Why do we dream?
Reviewed by Cathy Leeson, SLP
Written byElise Burley
Last updated: 08/14/2023
I’m on the first floor of my old high school, trying to remember which of the three levels my locker was on. I’m already late for class.
I decide that it’s probably not on the first floor down the dark hallway toward the gym, so I start running toward the main freestanding staircase by the front entrance. I’m pretty sure my locker is somewhere on the second floor.
But as I start climbing the stairs in a hurry, the steps mysteriously start to pull apart, leaving big gaps between them that I have to jump over. The more I climb, the farther apart the steps become, forcing me to look down at the white tile flooring several feet below.
It’s a lot higher than I expected, and now the gaps between the steps are too far apart to safely jump them. I try to use the banister instead by clinging my entire body to it and shimmying my way up the side, terrified of the thought of looking down while I’m doing it, or worse—losing my grip.
Somehow I made it to the top, and I’m on stable ground again. The hallways of lockers seem never ending, so I start walking. Walking, walking, walking.
By some miracle, I’ve located my locker. But now I have to remember the combination to open it. I had done it so many times that I vaguely remembered the positions I needed to hit while twisting the dial, but I couldn’t remember the exact number combination.
I needed to open it. All of my things were in there, and I had to get to class. I twist the dial the best I can from memory and yank on it. Nothing.
I try again. Yank on it. Nothing again. At this point, I’m getting seriously anxious.
I pull off my knapsack and rummage through it to find my day planner, where I swear I wrote down my locker combination at the beginning of the school year. When I finally find it, I flip through an endless number of pages, anxiously scanning each page for any sign of a sequence of numbers scribbled down.
Again, nothing. I’m super late for class now. So I abandon my locker and decide to explain what happened to the teacher, hoping that she’ll have a few spare pieces of paper and a pen she can lend me until I can go to the office after school and ask them to provide me with the locker combination they have on file.
Now I have to remember where my class is. I rush through the hallways, looking into each classroom to see if I recognize it. I can’t remember the exact room number.
When I finally find it, the whole class is silent and staring at a piece of paper on their desks. I take my seat, and stare down at… a test.
It was a test I completely forgot was today, and a test that I clearly didn’t study for. I didn’t know what to do.
I stare at the paper, frozen by a mixture of feelings—anxiety, fear, regret, and shame. And then I wake up from the dream.
I haven’t been in high school for 17 years, but this kind of dream—one that involves a moving staircase, endless hallways, the failure to remember my locker combination, and a forgotten test—happens all the time.
What Exactly Is a Dream, and Why Do We Do It?
When our brains are in a resting state during sleep, patterns of sensory information trigger different sensations, emotions, images, and ideas in our minds. These are called dreams.
Dreams help us consolidate memories, process emotions, replay recent events, and clear out mental clutter that’s built up over the day and is no longer needed. They can occur in any stage of the sleep cycle, but we have our most vivid dreams during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage, which is when the brain experiences a significant increase in activity.
Everyone dreams (whether we remember them or not), but the content can vary drastically from person to person. Some people experience random lucid dreaming, while others say that they can increase their ability to control their dreams.
I know that for myself, I tend to have these crazy high school dreams when I’m dealing with some form of stress or anxiety in real life. I also struggle with insomnia, and researchers know that insomniacs tend to experience dreams that are driven by more negative emotions and self-focused thoughts.1
Do Dreams Really Mean Anything?
When I have a dream that has a powerful effect on my emotional state, I like to Google its meaning. I’ll often Google what it means to dream of a double rainbow, to dream of being chased down by a bear, or to dream of being a completely different person.
Most of what comes up in search results are vague descriptions from websites that base them off of spiritual symbolisms and superstition. Dreaming of a rainbow could be a sign of prosperity, but there’s no real science behind this kind of interpretation.
Many people, myself included, think their dreams reveal certain truths about themselves that have been buried in their subconscious. Sigmund Freud, a neurologist and the founding father of psychoanalysis, believed that dreams were an expression of our deepest desires, fears, and suppressed memories.
Suppressed thoughts and feelings from real life tend to occur more frequently in dreams and could help to explain some dream themes, like the one of my high school. But despite what scientists know about dreams, there are many things that remain unknown.
What About Nightmares?
A nightmare is more than just a bad dream. It’s a bad dream that pulls you out of your sleep.
Nightmares often involve extreme situations—our own fight for survival, the loss of a loved one, an apocalyptic scenario, social humiliation, or some other type of seemingly catastrophic event. They trigger negative feelings strong enough to jolt you awake.
Kids and teens tend to have nightmares more than adults do, but despite how unpleasant they are, they usually aren’t cause for concern. It’s common to experience nightmares when dealing with trauma or adversity, irregular sleep patterns, or illnesses that cause you to run a fever. Certain medications have even been known to cause them.
It’s also completely normal to have a nightmare at random from time to time. I know that when I snack too late at night, drink alcohol, or find myself at a certain point in my menstrual cycle, I tend to be at an increased risk for having them.
Sometimes, nightmares can point to more serious mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If nightmares are recurring and negatively impacting your daily life, it could be a sign of nightmare disorder, which is a good enough reason to consider talking to a therapist.
How to Have More Pleasant Dreams
You can’t guarantee that you’ll never have another nightmare ever again, but you can definitely make some tweaks to your lifestyle to prevent them from occurring. Here’s what I like to do:
Take care of your sleep schedule. Be as consistent as possible with going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, aiming for 7 to 8 hours of sleep in between.
Optimize your sleep environment. To get better quality sleep, consider making tweaks to your sleep environment like investing in a better mattress, turning your thermostat down to be cooler at night, and removing all sources of light so that your room is as dark as possible.
Exercise during the day. Exercise helps you sleep better by tiring you out and helping to relieve stress and anxiety. Try lifting weights, jogging, aerobics, cycling, yoga, brisk walking, or anything else that gets your body moving in a way that you enjoy.
Learn how to manage stress in healthy ways. Instead of suppressing your emotions related to stressful situations, try talking to someone about it, journaling about it, or simply asking for help. Anything that will help you process and release your feelings will definitely help you sleep better at night.
Avoid anything that’s too mentally stimulating before bedtime. Working late, watching action-filled or dramatic TV shows, or simply overthinking a situation can make it difficult to shut your mind off at night. It can also cause you to dream about the very thing that your mind was consumed by right before bed.
Avoid problematic foods and beverages. Some people find that sugar really impacts their sleep while others have to avoid chocolate or the tiniest amount of caffeine. Alcohol might make you feel sleepy at first, but it can compromise the quality of your sleep later.
Have a bedtime routine that promotes physical and mental relaxation. Shut off all the glowing screens an hour before bedtime so you can wind down. Take a hot shower, read a book, meditate, or do something else that helps melt the stress away from the day.
Practice lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming involves knowing that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. This gives you the power to control what’s happening in your dreams. There are lots of books and online resources (such as YouTube videos) that can teach you how to lucid dream.
Go Deeper Into Your Dreams
I’ve always been one of those people who has extremely vivid dreams almost every night. I often remember them in great detail the next morning. If you remember your dreams too, you may want to consider starting a dream journal to keep track of them and possibly even try to decipher their meaning.
Although science can’t really confirm that our dreams mean anything at all, you have the freedom to decide that for yourself. Dreams are highly personal experiences. Why not delve deeper into them if you’re curious enough?
You could just end up learning a thing or two about yourself. Sweet dreams!
About the author
Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.