Recurring Dreams: Signs Of Trouble Or Symptoms Of Poor Sleep?

Picture this: You're being chased, and you're running to get away. But this isn't the first time it's happened — this scenario has played out at least a few times before. Thankfully, you've never been caught by your chaser because you always wake up just in time. This is what it feels like to have recurring dreams. According to research, recurring dreams, where a dream's theme or content is repeated over multiple sleeping sessions, are totally normal. In fact, between 60% and 75% of adults report having recurring dreams.


Unfortunately, the most common recurring dreams tend to involve frightening events, like falling through the air or being chased, according to an Amerisleep survey. Others are just downright weird, such as discovering a secret room or returning to your childhood school as an adult.

So why does your brain keep hitting the "replay" button on the same sleepytime story, and should you be worried? Here's what could be at the root of your recurring dreams.

Stress and mental health conditions can cause recurring dreams

According to sleep researchers, dreams may help us deal with our emotional trauma, prepare for challenging events, and process and store memories (per Healthline). This is likely the case with recurring dreams too. Many repeated dreams, especially those that are scary or upsetting, might be the mind's way of working through stress and mental health disturbances. "Recurrent nightmares are most often due to unresolved anxiety or trauma that has not been fully processed by our brain," Annie Miller, a psychotherapist specializing in sleep treatments, shared with Good Housekeeping. "There are indeed typical themes that show up in these recurrent dreams, especially recurrent nightmares. For instance, feelings of powerlessness, lack of safety, trust and shame are common themes in recurrent nightmares."


These troubling feelings can be related to everyday stressors, like arguments with your significant other or a toxic work environment. They may also be influenced by mental health conditions. In particular, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are known to cause persistent nightmares in some people, according to Sleep Foundation.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Recurring dreams might signal physical health issues

It makes sense that repeated, stress-induced nightmares might wreck sleep quality. But sometimes, poor sleep is actually a trigger for recurring dreams, rather than the other way around. A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found one example of this by focusing on people who regularly dreamed that their teeth were falling out. Researchers discovered that this dental-related nightmare wasn't always caused by mental stress, as some theorists believed, but was instead associated with teeth grinding and mouth tension during sleep.


Another instance where physical health conditions influence our dreams can be seen in people with epilepsy. According to The Sleep Doctor, people who have experienced epileptic seizures often have recurring dreams about past seizure symptoms. Other nightmares and recurring bad dreams can sometimes be traced back to medications, recreational drugs and alcohol, and other physiological conditions and changes that can affect sleep quality (per Mayo Clinic).

How to get out of the repeated dream cycle

If you're one of the lucky few that has feel-good recurring dreams, there's likely no need to put an end to your happy nighttime fantasies. But if your dreams are disrupting your sleep and leaving you feeling uneasy, it's time to take action. "Some recurring dreams are worthy of more attention [and therapy]," Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine specialist, explained to Good Housekeeping. "People with unresolved trauma that should be treated will experience an event in their nightmares, and people with sleep apnea may commonly dream of suffocating or drowning, when in reality, they cannot breathe." An appointment with your doctor or therapist is the first step to putting an end to recurring dreams.


Taking care of your mind and body at home may also help you get nightmare-free rest. Practice good sleep hygiene with relaxing bedtime rituals — breathing exercises, meditation, and positive visualization are a few options recommended by Sleep Foundation. You may also sleep better at night after exercising during the day.

Another method to nix unwanted recurring dreams is lucid dreaming. Learning to lucid dream can take practice but might help you gain back control of your imagination while sleeping. To start lucid dreaming, WebMD suggests keeping a dream journal, checking your state of consciousness throughout the day, and waking briefly each night after five hours of sleep.