The world is a scary place. And sometimes, we can't even escape that when we sleep. Nightmares are a universal human plight, with two to six percent of the population estimated to have at least one nightmare weekly. The Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at the University of Montreal lists adolescence as the peak age, with reports of nightmares being low for both young preschoolers and the elderly, and with women reporting having more nightmares than men. As unpleasant as having a nightmare is, however, dream theorists are increasingly certain that the nightmare is a form of subconscious emotional regulation, allowing you to exorcise anxieties that you experience, but do not address, in your waking hours.
With this in mind, let's look at ten of the most commonly occurring nightmares, and what they are believed to represent.
Everyone has had one of these, where for whatever reason you're plummeting towards the ground at terminal velocity. First some good news: that rumor that if you hit the ground in a falling dream you'll die in Real Life? Untrue. But have you ever been mostly asleep and then had the sudden sensation of falling? That, some scientists believe, may be caused by a shift in blood pressure as you slip into unconsciousness, or by movement in inner-ear fluid, which helps control balance. Not that it helps in the moment, but knowing possible explanations has always been a help in rationalizing nightmares. Meanings attributed to falling dreams include: a fear of losing control, feeling like an element (or elements) of your life are out-of-control or a loss of emotional balance. Others argue for an evolutionary explanations: that falling dreams are primal remnants from humanity's primate-phase.
9 Being Chased
Freud thought these dreams represented specific sexual fears: castration for men and rape for women. But Freud's been largely discredited as a source for dream interpretation since he interpreted nearly everything sexually. More modern interpretations suggest that chase dreams are a metaphor for insecurity- either in yourself or in your circumstances, or are about unresolved guilt. Some interpretations state that whatever is pursuing you in your dreams is an aspect of yourself that you haven't come to terms with.
8 Naked In Public
Everything is going fine in slumber-land, the elephants are minding traffic and you're about to give a presentation to your third grade teacher and a judgmental pair of cats when- oh no!- you realize that you're stark naked! There are two main ways that these dreams are interpreted. One is as a fear of being exposed, and having some aspect you'd rather keep under wraps put on display, while another suggests a sense of inferiority, like everyone can see right through your facade to the insecurities beneath. However, if no one notices that you're naked, the dream is believed to be telling you that it's an empty fear, and that your worries aren't shored up in reality.
7 Being Injured
Injuries and wounds in dreams are mutable, depending on the situation they are received in. Being hurt in a dream can relate to areas in your waking life where you feel powerless. If it's a self-inflicted injury can relate to fears that you'll sabotage your own efforts, accidentally or otherwise. If someone else is hurting you, it might be about situations where you feel you are being cut off or kept down. In the dream, if you're able to treat your wound or defend yourself successfully, that's generally considered to be a positive sign, one that suggests you're able to deal with the situation bothering you, scary as it may be.
If you're experiencing pain in your dreams, it may tie into a physical injury you're recovering from, or represent a perceived emotional injury.
6 Tooth Loss
This is a very common theme in dreams, and have several possible meanings. Loosing teeth can represent self-consciousness, either about appearance or age. Or they can be about your fear of losing face (the subconscious, much to mingled delight and horror, loves a good pun. Or a bad one.). There's also a more physical explanation for dreams of losing teeth: those who grind their teeth, or have sensitive teeth are more likely to have dreams about losing teeth. If you have a toothache, as well dreams about losing teeth are more likely, since it's more likely to be a back-of-your-mind worry.
5 Being Lost
Remember how the subconscious loves a pun? It also likes the really blatant things: dreams where you're lost generally reflect a sense of being lost. Though, it's important to look at how you got lost in your dream when interpreting nightmares of being in a strange place with no idea of how to get back to the familiar. If you got there under your own steam, than you might be uncertain of what you want, or can refer to a choice you aren't sure how to make. If you're just lost, wandering the forest, the strange city or the endless mall then you might be feeling stuck in a rut, like you're not progressing in aspects of your life.
4 Being Trapped
This one has another fairly blatant interpretation. Dreams about being trapped reflect a sense of being trapped in real life. You might be feeling stuck in a dead-end job or feeling unable to make a choice. Or it could be a more nebulous sense of being trapped, by something like stubbornness or unwillingness to compromise. But the general interpretation is that your subconscious is giving you the nudge to act by means of blatant metaphor.
Apparently this one doesn't go away once you have a few years between you and graduation. You may always run the risk of dreaming up an exam for a course that you, somehow, didn't know you were enrolled in or are otherwise completely unprepared for. Theorists figure this is because exams and tests are so stressful in real life which makes them perfect for your subconscious to grab onto as a symbol of stress- for the rest of your life. Being unprepared for a test in a dream is felt to represent your fears about being unprepared for the challenges in your life. Failing a test in a dream, however, is thought by some to be a good omen (maybe it gets the failure out of the way while you're asleep?).
Like with falling, if you die in a dream, you don't die in real life. Anyways, the trappings of death in your dreams aren't necessarily harbingers of death or bad omens. Instead, dreaming of death can represent a new beginning, an old part of yourself being laid to rest to make room for new opportunities. Dreams of graves and tombs can represent the worry that some part of yourself has 'died', or represent parts of yourself that have fallen to the wayside. Another widely held thought about dreams of death is that they are simply your subconscious' way of addressing mortality, and the very human fear of death.
1 Betrayal of a Loved One
If you have a dream about your significant other stepping out on you, and you weren't previously worried about infidelity, it probably isn't your subconscious picking up on something that your conscious self missed. More likely, dreams about being cheated on or being stabbed in the back by friends is about feeling abandoned or alienated by them. If they're spending all their time on something else, be it work or what have you, you might feel a little cheated on, or at least cheated out of their time. Of course, if you were worried about infidelity already, your subconscious may have taken that fear and run with it.