Are There Themes to Your Dreams?

Dreams can tell you a lot about yourself that you don't know.

Posted Jun 06, 2020

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

You probably have heard about our nightly dreams essentially being garbage collectors — picking up bits and pieces of our day, rolling them into some dream story, and getting them out the way. That argument with a coworker is replayed as animals sparring. Your anxiety about a deadline shows up as that math test you never studied for in high school or college. What you dreamt last night is not arbitrary but an amalgamation of your day's unfinished business.

But some dreams are recurring or seem to track familiar themes. Some of these are undoubtedly classic dreams — being naked in front of an audience or being unable to find the room for the final exam; being chased or the dread and scrambling before a performance you're totally unprepared for. But some may be specific to you: Dreaming and redreaming about some past event, or every few weeks dreaming about your ex or your mother. Regardless of the content, dreams offer right-brain information about the current state of our psychological affairs. 

Here are some questions to help you decipher some of the themes in your dreams:

What are your stress dreams? 

Stress dreams can fall into familiar patterns — maybe about not finding the exam room or your keys, about being lost; there is frustration, a searching. Or your stress dreams may center on that performance anxiety — not prepared for the exam, having to give a speech. 

Recognizing your familiar themes, combined with "why last night and not two nights ago," can tell you about stressors that you have not fully been aware of. They can give you clues to real-life potential problems that you may want to pay attention to. 

Do you have recurring dreams?

Not finding the exam room may be a recurring dream in those stressful times. But sometimes recurring dreams reflect core psychological issues: A longstanding, periodically recurring dream about rejoining a sports team that you, in reality, had suddenly quit in high school; a recurring dream about having a healing conversation with an ex about the relationship. Clearly, these dreams were about unfinished business, a lack of closure, of remaining guilt.

And if you've suffered trauma, you undoubtedly often have dreams that replay the trauma, that may be violent. This too is about unresolved past, but again, "why last night" may give you clues to triggers that, like stress dreams, may have slipped under your conscious radar and you may want to pay attention to. 

What might the people in your dreams represent?

Dreaming about your ex or your parent may be about your parent or ex, a replay of some recent interaction with them, or they may be stand-ins for others in similar roles; someone else in your life who is critical, authoritative, or supportive. 

Dreaming about hanging with your high school friends may be linked to times when you were less lonely and more carefree; dreaming about babies may be about your vulnerability and responsibilities; dreaming about the hot guy at the gym may say something about the state of your libido. What role do recurring people in your dreams play?

What's the tone of your dreams?

This is probably the most important: What's the tone, the atmosphere of the dream, the behavior of the people? Dark and scary? Light and happy? Sexual? You as a victim or aggressor? The stress has that feeling of pressure; flying dreams are about being happy and carefree; arguing with your or ex-boss is different from being supported by her. And if the tone remains the same for days or weeks or even months, what might it tell you about the state of your life?

Can you find solutions to problems?

If you have been struggling with a problem for a long time, dreams can often bring together all the thinking you've been doing into a solution. Here we can think of August Kekule struggling to decipher the shape of the benzene molecule and having a dream about a snake seizing its own tail. Here you may dream about a new approach to a work or personal problem. Take in that right-brain information for what it is: information for you to consider.

A simple approach to using dream themes

You don't need to be a dreamologist to use the information your themes in your dreams may tell you. 

Identify your stress dream themes. The exam room; being lost. You feel frustration in the dream or perhaps performance anxiety. This is good information about your stress level, including red flags about stress points that you might need to actively put to rest in daytime life.

Put unfinished business to rest. If you are haunted by the recurring dream of quitting that team, by that never-had conversation with a parent or ex, take action to put it to rest. You can put that quitting dream to rest by literally joining a similar team and sticking through to the end of the season; you can write a letter you do or do not ever mail but gets out your feelings and thoughts. Don't just mull it over. Instead, act.

Act on solutions/suggestions. Have that dream about a new approach at work? Consider it. Dream about learning a musical instrument? Don't toss it off. Even if the new approach doesn't quite work, or the instrument is too frustrating to learn, realize that your unconscious is igniting your creativity, and that it is telling you about what may be missing in your life, what parts of you are being ignored, what areas of your life need your attention. It's okay to listen to your dreams, trust your gut on this, and see what resonates.

All dreams are unique; a representation of ourselves and our everyday lives. But those broad themes are different — a looking at the wider landscape of our lives, our struggles, and possible solutions. They are not prophesy or truth but important information that we can integrate into our lives.