10 most common nightmares and the meanings behind them

Could these common nightmares be warning signs? Experts unpack bad dreams and why they happen

Illustration of a woman falling off a ledge, one of the most common nightmares
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Having common nightmares and bad dreams can be a distressing experience, particularly if they're happening almost every night. But could these nightmares actually be warning signs from your subconscious?  

Many people think so, as although we don't fully understand nightmares and why we have them, we do know that the most common ones - like your teeth falling out - are totally normal, and even those with the most diligent pre-bedtime routines and sleep hygiene practices are prone to waking up in cold sweats. 

"If you don't know the meaning of dreams, they can be distressing," agrees psychologist Lee Chambers, "But they can be useful as metaphors. They even have the potential to help us process some of our anxieties during the day, and can help some people manage stress more effectively." Here, we share the most common nightmares, according to a psychologist and a positive psychology coach, and why they might be occurring to help you figure out what they mean and help you sleep better

10 most common nightmares 

1. Being chased

Being chased is a common nightmare and this dream can be particularly anxiety-inducing if experienced during a lucid dream, where you're aware of being within a dream but still very much asleep. "The brain dreams in metaphors and so it doesn’t matter who you're being chased by, it signifies that you feel like something is still unfinished," adds Rebecca Lockwood, a positive psychology coach. 

This dream could suggest you're in pursuit of a goal but are perhaps encountering frustration or a challenge in obtaining it. It may be that you're unsure of how to actually reach your goal or you feel it might be threatened in some way.

2. Falling

Another common nightmare, this dream can often relate to a feeling that you're not in control of something going on in your life. This may be work, relationships, money, or a fear of letting something go. 

"Falling can be interpreted based on how you felt about falling, and if you are frightened, it can suggest there is something in your life that feels unstable, uncertain, or unpredictable," psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers told us. "On the other hand, if you aren't scared, it can suggest you are breaking free from something that has been holding you back and letting go of the resistance."

Illustration of a woman walking out of hole in purple wall, representing one of the most common nightmares

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. A partner leaving or cheating

A nightmare where your partner leaves or cheats often reflects feelings of insecurity in your relationship. Perhaps you have different attachment styles or love languages and are struggling to communicate effectively, or your partner is working away or distracted with a big project. It could also relate to a personal fear of losing touch with your fundamental needs, which may be making you less confident than usual.

"This is a less common dream, and people report it generates sadness as much as it does fear," says Chambers. "It could suggest you are feeling insecure about the future, or that your needs are not being met. But it might suggest that you have become less independent in life, and it might be that you are gradually claiming that in your dream."

4. Teeth falling out

Losing a tooth or experiencing crumbling or decaying teeth in a dream can be frightening, but it's incredibly common and often points to wider anxiety.

In your dreams, your teeth often represent power and confidence, therefore teeth falling out in a dream can symbolize a loss of confidence or a knock to your self-esteem. "A nightmare in which your teeth fall out could also depict a fear of losing something that means a lot to you and offers stability in your life," Lockwood says.

5. Being naked in front of people

Realizing you're standing in front of a crowd of people completely naked is a common nightmare, often played out in TV shows and films. This kind of nightmare relates to feeling vulnerable and exposed in some areas of your life. It could also be that you're ashamed of yourself or something you may have done or said and you're worried about what other people will think of you. 

"The whole expression of being exposed is coming to the fore in dreaming of being naked, and if you find yourself trying to cover up, it can suggest you are being accused of something, you're worrying about expressing yourself, or you feel unease about the path you are on," explains Chambers. "It could also be a sign of imposter syndrome. But again, if you don't freeze and carry on in the dream, it would suggest you have found acceptance and comfort in your own skin."

White and red life ring on light grey background to illustrate drowning dream

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6. Drowning

A nightmare where you're drowning in water may relate to a situation in your life where you're becoming deeply involved with something emotionally - like getting back with an ex or starting a new relationship. A drowning nightmare whereby your head slips under the water could mean you're overwhelmed by something and feel out of your depth. 

"Likewise, a dream where you are unable to breathe might relate to you not being able to put your feelings into words," Chambers adds. 

7. Missing an important event or being late

Whether it's a work presentation, a doctor's appointment, or coffee with a friend, a dream where you're late for an event or even miss it entirely can relate to losing the opportunity to experience fulfillment. In the dream you may feel rushed and flustered, this could symbolize you feeling like time is running out for you to accomplish a certain goal you have set for yourself. "It can also be down to you having some fear around letting others down," Lockwood adds. 

Red alarm clock on light pink box, in front of red and pink background

(Image credit: Getty Images)

8. Sustaining an injury

A nightmare involving an accident or injury can often represent feelings of weakness in your personal life. This dream could relate to an emotional wounding or embarrassment you've faced.

"Dreaming of becoming injured is an interesting one. If you are mortified and saddened, it might suggest you've been feeling embarrassed, have had your feelings hurt or you've rushed into something and need to be more conservative in your approach," Chambers explains. "But if an injury brings some sense of relief, it might suggest you've overcommitted and are feeling stretched, and the injury gives you permission to become more cautious and be more mindful of your boundaries."

9. Your house catches fire

A nightmare in which your house catches fire or floods could reflect a creative transformation taking place in your life, or highlight the need for you to take creative action in order to transform your life. This nightmare could also relate to a feeling that you're individuality and security are under threat. "It could also indicate that you need to take stock of where you are in life before you burn out or exhaust yourself," Lockwood says. 

10. Feeling trapped

Common nightmares involving a feeling of claustrophobia in a dream can reflect an inability to get out of a bad situation - one with no possibility of escaping. This could relate to an underlying feeling that you're unable to reach your full potential.

"Being trapped in your dream can potentially symbolize a few things" explains Chambers. "It can be that your suppressed feelings are trying to escape, and you feel trapped by their energy to express. It might be that you are anxious about a number of small things that seem to be encroaching on your life at the same time, closing your space. 

"But it can also signal you feel like there aren't the options to move in the direction you desire. It's not always about oppression, however, as if you feel comfort in being trapped, it might suggest you have found a place in life to stop and take a breather before setting off on your next adventure."

Ciara McGinley

Ciara is the former digital health editor at womanandhome.com and has covered all things health and wellbeing from fitness to sleep to relationships. She's always on the lookout for new health trends, innovative fitness gadgets and must-read wellness books. 

Originally from Ireland, Ciara moved to London to study journalism. After graduation, Ciara started her career at Goodhousekeeping.com. Ciara qualified as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation in 2020, and outside of her day-to-day now runs her own meditation school called Finding Quiet. She is all about bettering that mind-body connection but believes wellness looks different to everyone.