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What Do Your Dreams Really Mean?

“Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.”

Sigmund Freud

According to the father of psychoanalysis, dreams provide a window into our unconscious minds. In other words, they reflect our deepest and most hidden thoughts, desires and fears. 

Freud postulated, among his many theories, that it’s only in sleep and through dreams that we can reach these thoughts.

That was the thinking in the early 20th century, but times have changed. 

More recently, some neuroscientists have come to the conclusion that dreams might just be the random byproduct of our brains re-organizing memories and thoughts while we sleep. 

Like a computer hard drive that is regularly optimized, sleep is the time our brains engage in a clear out and organization of memories for future retrieval.

There are others, however, who theorize that emotions do influence our dreams.

Tore Nielsen and Ross Levin, in Neurocognitive Model of Dreaming, share a complicated theory that boils down to this: 

"...the stories our brains weave from seemingly random dream images are guided, at least in part, by our emotional states. For instance, as the amount of negative experiences in our waking life rises, the probability of having bad dreams also rises … this may be why people who have experienced trauma are more susceptible to nightmares than others." (Source)

What’s the bottom line on dreams?

It seems clear that the scientific jury is out on whether or not our dreams actually mean anything. However, humans are hardwired to engage in storytelling, to help attribute meaning to otherwise nonsensical brain activity. 

So with that in mind, here are some of the most common dream themes and meanings.

See which ones you have and what they might be telling you about your unconscious thoughts.

Flying

This is one of the most commonly reported dreams that people have. Interestingly, it’s not usually combined with fear of falling.

If anything, people who fly in their dreams report feeling as though this was a completely natural power that they had.

The theory is that flying dreams reflect a change in your life such that you are free from something or someone. 

So perhaps you left that job that was sucking the marrow from your bones. Or perhaps you finally had it out with someone who was being mean to you. 

Whatever the situation, flying reflects a newfound freedom and lightening of your spirit. Enjoy these ones as they are usually very positive dreams.

Being Chased

If you are dreaming about being chased through the woods by a shadowy figure whose face you can’t really see, you might be feeling guilty about something.

It’s not uncommon, when trying to process feelings of guilt, to have those feelings manifest as someone coming after you or chasing you. 

Ultimately, being chased in a dream is a symbol of the need to escape from something or someone.

It can also be literal—a child who is being bullied, for example, might have nightmares about being chased.

The chaser won’t necessarily be the actual bully, but the dream is a reflection of their current real-life situation.

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Walking Around Nude

Variations on this dream include going out without your pants on and not noticing until you are halfway to the bus stop. 

These dreams are usually about feeling vulnerable. 

If you’ve recently been through a divorce, for example, where your business is out there for the neighbours to pick at over their morning coffee, it can leave you feeling very exposed. 

What could make you feel more vulnerable than public exposure of your private business? Walking around naked would probably top the list.

It’s just a physical manifestation of the inner nakedness you’re feeling.

Teeth or Hair Falling Out

If you think about it, losing teeth or hair tend to represent very specific times in our lives—times when we are transitioning from one stage to another. Children lose their teeth as they grow up; seniors lose them as they grow older. The same can be said for hair.

From a dream perspective, losing teeth or hair represents a transition that you may be experiencing in your life. 

Perhaps you are worried about aging and your appearance? Perhaps you are feeling self-conscious because of a change in your appearance, or even in how others perceive you? 

Whatever the reason, it is likely tied to a real life transition that you may not be aware is bothering you as much as it is.

Falling

If you dream that you’re walking along a beautiful hiking trail and you suddenly plunge off the edge into a gorge, it can mean that you are dealing with a loss of control in some aspect of your life. 

It doesn’t have to be a cliff either. Some people dream of falling as they are walking, often waking before they hit the ground.

This isn’t an uncommon dream in times of stress, where you might be afraid of failing at something that you are attempting. It could be a sign that you just need a confidence boost. 

Typically, people will have this dream early in the night, when they are falling asleep. There is a theory that it is caused by a drop in blood pressure that we experience as we drift off, but that’s just a theory!

Exams

Most any person who ever had to sit in an exam will tell you that they have, at some point, dreamt of not being able to find the exam room, forever wandering in a building that they know but can’t navigate. 

Typically, these dreams happen long after the actual anxiety triggered by exams has passed. 

They are a manifestation of another anxiety in your life, possibly professional and a feeling of being overwhelmed and unprepared.

Your mind pulls the images of an exam to represent this anxiety because it’s probably the most realistic reflection of fear of failure.

Can't Run or Scream

You see someone coming towards you in your dream—think evil clown—but you can’t scream or run away, despite your best efforts. 

This kind of dream is a reflection of your inability to deal with a situation in your life. It can also be a reflection of a more generalized anxiety that you feel when you’re awake, that manifests as paralysis when you are dreaming.

This shouldn’t be confused with sleep paralysis, which is an actual physical condition that occurs when you are transitioning from being asleep to being awake, but can’t physically move for a few seconds or even minutes.

Dreaming happens during the REM state (Rapid Eye Movement) of your sleep cycle, when you are closer to being awake, with increased breathing levels and heart rate. 

You’ll enter REM state several times a night, so the odds of remembering your dreams—unless they’re extremely vivid—aren’t high, but you might remember sensations from them as you wake up. 

Whatever is happening in your life that is triggering some of the dreams—or nightmares—you are having, getting quality, deep sleep will help you to wake up refreshed and able to deal with these events.

Having a quality mattress is key to getting a quality sleep.

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