A dream may be a wish your heart makes (at least according to Cinderella), but it’s also something that can surface unexpected emotions, cause a bit of daytime dread, and even pose unanswered questions.
After all, many are so bizarre and so out there that dreamscapes have become classic tropes for movies and books, and great fodder for middle-of-the-night dream journals.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about dreams. Sleep specialists, psychologists, and oneirologists (dream specialists) have all worked to help identify the meanings of dreams and potentially tie the involuntary nighttime action to universal human behaviors, emotions, and/or traumas.
“It is generally accepted that dreams are [often disjointed] combinations of our experiences,” confirms licensed psychologist Kendra Kubala. “You may notice that if you are stimulated in some way [excited, worried, uncertain], your dreams may seem more bizarre or intense.
“Researchers have theorized that dreams serve as a sort of memory consolidation and the processing of information we experience,” she adds, pointing to a recent study in which researchers were actually able to communicate with sleeping research participants who were actively dreaming.
Even with all we know about dreams, there are still a lot of mysteries. That said, there are a few dreams (and nightmares, unfortunately) that are quite common, at least thematically. Each is rooted in common shared human life experiences that conjure common sensations of joy, embarrassment, fear, or other emotions.
So if you are wondering about the meaning of your dreams, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common dreams (based on published surveys about dreams around the world and in the U.S.) and sought Kubala’s interpretations to provide some basis for why we may be falling, losing our teeth, or running through the streets naked in the first place.
These explanations have not been grounded in or proven by science. They’re guides to shine a collective light on your dreamscapes. Always treat the signs and symbols from dreams as metaphors and not cut-and-dried diagnoses.
Whether it’s from a building, out of a plane, or off the side of your bed, falling is the most frequently reported dream sensation, but it’s actually something that often occurs before we enter the dream-rich state of REM sleep.
Dreams about falling also tend to happen while in the state between wakefulness and sleep, also known as the “hypnagogic state,” which can give the actual sensation of falling.
According to research, many dreams about falling are related to hypnic jerks (or startling yourself awake), which is considered to be a parasomnia, a type of sleep disorder that also includes sleep talking, erratic movements, and even sleep paralysis.
What do dreams about falling mean?
“Dreams that include falling may be suggestive of a feeling of lack of control over some aspect in your life, such as your job or relationships,” suggests Kubala. “You may be feeling as if you’re disconnected [from] an important part of your life. It also may reflect the feeling of ‘hitting rock bottom’ in some aspect of life, particularly if you feel somewhat hopeless in an area of your life.”
Curiously enough, the actual cause of the falling may also be tied to other meanings, so don’t forget to note that down if you’re journaling your dreams.
2. Losing teeth
A trip to the dentist can cause anxiety for many people, so a very realistic dream of having teeth fall out can be downright terrifying.
If you find yourself stuck in a dental dream, you may be feeling insecurity or inner weakness.
“The details of lost teeth in dreams may also support a different, albeit nonscientific, explanation,” says Kubala, who asks, “Are you pulling your own teeth out? Are your teeth unhealthy and decayed? Are your teeth simply suddenly gone?”
Common sources of the teeth-losing experience can include neglected responsibilities and social anxiety.
3. Being chased
One exciting aspect about dreaming is that it may allow people to pinpoint and eventually remedy an actual problem brewing in their own life.
According to Kubala, being chased implies that there is some sort of inner conflict that we are unable to face. Further, the images associated with the chase dream could also indicate which people, places, or things may be the root of the problem.
“Additional information in this area is relevant,” she says. “Are you being chased or are you chasing something or someone?” Those details are incredibly relevant, Kubala explains. “Being chased in a dream may suggest a feeling of inferiority in life or a highly pressured situation you’re incurring. Chasing something may suggest the same theme: that you’re feeling ineffective or unworthy of something or someone.”
Once you transition from the unconscious to awake, you can then treat the dream as a symbolic message and deal with these real-life causes head-on (for example, if it’s your boss chasing you on a deserted island, you may interpret this as internalizing pressure at work, driving you to seek an escape. If possible, think about a vacation!).
4. Being naked in public
Dreaming about being naked in public — especially one in which you’re giving a speech in front of a crowd — is one of the most common tropes.
“Dreaming of being nude in front of others may suggest just that: that you’re feeling overly exposed and vulnerable in a certain area of your life,” says Kubala. “It may also suggest perceived, ahem, shortcomings or insecurities in some areas that you are worried about others observing.”
As with dreams involving a chase, it is important to note your surroundings in the dream, as well as the people involved, and how you handle the sudden exposure. These can be clues to the triggers in your real life that are causing strife (for example, if you’re naked in a grocery store and surrounded by food, it could be perceived as difficulty with starting a new diet).
5. Cheating on a significant other
Those in committed relationships may be downright startled to find themselves brazenly partaking in dream infidelity. But if you awaken from a tryst, don't sweat it right away.
“This type of dream may suggest some repressed sexual feelings that are too overwhelming for the dreamer to acknowledge consciously,” reveals Kubala. “Sexual interaction with a seemingly platonic friend or even the partner of a family member can be distressing enough to cause guilt in waking hours, even though nothing has actually happened.”
One awkward consequence of this kind of dream is the physiological response it can provoke.
“Dreams may also seem so realistic that they ultimately include ‘nocturnal emissions’ (informally known as ‘wet dreams’), which are spontaneous orgasms that result in ejaculation or increased vaginal lubrication,” she adds.
Rather than feel ashamed, Kubala implores those who experience cheating in their dreams to look more toward the positive attributes you share with this dream sexual partner, while also keeping in mind that the act may be a reflection of hiding something in your current relationship.
Questions you may ask yourself: Are you being honest? Did you do something that is bringing a certain level of culpability? You may not be cheating, but the dream may be telling you that something is testing the foundation of your marriage or relationship’s trust.
6. Being unprepared for an exam
The mind works in mysterious ways. Case in point: dreaming about being completely unprepared for an exam. These images and emotions can be so vivid and ripe with fear that it feels like you are a high school or college student all over again, even for those who are several decades out of school.
“Dreams about being unprepared for an exam or presentation may suggest that we are somehow trying to protect ourselves from potential negative outcomes,” says Kubala. “It can also suggest we are fearful about moving on to a next stage of life or we feel insecure or a lack of confidence in an area.”
Look at your current confidence level and whether you feel secure or apprehensive about making a big decision. Or maybe you’ve started something new and are feeling inadequate. Either way, the feeling of being ill-prepared is likely and unsurprisingly a reflection of feeling the same way in your everyday life.
7. Being unable to find a toilet
We all know the uncomfortable urge of having to use the restroom, but not knowing where to go may also be a sign of not being able to let go.
Dreams involving toileting may suggest you are having trouble letting go, confirms Kubala. “You may feel some built-up pressure in an area of your life, or it may be symbolic of a fear of embarrassment or worry that you’ll be observed in a private manner and judged as a result.”
Use this dream as an opportunity to voice something that you may be scared to admit. Or take a look at the events or circumstances in your life that have you either so scared or so anxious that it’s difficult for you to find the appropriate words to express yourself. The inevitable outcome, as with finally finding that toilet, is instant relief.