are common among people who have recently made a big life change like moving.
  • Being pregnant: There’s debate over the meaning of this dream. Some believe it signifies a problem while others believe it’s representative of a new idea or project.

What Do Recurring Dreams Mean?

Have you ever had the same dream more than once in a short period of time? This is called a recurring dream and it might signify stress or conflict in your life. Recurring dreams are common, in fact as many as 75% of adults have them. And most often, they’re bad dreams or nightmares. 

To understand specifically what your recurring dream means, think about what’s been bothering you lately. Are you feeling stressed? Are you feeling upset or angry? Why? You might even have to take a look back at your past if you can’t pinpoint a recent stressor. The culprit might be an unresolved problem from your past that’s coming back to haunt you. Fortunately, once you get to the bottom of the problem that’s causing your recurring dream, you can work to get closure and put an end to the frequent dreaming.

Why Do I Keep Having Bad Dreams?

Bad dreams, or nightmares, might be more prevalent in childhood, but they don’t completely spare us adults. These can be caused by a variety of factors. Here are some of the most common:

  • Anxiety: Feeling anxious can cause nightmares. If the subject of your bad dreams reflects something that’s causing you stress or uncertainty in real life, anxiety is likely the culprit.
  • Trauma: Trauma can cause bad dreams too. In fact, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is nightmares. Individuals with PTSD often dream about the traumatic event. 
  • Sleep disorders: Certain sleep disorders like sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome can also contribute to nightmares. There is also a sleep disorder called nightmare disorder, which is characterized by recurrent bad dreams that cause distress, disrupt sleep, and interfere with day-to-day functioning.
  • An increase in metabolism: Other people have bad dreams after eating too close to bedtime, which can cause their metabolism to increase and their brain to become more active.
  • Medication: A handful of medications that alter your brain chemistry, including antidepressants, can also increase the likelihood of nightmares 
  • Withdrawal: You might also have bad dreams as a result of withdrawal from medication. 

How Do You Stop Bad Dreams?

The best way to stop bad dreams is to get to the bottom of what’s causing them. Take a look at the list above and see if any of those common causes might be the culprit. Then, work to address the underlying cause. For example, if you frequently eat before bed, there’s a good chance that’s contributing to your nightmares (see “an increase in metabolism” above). Fortunately, you can easily put an end to your bad dreams by changing your nighttime eating habits. 

If it isn’t clear what’s causing your nightmares, here are a few additional tips for stopping your bad dreams:

  1. Practice sleep hygiene. In other words, create a routine and environment for optimal sleep. This involves exercising on a regular basis (so that you’re ready to rest at night), going to bed and waking up around the same time each day, keeping your room dark and cold, and cutting out food as well as caffeine a few hours before your bedtime. 
  2. Wind down with calming activities. Calm your mind and prepare your body to rest by engaging in slow, stress-reducing activities. Meditate, stretch, do a quick 5-minute yoga routine, listen to a soothing podcast. Choose an activity that you find enjoyable and relaxing.
  3. Journal. Journaling is a great way to end your day (whether you’re having bad dreams or not). Naturally, we write about what’s bothering us — what’s making us feel anxious and stressed. Getting these negative thoughts and feelings out of your mind and onto paper will help you relax and get a more restful night’s sleep.
  4. Ditch the true crime content. If you’re notorious for reading thrillers or watching the latest true crime documentary before bed, stop. See if that makes a difference. The content of our dreams is often made up of recent stimuli, so it’s common for scary thoughts, feelings, and images to creep in if we’re spooked before falling asleep.
  5. Take back control from your bad dream. If you’re having the same bad dream over and over again (a recurrent bad dream), try manipulating it when you’re in an awake state. Write down or say aloud, “If I start to dream about X again, I have the power to turn it off and dream about X instead.” 

Why Don’t I Have Dreams?

Like we said earlier, we all have dreams! But we don’t always remember them. Fortunately, you can take steps to remember your dreams (if you’re feeling left out). Keep reading to find out why you might not remember your dreams and how to start.

Why Can’t I Remember My Dreams?

There isn’t a clearcut answer to why certain people can’t remember their dreams but others can. However, there are some theories that provide insight. Here are a few potential explanations:

  1. Information-sorting: Remember the theory earlier that said dreams help with memory and information storage? Well, the reason that some of us can’t remember our dreams might be due to our ability to sort through information during sleep. People who do remember their dreams might have better overall memory.
  2. Blockage: Another theory says that if you can’t remember a dream, your brain might be blocking it out on purpose. Certain dreams are incredibly intense and it’s beneficial to forget their content so that it doesn’t interrupt our lives. Or, so that we don’t get confused between our dreams and reality.
  3. Personality: Your ability to remember your dreams might also come down to your personality. Research has found that those with more creative tendencies are better able to remember their dreams while those who are more practical and focused on what’s in front of them are less likely to remember their dreams.
  4. Brain activity: Finally, a certain region in the brain called the temporoparietal junction can help you enter an intra-sleep wakefulness state that enables your brain to better remember your dreams. If you don’t recall your dreams, you might have less activity in this region of the brain.

How Do You Control Your Dreams?

Lucid dreams are dreams that you can control. As we mentioned earlier, lucid dreams aren’t as common as other types of dreams (normal dreams, daydreams, false awakening dreams, and nightmares). However, you can increase your chances of lucid dreaming, by taking the following steps:

  1. Create an ideal sleep environment. Remember how we told you to practice sleep hygiene earlier to get rid of nightmares? This will help here, too. Most dreams occur in the REM stage of sleep (the deepest stage). The best way to ensure you enter REM is to relax before bed, establish a healthy and consistent bedtime routine, keep your bedroom cool and dark, turn off your electronics as well as forego food and caffeine well before bed, and so on. 
  2. Keep a record of your dreams. Some of us always remember our dreams while others aren’t so lucky. In either case, start writing down all of the details you can remember when you wake up. You can do this in a physical journal or download an app like DreamKeeper to record your dream details. This’ll help you better tune into your dreams.
  3. Look for patterns or themes in your dreams. Next, keep an eye out for any recurring people, images, thoughts, and feelings in your dreams. Does your friend from high school regularly make an appearance? Is your dog always somewhere nearby? Do you always feel afraid, excited, or confused in your dreams? These consistencies can help you determine when you’re dreaming and kickstart lucid dreaming. 
  4. Use mnemonics. A little something called mnemonic induction can help you control your dreams, too. When you lay down to sleep, repeat the phrase (aloud or in your head), “I will be able to tell when I’m dreaming.” Repeating phrases of the like will encourage your brain to be on the lookout for dreams and make it more likely to notify you when you enter a dream state. 
  5. Try the “Wake Back to Bed” strategy. Set an alarm for the middle of the night. When it sounds, it’ll likely wake you up REM sleep, which again is where most dreams occur. Then, stay awake for 30 minutes or so writing down the details of your dream. Next, do something short and quick that’ll wake up your brain a little, like walking a couple of laps around your house. Finally, get back in bed and think about the dream you had as you fall back asleep. You’re more likely to reenter your dream and be able to control it.


Table of contents

What Are Dreams?

What Are the Different Types of Dreams?

Why Do We Have Dreams?

What Do Your Dreams Actually Mean?

What Do Recurring Dreams Mean?

Why Do I Keep Having Bad Dreams?

How Do You Stop Bad Dreams?

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the Head of Content at Thriveworks. She received her BA in multimedia journalism with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book.”

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