You know how it goes. You wake up in a panic, potentially in a pool of sweat, completely freaked out by the dream you’ve just had.
You were running from something. Something scary. But somehow, you just couldn’t quite get ahead.
Or perhaps you had an impending maths exam. But you hadn’t studied. Not one bit! Heck, you didn’t even own the damn textbook!
And then you wake -- and realise it’s just a dream.
“Dreams are not about particular situations but rather about the emotion that is attached to that situation,” Dr Glenn Bilsborrow, a clinical psychologist told The Huffington Post Australia.
“This can be seen most clearly in the case of those who have just experienced a trauma, such as rape or being attacked. They often report dreaming about 'overwhelming' scenarios such as being 'overwhelmed' by a tsunami -- hence this represents the feeling of being overwhelmed,” Bilsborrow said.
While Bilsborrow said dream analysis is not something his patients generally like to discuss in depth, it is no question that dreams, particularly recurring dreams can be disturbing -- and therefore he believes are useful to discuss and explore.
Interestingly, recurring dreams are of interest to researchers because they give another type of insight into the complex question of why we dream.
“It could be argued that any dream that is experienced more than once is a recurring dream. The majority of people of course would therefore have experienced recurring dreams at one time in their lives,” Bilsborrow said.
While some people experience a strong case of recurring dreams -- spending years intermittently experiencing the same dream over and over, others may have a recurring dream for a discrete period and then it simply stops.
Experts agree recurrent dreams are more likely to occur during times of stress and interestingly, women are more likely to experience them than men.
According to Bilsborrow there are two types of recurring dreams.
“The first is where a replica of a dream that has been experienced before, is experienced again. People will say that the dream is virtually identical each time, but in reality some small part is usually different," he said.
“The second type is referred to as recurring theme dream, where the theme is the same but the content is different. For example, where the person just barely makes it out of a house where it has caught fire. The house may be indistinct or familiar, or it may be in a different location each time, but the theme of escaping the fire in the nick of time is the same each time,"
There are many theories as to why this happens -- the most reasonable being that the emotion you've assigned to the underlying issue (whether fear of failure or being overwhelmed etc.) is coming up in your dream.
“Dreams represent an issue that has not been resolved in the person. Thus, as researcher Robert Van de Castle put it, recurring dreams are like a very patient company sending someone a bill over and over until it is paid,” Bilsborrow said.
When it comes to dream imagery, Bilsborrow said his own research has shown that the strength of the imagery in dreams is related back to repressed memories.
“The more traumatic at the time of the event, the more vivid, intense, bizarre, detailed and powerful the imagery of the dreams are,” Bilsborrow.
He does not however, subscribe to the idea that certain dream imagery has a universal meaning.
“Yes, there are of course some universal themes in our dreams. Who has not had a dream of falling or being chased? However, the theme does not reveal the underlying message,” Bilsborrow said.
Instead, Bilsborrow said we should be looking at the smaller details. What are you running from? What do you see in the dream? Are you running down a road, in a house, in a cave or in a swamp? Where?
“Look at the detail because that is where the secrets of its meaning lie. You don't describe the dream as ‘running down a gravel road with a paddock on my left that goes up and a dark creek on my right with a barbed wire fence on each side and in the half-light of the early evening’. You only say ‘I was running from something scary but I didn't know what it was’.
The best way to deal with a recurring dream that's bothering you?
“Find someone you can discuss it with in depth, who won’t judge what you are saying and who can offer tentative insights while not assuming they have the correct answer,” Bilsborrow said.
At the end of the day though, you probably have more answers than you think.
“Only the dreamer truly knows what the dream means, and rather paradoxically, they need to make it public by telling someone in order to really understand the message they so far have not been listening to,” Bilsborrow said.