We’ve all had a nightmare – maybe you were falling from a building or dreamed that you were drowning and had to jolt yourself awake – but for some people, nightmares are more frequent. About 1 in 20 of the general population has a nightmare every week.
Nightmares are commonly linked to stressful events, so there is a significant relationship between nightmares and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But you don’t have to have PTSD to suffer from bad dreams.
If you’re in a high-stress job or are suffering from SAD (seasonal affective disorder) or depression, you’re more likely to get nightmares.
Now, you might be wondering: wait, I have nightmares a lot, am I depressed and I just don’t know it?
Not necessarily. One study showed a significant increase in nightmare occurrence in adults who slept more than 9 hours a night. There’s plenty we don’t know about nightmares (and dreams in general). In this article, we’re going to cover the five most common nightmares (which everybody seems to experience from time to time) and talk about what they might mean.
1. Teeth falling out
Having a nightmare where your teeth completely fall out or rot is one of the most common recorded nightmares on record.
So, I guess the good news is you aren’t alone. But the bad news is having a nightmare of your teeth falling out is pretty intense.
What makes this nightmare different from the other nightmares on our list, is that it’s hard to tie the themes of this nightmare back to your daily life. For example, it’s easy to see the connection between a nightmare about running late with the very real daily anxiety of being late to work or school. But most of us don’t walk around with our teeth suddenly falling out, so what gives?
There is a practical explanation and a more metaphysical explanation.
The practical explanation says that teeth dreams are due to dental irritation (that we experience on a subconscious level). This means grinding your teeth as you sleep may lead to more nightmares about your pearly whites rotting or falling out. There is some evidence of this, as study participants who experienced more dental irritation in the morning (such as tension in the teeth or jaws) also recorded more teeth-oriented dreams.
The more metaphysical explanation says teeth dreaming is rooted in psychological distress. There is the argument that dreams about your teeth reveal anxieties about your looks. So, if you’re afraid of rejection or being embarrassed or being unattractive, then you’re more likely to have teeth dreams. The metaphysical explanation boils down to a lack of confidence.
It’s worth noting, that we could only find evidence supporting the practical explanation.
The dreaming of falling – the sensation of falling – is one of the more understood nightmares. Its probably because there’s a large body of evidence studying this particular nightmare. The falling nightmare was being studied by scientists and psychologists as far back as 1938.
Most dream experts agree that what is important about this dream is how you respond to it. While most people only respond negatively to the nightmare of their teeth falling out, people can respond positively to the sensation of falling.
If the sensation of falling brings you a pleasant thrill, then you’re dreaming. Some experts say it also means you’re okay with change in your life.
Meanwhile, if the sensation of falling terrifies you, then you’re having a nightmare. And it stands to reason you may not be comfortable with change.
Freud was the first to point out that you can’t apply one template to all dreams that have the same theme. Falling dreams are no exception. Not all falling dreams can be explained as “hanging on too tightly” or “fearing loss of control” or “fearing being overwhelmed.” Ten different people can have the same falling dream and it can have ten different meanings, depending on the background and associations of each dreamer. – Gerald Schoenewolf.
But that’s painting the dream landscape with a broad, supernatural stroke.
Let’s look at a practical definition. To do that, we need to learn about the hypnagogic jerk.
A hypnagogic jerk is an involuntarily body twitch or jolt that occurs as you go from being awake to falling asleep.
Here is what happens.
You start to drift into slumberland. You’re comfortable, your eyes are heavy, your body goes limp. And then, suddenly, like a dog jostled awake by noise, your body jolts. This short burst of adrenaline is short-lived, and you generally are back on your way to sleep in seconds.
And while a hypnagogic jerk is different than dreaming of falling, it stands to reason that a hypnagogic jerk, which makes you feel like you were falling, could lead to nightmares about falling. The same way dental irritation leads to nightmares about your teeth falling out.
3. Running late
This one is no fun. If you’re like me, you’ve dreamt you were running late, woke up in a panic, checked the clock to realize you weren’t late, went back to bed, and then actually did wake up late.
It’s like almost like dreaming about running late turns your nightmare into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There isn’t much more of an explanation than the fact what we lead lives ruled by time and appointments.
However, some dream experts to claim that if the nightmare of running late signals deeper issues, such as anxiety about a bigger life choice. Or maybe the dread that you feel like you’re getting old and running out of time to do what you want.
4. Dying or someone close to you dying
This is one of the more intense nightmares on our list. But, sure enough, people will experience vivid nightmares of them or someone else dying.
These death dreams, perhaps because they’re so intense, send plenty of people looking for interpretations.
But like the death card in a Tarot deck, a dream in which you die isn’t as morbid as it seems.
First, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. All of us will die at one point. Fear of dying is a rational fear that we may have developed as an evolutionary skill to stay alive. It’s why we know not to do dumb things like walk off a cliff or drive recklessly. We understand that death is a possibility, and that’s a scary reality.
It’s more than likely that those legitimate fears seep into our minds as we sleep, like the fear of being late.
However, there are still metaphysical interpretations about death dreams, whether you’re dreaming about your death or someone else’s.
Some cultures see the image of death as nothing more than a representation of change. For example, if you believed one thing (like say you were going to get into an exclusive college) and then the opposite turned out to be true (rejection sucks!) that change in your understanding of your future could lead to a nightmare about death.
5. Cheating on your significant other
You should have noticed a pattern by now.
How we live our lives and what we feel during the day can transfer into our dreams.
But sexual dreams are a little different. First, an estimated 8% of all dreams deal with sexual imagery but just like dreaming about death doesn’t mean someone is going to die, dreaming about having an affair doesn’t mean someone is going to cheat.
Most dream experts chalk up sexual dreams to just a part of life. If you’re having recurring dreams about your partner cheating on you, it could signal that you’re experiencing stress or fear that they will cheat on you. If you’re having recurring dreams about cheating on your partner, it could mean you’re going through your own anxieties.
So, what to do about these common nightmares?
Now that you know the five most common dreams and their possible meanings, you might wonder how to stop them from ever happening again.
But here’s our takeaway: try not to read too much into your nightmares. Most of our nightmares can be explained as by-products of our daily stressors. Anxiety and insecurity bubble up, and that can lead to bad dreams and restless sleep.
But if you just accept the bad dream as a commonly occurring (after all, everyone one of us experiences these nightmares. It’s why they made our list.) phenomena, you’ll be able to take the images you see with a grain of salt