The unfortunate thing about dreams is that most of them — or at least the ones we remember — are bad.
According to Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher and the author of “An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming,” current evidence suggests the majority of our dreams are characterized by negative emotions — not positive ones. You fall off a cliff; you’re being chased by your boss; you lose your keys before a plane flight.
But Bulkeley urges people not to dismiss their dreams or try to forget them. “Even though they might be unpleasant,” he said, “they can be valuable and important.” That’s because stressful dreams often provide insight into the concerns we have in our waking life — concerns we might not want or be able to acknowledge.
To learn more about what our unpleasant dreams might be telling us, Business Insider asked Bulkeley and Michael Lennox, a psychologist, an expert in dream interpretation, and the author of “Llewellyn’s Little Book of Dreams,” to help decipher some of the most common themes. Read on to find out what your recurring stress dreams really mean.
Trying and failing to run away
Lennox calls this scenario “stress dream 101.” He said this dream is an “expression of generalized fear and anxiety” — though the specific object of fear will vary from person to person.
“I would say that the person who’s having the dream probably has a greater generalized fear response to life than someone who doesn’t have that dream,” Lennox added. “Although it doesn’t make the person pathologically challenged.”
Bulkeley said he would ask the dreamer in this situation if anything in their life feels inescapable. Maybe the person is feeling weak or vulnerable in a conflict. Dreams often use “dramatic metaphors” for emotions that are hard to verbalize, he said.
Lennox said dreaming about being naked is a “perfect symbolic expression” of feeling like a fraud at work (also known as impostor syndrome).
Many people privately experience the fear that other people will find out that they don’t really know what they’re doing. Being naked at work could mean, Lennox says, that “I will be seen for who I really am. And that will be terrifying.”
Being unprepared for an exam
People commonly dream of being unprepared for a test in high school or college – even if they graduated years ago. And Lennox said it’s often triggered by performance anxiety at work.
High school and college “are the first places where we learn about responsibility and accountability. [The dream] will often recur when we’re faced with the same sense of pressure in our current waking life.”
Being unable to graduate college
Dreams about being unable to graduate translate to fears about not being ready to advance, particularly at work.
Lennox said, “The dream would be processing fears that someone else is ready and we’re not, that we’re going to be somehow passed over.”
Watching your teeth fall out
“Losing teeth is akin to insecurity,” Lennox said.
Teeth have a few functions — they allow us to eat, but they also let us smile or snarl at other people. To lose your teeth “would be to not be able to feed and take care of yourself, feel loved, and be protected,” Lennox said.
Another potential meaning? Because teeth are in the mouth, Lennox said this dream might come up when “being authentic, speaking up, or having a voice” feel challenging.
This dream often occurs, Bulkeley said, around times of great uncertainty, when you “feel like you don’t have adequate support or backing.” Maybe something or someone in your life that was once your rock is now less stable.
In terms of work anxieties, Lennox said a dream of falling could reflect a lack of authority in the workplace.
“If you’re dreaming of falling, look to the places in your work life where you feel like you’re trying to exert some control that’s unattainable.”
Seeing your loved ones die
“Death is a great symbol of change,” Lennox said.
When someone dies in your dream, it might indicate that something about your relationship with that person is changing or growing. That change isn’t necessarily negative, but a recurring dream about death might suggest that something about the transformation is scary.
Forgetting to pack something
Lennox said this dream is fundamentally about feeling unprepared. “When we’re unprepared, then we can’t navigate a stressful situation effectively.”
The dream might also represent a feeling of being out of control.
Interestingly, Lennox said dream scenarios are typically much higher-stakes than anything that happens in real life. For example, showing up to a business meeting and realizing you forgot to pack your laptop is arguably worse than feeling generally overwhelmed by the day-to-day demands in your life.
Missing a plane flight
When you miss a flight in your dream, you’re probably playing out a fear of missing a deadline in real life.
“In the world of working, there’s nothing like a deadline as a supreme stressor,” Lennox said.
Again, Lennox said everything is a crisis in dream world. Turning in a project report an hour late probably doesn’t have the same consequences as missing an international flight by an hour.
Forgetting to take care of a baby or a pet
Babies in a dream are symbolic of new possibilities, Lennox said. If you dream about neglecting a baby, you might really be worried about that blog post you’ve been meaning to write or that hobby you’ve been hoping to start. Essentially, you’re neglecting something in your life that needs your attention.
Pets, on the other hand, reflect joy and love. Lennox said someone who dreams about abandoning a pet might be “too stressed to do fun and lovely things for themselves” and might be feeling like “I’m missing out on cultivating and nurturing something that life has to offer.”
Bulkeley said cars and driving in dreams can have many meanings, but they often reflect our connections to other people.
If you’re dreaming of speeding, for example, you might feel out of control in a personal relationship. On the other hand, if you’re dreaming of being stuck in traffic, you might be feeling “adrift” in relationships, or life in general.