Why Do I Have Recurring Dreams?
Last night, I had a dream: I live in a yellow house, next to a much older house I am renovating. However, I opened my mail today and was shocked by a notice: three years of back property taxes. The old house had accumulated a $6,000 bill. I would have to sell the house to pay it.
In my dream, I also remembered a much earlier dream, after I bought the old home and walked in: I couldn’t believe I had bought the house sight unseen. Yes, it was a great deal, but it needed fixing up, and was filled to the brim with junk. I went from room to room, tossing old clothes — and noticed the strange placement of a sink, just outside of the kitchen. Plumbing would have to be moved. But the house had a lot of rooms, and was in a great location, with a huge backyard at the end of a street.
Was it all one dream I had in one night, or had I really had the buying-the-home dream before?
When I was younger, I constantly thought I had recurring dreams, mostly about school friends or family members. But I had read somewhere that dreams don’t recur; I was merely experiencing déjà vu, and dreaming that I’d dreamed it before.
To test this theory, I started writing down my dreams. If I thought a dream was recurring, I could flip through my notes to compare. A few times, I thought I had a repeat, but couldn’t find a match.
That is, until this dream happened. I’ve been recording my dreams much less frequently over the years, but when I have a really vivid or interesting one, I still try to write it down. It’s no longer in a handwritten journal, but on a note app in my phone.
I searched for keywords, and found a note I’d recorded on July 23, 2018: “Dream about house I bought. We were cleaning it, lots of rooms and stuff.” There were a few other jarbled recollections, and they matched my memory.
My brain was moving through dreams like a video game, hitting save, then resuming it a few weeks or months later, while I slept. The dream hadn’t just recurred: it had continued.
Contrary to what I read when I was younger, recurring dreams not only happen, but are actually quite common. Think of the nightmares that strike young kids, waking them with fear. They might dream of the same scary thing, over and over again.
One theory is that recurring dreams are associated with stress. (Imagine your brain is an electronic assistant, and you say, “Brain, play my stress playlist.” Then it plays your history of stressful experiences while you sleep.) The stress hormone cortisol rises overnight, which is consistent with this theory — and would explain why I woke up after dreaming about a huge tax bill.
A common recurring dream has to do with anxieties about school: forgetting to study for a test, or not dressing appropriately for class. Have you ever had a dream that you got to school and forgot your homework? Or that you weren’t wearing pants? Many people do, even decades after school is over.
Why do we dream, if our dreams can be so scary? The reasons behind dreaming aren’t fully understood. One possible reason is that our brain is trying to solve problems, and prepare us for the real deal. If we’re shocked by the dream of being late to school, we’ll try harder to be on time for that important work meeting.
Dreams about other people can be our minds trying to work through unresolved feelings. I frequently dream about my grandmother, who is still alive, but has such severe dementia that she can’t talk to me anymore. As a kid, I thought she was the most fashionable person I knew, and sometimes I dream about going through her closet.
And she had, in my opinion, the best home of anyone I know. It wasn’t expensive or flashy, but it was well-maintained. To this day it remains my standard of a perfect house: a three-season porch, two bathrooms, a walk-out cellar and a beautiful garden. It was also, just like in my dream, the last house on a street.
I haven’t been in it in almost two decades, but maybe I explore it in my dreams.
Researching dreams, at least in my experience, is no easy task. In English, dream means not just something you experience at night, but also a personal goal you may have, or something that’s great.
The sentence, “I dream about winning a gold medal at the Olympics” can have two meanings: I have nighttime visions that I did it, or I set a personal goal to someday do it.
Dreams have been studied and written about throughout history. In the Bible, dreams were thought to be messages from God. Joseph received two linked dreams: in the first, that Mary was telling the truth about her child; and in the second, instructions to flee to Egypt.
Dreams are mentioned frequently in William Shakespeare’s plays. “To sleep, perchance to dream,” Hamlet famously mulled.
They play a major part in modern literature, too. In the excellent novel Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor, the main character has the ability to view and influence other people’s dreams, and can make them repeat.
Many creative people claim that they had discoveries or inspiration in dreams. Dreams may also be part of how our brains store memories or process emotions.
There are plenty of books or web sites that will help you try to identify the symbols in your dream, and what they mean. (One that I found intriguing is that if you dream about your teeth falling out, you’re afraid of aging.)
In my case, I was recently stressed by a lot of repairs that needed to be done on my real house. One of the repairs involves plumbing, which could explain why I took note of a wayward kitchen sink in the dream. I also needed to clean my real-life house quite thoroughly, to make room for a guest.
Whatever the reasons behind them, my dreams let me navigate to other places or times. After a hard day in real life — when I come home from work frustrated by events I can’t control, or worried about huge bills or about not having the time to fix everything — it’s nice to slip into a dream world, when I can work on different problems for a little while.
And now I know that my dreams are saving my progress.