You’re falling. Your teeth fall out. You're constantly 10 minutes late for your big work presentation. We’ve all had those dreams that made us wake up in a full panic, only to realize they’re, well, just dreams. But what do they actually mean—and why do we still think about them after we wake up?
Most of us would love to know what our dreams mean. But, at the same time, there are a few certainties that we can hold on to. (1) Everyone dreams; (2) everyone recognizes that some of the things in dreams are connected to what has happened to us in our waking lives; and (3) everyone has some obscure notion that dreams must “mean” something. Freud distinguished his concept of the unconscious from previous concepts. Psychoanalysis is not only depth psychology but also dynamic psychology, with a concept of a dynamic unconscious.
Most people believe in a descriptive unconscious of some kind. Many of our everyday functions are unconscious – eating, walking, even talking – and life would be impossible if they were not. When psychoanalysts talk of a “dynamic” unconscious, they add a lot more weight to the notion by their assumptions of the role that it is always playing in our lives. Freud used the example of post-hypnotic suggestion to show the existence of the unconscious. The hypnotized person does not know why he is carrying out the suggestion made to him under hypnosis (“eat onions”, “pretend to be a dog”, “open your umbrella and hold it above my head”, or “sing Somewhere over the rainbow’).
Dreams allow us a glimpse into a different world. But the unconscious is not a mystical or occult phenomenon. It is simply a part of the mind. Whereas the regression therapist might talk of “past lives” (e.g. Grandma says: “I love you so much I want to eat you up – I must have been a cannibal in a previous life.”), the psychoanalyst might talk of the life we had before language or below the barrier of repression and infantile amnesia. In practice, psychoanalysts use many different models to think about what’s “in” the unconscious, how it is structured and how it affects behaviour. They see these contents in a dynamic sense as urges that motivate both the creative expression of the person and the inhibitions, symptoms and anxieties that may seem to deplete him of energy, tie him in knots or undermine his possibilities for enjoying life.
Turns out, dreams do matter. “Dreams are your subconscious thoughts. They’re a continuation of your thoughts of your day,” notes certified dream analyst and speaker Lauri Loewenberg While you’re sleeping, your brain is conjuring up around five dreams per night (yes, even if you don’t remember them). That’s a lot of subconscious thoughts to unpack. And although every dream is unique, but they do tend to follow certain symbolic patterns.
The Dream: You’re going about your regular day.
The interpretation: A common dream that can be surprisingly puzzling? "Boring" real-life events, such as going about your normal work day or picking the kids up from school. "Because our brains are limited to what we know, the way we work through stressors is by referencing how we live day to day. Perhaps you went to sleep thinking about everything you had to do the next day, maybe you have been arriving late to pick up your child and you’re feeling guilty about it," says Boquin, who recommends exploring the emotions you felt in the dream. "What was the theme and is that a theme you’re facing currently?"
Know that it's common to construct dreams using real-life thoughts and sights, as well—so there might not be some deeper meaning unless it feels like there is one. "This is a great example of 'Day Residue,'" explains Braun. "Often, what happened the day prior to dreaming is used in our dreams."
The Dream: You’re back in school, taking a test.
The interpretation: Usually this dream is connected to work, says Loewenberg. “School was our first job ever,” Loewenberg points out, adding that this dream is common when a work challenge is on the horizon. “Whether you’re trying to get a new client, it’s evaluation time, you’re trying to get a promotion—anytime you’re feeling tested and you’ve got to prove yourself.” The takeaway? “How did you feel in the dream? Were you prepared? It’s kind of like a mirror,” says Loewenberg.
The Dream: You’re hanging out with a celebrity—any celebrity.
The interpretation: If the celeb cameo feels random, there’s still a reason they're hanging around your subconscious. Ultimately, there’s something about that person—and it could be deep in their IMDb history—that’s relevant to you right now. “Ask yourself what is it about this person that relates back to you,” explains Loewenberg. "It could be a movie they’re in, a song of theirs—the message will be in the title of that movie or the lyrics to that song.”
The message could also be something related to that celebrity’s persona. “If you’re friends in the dream, whatever it is in that celebrity you like is something you like about yourself too,” says Loewenberg. “It’s something you want to be recognized for, too.”
The Dream: Your partner cheated on you.
The interpretation: “If there’s infidelity in your past, either in this relationship or a past relationship, this will keep cropping up because it’s a bone of contention within yourself,” says Loewenberg. Also important to remember? Dreams aren’t prophecies. “If there aren’t trust issues and this seems to be coming out of the left field, then it doesn’t mean your partner’s cheating,” explains Loewenberg. Instead, there may be another third wheel to blame. “There’s something that’s taking up too much time and attention away from you,” she says. “It could be a job, golf, friends, a new baby... something is causing you to feel cheated out of that time and attention.”
Ultimately, this dream can be a positive, so long as you don’t wake up pissed off at your partner for something they did in your subconscious. “It’s letting you know something needs to be corrected,” advises Loewenberg. “You and your partner can start having date nights, or try to cut down on golf or whatever it may be.”
The Dream: You cheated on your partner.
The interpretation: This one can be just as alarming—yet it's just as symbolic. "My experience with these types of dreams is there is often some doubt about the other person’s loyalty or the safety of the relationship, most often emotional," says Boquin. "Betrayal can happen in many forms, so if you feel that your partner is prioritizing something or someone else before you, or that they’re not being fully transparent, your subconscious may be trying to process what is happening. Dreams are a space where we can confront the taboo or issues we’re unwilling to confront when we’re awake."
The Dream: You’re running late for something super important.
The interpretation: If you work in a deadline-oriented field, this one is pretty self-explanatory, says Loewenberg. If not, timelines are likely still to blame—but they’re self-imposed. “Maybe you want to lose weight or you want to reach a level in your career by a certain date,” Loewenberg posits.
The Dream: You’re pregnant.
The interpretation: Even if you’re not trying to have children, Loewenberg says this is a positive dream to have, as “it’s reflective that something is growing and developing inside of you.” It could be anything from a new idea to working toward a promotion, and in fact, “a lot of women get this when they’re working on a degree, or even when they’re on the verge of a new relationship.”
The Dream: You're standing on a cliff, and suddenly you're falling into nothingness.
The interpretation: "Dreams of falling can be associated with feeling out of control or overwhelmed. They may also relate to feeling unsupported and insecure," says Braun.
If you dream of falling due to the floor coming out from under you, or a different variation, it can also be interpreted differently. "The devil is in the details. Even though there may be a general interpretation of falling, what is most important are the particulars for the person dreaming," adds Braun. He or she will have very different associations to the details of the dream. For a particular patient, falling may conjure up images of 9/11. Another may think of 'falling from grace.' In short, even though the dream of falling may be very common, the details are different in each case."
The Dream: You've lost your voice and you're unable to call or shout for help.
The interpretation: "This may not just be a dream, but may be the result of sleep paralysis," explains Braun. "During REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the sleep cycle during in which we dream, our bodies experience REM atonia, a natural paralysis during the REM cycle. Physiologically, we are paralyzed during REM sleep to prevent our bodies from acting or moving while we dream. People who experience sleep paralysis usually wake up before the REM cycle is complete. This space between sleep and waking can be experienced as a dream. It can also be experienced in the waking state as being unable to move, talk, and, in some cases, breathe."
The Dream: You're naked, in public.
The interpretation: "These dreams are often accompanied by feelings of embarrassment and shame," says Braun. "They can also be related to feelings of vulnerability and exposure." But if you're in the nude and feel no shame, it could be the total opposite. "Perhaps this person wants to be seen, acknowledged, admired."
The Dream: Your teeth are suddenly falling out.
The interpretation: Are you an anxious person? It could be pent-up anxiety coming through in the form of a dream. "We might think of this as being concerned about one's potency, competence, strength, power, ability to 'take a bite out' of the world," says Braun. This common dream can also be associated with times of change and transition.
The Dream: You're being chased.
The interpretation: It all depends on who is doing the chasing. "Often people are being chased by a monster. The monster may be a manifestation of an indiscretion, an addiction, or a debt," explains Braun. If you have the unfortunate dream (or nightmare) of being chased by someone you know, it could differ. "Your associations about the person chasing you are often more insightful than focusing on the actual person chasing you," says Braun. "Keep in mind, people in dreams can be substitutions for other people or even substitutions for aspects of ourselves."
The Dream: You're in a position of power—a CEO, president, queen, or religious figure.
The interpretation: "On the surface, dreaming of being in a position of power seems to be grandiose," say Braun. "However, it can be argued that most people who dream of being in a position of power are in fact not in a position of power. Therefore, the dream turns the unpowerful dreamer, in the dream world, into the opposite. What looks like grandiosity is actually compensatory. The dream compensates (or covers up) for the feelings of being powerless."
The Dream: You're at an impossibly elegant dinner party or you're with a deceased family member, or other impossible (but positive) scenarios.
The interpretation: This kind of dream, along with other dreams of elaborated elegance, can represent a need to supplement reality with fantasy. "Dreaming of a banquet is an attempt to satisfy the hunger of the missed meal," explains Braun. "Dreaming of a dead loved one is a way to bring them back to life," he says.
"Dreams can also be healing. They can help us process difficult emotions we’ve experienced," adds Boquin. "Many believe that these are visits from their departed loved ones, and others simply take comfort in feeling like they were able to spend time with their loved one in the dream world."
“Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious!” Freud believed that dreams consist of memories that vary from the previous day’s events to those of the distant past, and hints about unconscious processes. One type of dream content is wish fulfilment, which expresses unconscious impulses. According to Freud, the very fact that the unconscious mind protects a person from recalling the real meanings of dreams means that it’s impossible for anyone to analyse their own dreams! Hence the need for a trained psychoanalyst to do the interpreting for them. Dreams can therefore be a valuable means of finding out what is troubling a person.