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What's Behind Your Recurring Dreams?

Why dreams generated by long-ago stress can keep coming back.

Key points

  • Recurrent dreams occur in 60-75% of adults, and more often in women than men.
  • Negative recurrent dreams may sometimes serve an adaptive function.
  • Dream theorists generally agree that recurring dreams are connected to unresolved problems in the life of the dreamer.

You suddenly realize that your final exam starts in five minutes—but you haven't even started studying! On top of that—the exam takes place on the other side of campus! You hurry to gather all your materials and start racing through the hallways. But every corridor is crammed with students, the clock is ticking, and the doors are all locked! Now you'll fail for sure.

This is a common example of a recurrent dream that an individual may experience, perhaps during times of stress or change, or even throughout their life. Recurrent dreams are often comprised of typical dream themes. What differs about recurrent dreams is that they are experienced frequently and repetitively in one individual’s life, whereas typical dream themes refer to the universal or inter-individual commonness of dream themes.

Recurrent dreams occur in 60-75% of adults, and more often in women than men (Zadra, 1996). The common themes include: being attacked or chased, falling, being stuck, being late, missing or failing an exam, and even losing control of a car. Theoretically, recurrent dreams are assumed to reveal the presence of unresolved conflicts or stressors in an individual’s life. This is corroborated by findings that recurrent dreams are usually accompanied by negative dream content and that they are associated with lower psychological well-being (Zadra et al., 1996).

Research on recurring dreams

However, even negative recurrent dreams are not necessarily maladaptive. Recent research actually suggests that, for students, dreams of failing an exam can be correlated with better performance on the test. Researchers collected dream reports from medical students on several nights preceding a major exam and found that dreams concerning the exam on the night before, or multiple nights before, predicted proportionally higher scores, even though the dreams generally were negative and ended poorly (Arnulf et al 2014).

These results could be interpreted as showing that dreaming of the exam, even negatively, reflects a stronger desire and motivation to succeed. Further, the dream could even work towards consolidation of memory traces relevant to the learning material, similar to prior findings that dreaming of a learning task is associated with improved performance (Wamsley et al 2010). Thus, negative recurrent dreams may still serve an adaptive function.

Patterns of recurring dreams

Recurrent dreams often start at a young age but can begin at any time, and typically 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.

Theories about recurring dreams

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 into 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.

However, even if recurrent dreams are vanquished for a certain time, they will sometimes return again during a new period of stress. One subject in our lab reported a recurrent dream of being unable to speak, a common theme that might involve teeth falling out or lips being glued shut. The Central Image captures a sensation of being unable to speak and may reflect shyness or difficulty expressing oneself. In this case, the subject had this recurrent dream many times as an adolescent, though the dream disappeared during college, presumably after having overcome this challenge. However, after moving to another country and having to learn a new language, the dream came back. While the original conflict of shyness had been overcome, the new situation of communicating in a foreign language triggered the same “script” of being unable to speak. Thus are old scripts sometimes revived in new, different times of stress.

In general, recurring dreams indicate the presence of an unresolved and persistent conflict in an individual’s life, and the theme or Central Image of the dream provides a stage for this conflict to play out. The cessation of a recurrent dream may indicate that the conflict has been successfully resolved. Thus, being aware of and working with recurring dreams in your personal life or in therapy is a useful tool for resolving conflicts and improving well-being.

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Arnulf, I., Grosliere, L., Le Corvec, T., Golmard, J. L., Lascols, O., & Duguet, A. (2014). Will students pass a competitive exam that they failed in their dreams?. Consciousness and cognition, 29, 36-47

Freud. (1950) The Interpretation of Dreams.

Spoormaker, V. (2008). A cognitive model of recurrent nightmares. International Journal of Dream Research, 1(1), 15-22.

Wamsley, E. J., Tucker, M., Payne, J. D., Benavides, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Dreaming of a learning task is associated with enhanced sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Current Biology, 20(9), 850-855.

Zadra, A. (1996). Recurrent dreams: Their relation to life events. In D. Barrett (ed.), Trauma and dreams. Cambride, MA, US: Harvard University Press.

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