What Is A Dream? Interpreting Our Common Dreams

By: Michael Puskar

Updated November 10, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

You wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and confused. The abruptness of your mind's endless thoughts sends you into a downward spiral of questions. You feel restless and possibly dazed. Was this the result of some supernatural phenomenon? You sit on the edge of your bed, wondering, "what did that even mean?" This is no act of the unknown; instead, those perilous thoughts are what we commonly title, a dream. And, if you are like many people, you may wonder what some of these dreams mean.

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What Is A Dream?

A dream is defined as images, thoughts, emotions, or sensations that pass through the mind while a person is asleep. Dreams can seem very random at times, but they might be quite relevant as well. Unfortunately, we can't control them; if we could, everyone would have pleasant dreams, and there would be no nightmares. No matter the content of your dreams, every single person has them- with some people dreaming more than others. What's also universal about dreams is that many people are left wondering what their dreams mean, especially the ones that jolt you awake in the middle of the night. As you read this article, you will learn about the theories that have been made to help interpret the meaning of our dreams.

When discussing dreams, constant recollections, familiar faces, and even warped experiences from the past are common running themes. However, no matter what our dreams entail, many dreams leave us questioning their meaning. Because of this, numerous theories have arisen regarding dreams.

Theories of Dream

Although the topic of dreams is quite controversial and unique to each theorist, there is one constant in determining what these dreams mean. All can agree that dreams, whether lifelike or larger than life, represent some sense of our experiences. Sigmund Freud, one of the pioneer researchers of the unconscious, roughly believed that dreams represent our "repressed emotions." He thought that addressing these dreams was the key to understanding the root of neurotic behavior.

Carl Jung was one of the leading revolutionists in dream interpretation. He developed a sense of ideas beautifully entitled, "Mythic Narratives." These are used as the blueprint to what the extravagant, fairy-tale-like images in our dreams mean. He coined the phrase "Big Dreams" to describe the mystical, "larger than life" archetypal dreams that leave us breathless.

Ryan Hurd, author of Big Dreams & Archetypal Visions, perfectly described these dreams as, "feeling awe, fascination, fear and terror, and a sense of 'other' along with encounters with mythological creatures and strange, intelligent animals." Our collective unconscious, according to Jung, directly relates to these archetypes that originate from our primal instincts. These, he believed, were universal across each culture.

Meanings of Dreams

Likely, if a person has a dream that they are dying, perhaps it is safe to conclude that this dream is not a prophecy of future events. From an analytical perspective, the theme of death could be representative of an inner feeling that must be acknowledged. Examining our most common dreams could assist us in better understanding ourselves, the way we think, and how we process experiences. There are some recurring themes that many people can dream about, and the remainder of this article will explore some of them and their possible meanings.

1. When You Dream About Falling

Many theories agree that these particular dreams represent a lack of control regarding a decision. They suggest that there needs to be some action taken to redirect your life course. Whether being pushed, slipping, or hitting the ground, there is some dominant force in your life that is preventing you from having confidence in yourself or your decisions. You may be feeling overwhelmed at work, consumed with stress from a relationship, or facing an important decision with large amounts of cognitive dissonance.

2. When You Dream About Your Teeth Falling Out

Our teeth are strong, yet sensitive. They represent our stability- in that they are deeply rooted in our mouth. When we have those dreams where we can feel the tooth falling out of our gums and the bare nakedness left behind, we may be under a great amount of stress. We may feel exposed, vulnerable, and broken. In addition, many theorists agree that teeth falling out represent a lack of control in some part of your life that you've usually felt secure in.

3. When You Dream About Showing Up Naked or Showing Up Late

There are few situations that could elicit the sheer and utter embarrassment of being naked in public. Many people report dreaming of being in a heavily populated environment while completely nude. This exposed dream could represent embarking on a new adventure in your life. When you are entering something foreign, all eyes are on you; you stand out, and you may even experience a sense of embarrassment of the unknown.

For example, when you begin a new job, there will be countless procedures and regulations that you must learn. Naturally, you may feel a sense of hesitation or embarrassment in conjunction with attempting to understand these procedures. This involves asking questions and possibly making mistakes. Hence, the constant theme of being naked or running late represents that embarrassment and vulnerability.

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Showing up late for an important event, work, or even a test is especially nerve-racking. When you experience a dream where you show up late for your wedding, for example, you may be placing great emphasis on this next chapter of your life. You internally want to be the best husband or wife that you can be, so the fear of failing with regards to marriage is something that may be worrying you. You want to ensure that you are "on time," so to speak, in fulfilling your marital duties.

This reasoning can easily apply to starting a new job. You may dream about being extremely late on your first day, or worse, not showing up at all. It is not the act of simply going to work that scares you. It's the deeper meaning behind this new position. Perhaps it's the job that will change your career. You ideally want to make a good impression, but you may be worrying about your performance in this new role. Your mind is psyching itself out in its attempt to cope with this fear.

4. When You Dream of Mars Attacks

It's a fright when we witness attacks, violence, and similar tragedies in our dreams. This dream interpretation is rather modern in comparison to the previously mentioned dreams. Are you under an extreme amount of pressure being facilitated by a particularly persuasive person or group of individuals? You may be able to relate to the horrifying theme of dreaming of a mass attack.

Often, these dreams signify the overwhelming influence of being held captive, so to speak, over time. The demands placed upon you may take away from your purpose or goals. Perhaps you don't agree with the tasks or activities you are pressured to partake in, but you still feel a connection towards those placing these demands upon you. These demands may be likened to an outright attack on your right of choice, which the mind sees as similar to a mass attack on innocent individuals.

Along the same lines of being in contact with unrealistic demands, these frequent dreams may be trying to warn you of a close, personal relationship. You may encounter someone who does not have your best interests at heart. They may demonstrate outright actions of attack, whether it's personally or on the job. You may experience these dreams because you feel this person is attacking your character.

5. When You Dream Of Your Partner Cheating

When in a serious relationship, the thought of your partner cheating is heartbreaking. Often, this fear could even ignite relentless dreams of this occurring. Although dreaming about something as devastating as infidelity could rock your emotions, there is a reasoning behind these so-called revelations. Lack of security in a relationship could ignite anxiety within your mentality. You could feel that they are devoting their time to something else- whether that's their job, friends, or hobbies.

This could cause you to feel neglected; a reaction similar to that of learning your partner is cheating. In some cases, you may begin to lose trust in your partner's loyalty based on past actions. This could cause your imagination to create possible worst-case scenarios, resulting in tormenting dreams. The cause of these emotions is, ultimately, fear. This includes the fear of not being enough, fear of losing a lasting relationship, and a fear of disloyalty. Acknowledging these dreams for their deeper meaning, as opposed to their surface appearance, will save you a lot of time and paranoia.

6. Dreams of Sexual Encounters

Although the need and desire for sex are natural, the translation of sexually charged dreams could come as a surprise. Despite the act of sexual intercourse involving another person, dreaming about sex could be your mind attempting to have an introspective look at the self. The qualities you want from a sexual partner are the qualities you desire within yourself. Perhaps you are seeking some pleasure factor in your life that you're not receiving.

7. Dreams of Being Chased

The idea of being chased is often associated with having a lack of courage. When you experience a dream where something or someone is pursuing you, you are likely dodging an important problem in your life. Richard Nicoletti is a psychotherapist who studies dream analysis. Discussing these chasing dreams, he explains, "You may be avoiding something painful, annoying or fearful. It could be a wake-up call. Trying to avoid the issue could lead to more recurring dreams." We often save handling uncomfortable situations until the very last moment. This procrastination in taking care of the issue could be the cause of this specific dream.

8. Dreams of Dying or Death in General

The concept of death is emotional and tricky for our minds to grasp. When you dream about dying, whether it involves yourself or a loved one, the symptoms of grief seem real. Despite the sadness associated with this dream, the underlying meaning could be something positive. Dreaming about death could symbolize the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Have you recently ended a toxic relationship? Perhaps quit a stressful job?

Dreaming about death is your mind's way of interpreting this newfound change. It may even signify a difference in your personality. Death is uncomfortable; so is growth. When you make modifications to your life, the grief associated with letting go of past habits could be reincarnated in the form of confusing dreams about attending your funeral or dying dramatically. The same concept could be attributed to dreaming about someone else dying. You may grieve their old personality or even their company, which prompts the death dream.

9. Dreams of Failing an Exam or Lacking Preparation

These dreams may be common for students and can be taken at face value during period of school related stress and exams. However, many people dream of failing a test or lacking preparation well after their school days are over. Adulthood brings a measure of stability, and this requires responsibility. Although you may not have an exam, you do have deadlines, personal expectations, and financial obligations. When you feel ill-prepared to conquer the important tasks in life, this may manifest itself in the dreaded exam dream. You may feel stagnant or a lack content in your life situation. Similar to the confidence-crushing feelings you get when you fail a test, those same feelings occur when you feel incapable of accomplishing your goals.

Seeking Help

Dreams can be a fascinating escape from reality. While many provide us with great entertainment, some leave us breathless. Dream interpretation is interesting because each dream is subjective to the individual. While some archetypal dreams and their interpretations, such as the ones presented here, may be generally applicable, remember the symbols and events in your dreams are also unique representations of you and about you.

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If you'd like to work on understanding your dreams and their meanings or examine troubling dreams you've been having, BetterHelp's network of licensed counselors includes counselors trained in dream analysis. Additionally, if you struggle with having nightmares, and they are disrupting your sleep quality, a counselor from BetterHelp can help you try to get to the bottom of them and start getting more rest.

BetterHelp is an online counseling service that matches you with a therapist specializing in the areas you need. They are available via text, video, phone, and messaging, and sessions can take place from the comfort of your home or wherever you have an internet connection. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing a variety of sleep issues.

Counselor Reviews

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"Really helpful and positive! Being able to type out what's bothering me when I can't sleep at night is very helpful to me, and usually there's a reply by the morning!"


Dreams are a topic that has fascinated humans since the beginning of time, and to this day, we still don't have all of the answers. However, theorists and dream analysts have been able to give us some insight and ways that we can interpret our dreams. By reading this article, you've gained a better understanding of dreams, especially if you have had ones that were mentioned here. Having a better picture of what our dreams mean can help give you some peace of mind, allowing you to live a happier and healthier life. When in doubt, consult a professional who can help you figure out your dreams and give you steps to move forward. Take the first step today.

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