The 10 most common nightmares—and what your subconscious is really trying to tell you

Could these common nightmares really be a warning sign?

illustration of woman in bed with nightmares
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Common nightmares or recurring bad dreams can be distressing. We all have that one nightmare that comes back to haunt us in our sleep, but what does it really mean? Could your nightmares actually be warning signs? Or are they just bad dreams?

Research by US sleep brand Amerisleep found women actually have more nightmares than men. The study revealed women dream about falling or about being cheated on by their partner more than anything else. Whereas, men are more likely to dream about flying or finding money—total bliss! 


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Experts suggest this may be because women are more prone to anxiety than men, and nightmares are essentially subconscious anxieties playing out. You might find yourself worrying about something your partner said before your head hits the pillow and then fall into a nightmare where they cheat on you. Or, your anxieties might manifest in unusual ways, and your work stress could lead to nightmares about being chased. 

Here, we share the most common nightmares. And, with the help of experts, help you decipher the meaning of your dreams, so you can put your mind at ease... 

The most common nightmares 

1. Being chased

Being chased is one of the most common nightmares, according to the research. This dream could suggest you're in pursuit of a goal but are perhaps encountering a 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.

"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, Positive Psychology & Coach Trainer. 

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.

"This dream could be an indication of underlying anxiety or a lack of control in everyday life," says  Phil Lawlor, Sleep Expert at Dormeo UK. "But the way you fall is key—if it’s a gentler type of fall, it could simply mean a gradual process of letting go." 

3. A partner leaving or cheating

A nightmare where your partner leaves or cheats often reflects feelings of insecurity in your relationship. This may be a fear of not being good enough for your partner or another underlying anxiety you haven't addressed, says Lawlor. 

It could also relate to a personal fear of losing touch with your fundamental needs, which may be making you less confident than usual.

4. Teeth falling out

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.

"Dream scientists connect this with an anxiety about lack of power, the ability to communicate and one’s basic appearance being firmly connected to your teeth," adds Lawlor. 

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 lack of clothing could symbolise you're not confident in your own skin, and you are fearful of being judged by people. As such, this may indicate vulnerability and the fear of being exposed and being criticised by others," explains Lawlor. 

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. 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.

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 fulfilment. 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. 

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.

"Injury dreams could be an indication of feeling emotionally hurt by loved ones, friends, or the fear that they may let you down. Perhaps you're clashing with a family member or feeling as though you're drifting apart from your partner," explains Lawlor. 

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

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.

"This dream suggests that you're feeling trapped physically or emotionally, and your subconscious mind is exploring ways to escape and resolve the problem," says Lawlor. "You may not know how to escape the situation and your subconscious is finding ways to withdraw. This may be job stress, unhappy relationships, or overwhelming responsibilities."

w&h thanks Rebecca Lockwood Positive Psychology & Coach Trainer and Phil Lawlor, Sleep Expert at Dormeo UK 

Ciara McGinley
Ciara McGinley

Ciara is the digital health editor at woman&, covering all things health & 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 where she worked as a junior digital writer before later becoming the acting senior digital writer. Her time there was spent writing lifestyle features, running photoshoots and video shoots, and organizing product tests (including sportswear and swimwear) for the website. 

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. 

In her spare time, you’ll find her trying out new fitness classes, hiking up mountains, or in a beer garden because life is all about balance…