Meaning of dreams—the most common dreams and what they really mean

The true meaning of dreams might seem a little crazy at times, but are yours trying to tell you something important?

Woman lying down on a beanbag asleep, to illustrate the meaning of dreams
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Want to know the meaning of dreams? If you've woken up from a particularly strange dream or nightmare, you're bound to want to know what it's all about - especially if you've had the same one for a few nights in a row.

Even if you're the best sleeper in the world with a solid nighttime routine and sleep schedule, vivid dreams and nightmares can wreak havoc on your shuteye. The good news? Whatever you get up to when you're asleep is totally normal. We all dream - it’s part of the natural sleep cycle. While some of us don’t remember a thing about our dreams, for others, they can be a source of comfort or distress. 

Knowing the reasons behind them and why you might be having strange dreams could help ease sleep anxiety, ensuring you get a more restful night. We asked sleep experts, UK Council for Psychotherapy (opens in new tab) registered psychotherapist Melinda Powell, and spiritual, dreams, and paranormal author Theresa Cheung (opens in new tab),  to explain the meaning behind common nightmares and dreams.

What do dreams mean?

Dreams can really tell us about our lives as they mirror back to us our personal psychology and can help us develop emotional intelligence towards ourselves and others, Powell explains.

"Research from the University of Campania (opens in new tab), has shown that the theme of a dream often reflects emotions from the previous day, while details of the dream may hold important personal, symbolic meanings. That is why we can make associations with our dreams to better understand the otherwise unconscious dynamics, feelings and desires that motivate us," she says. 

In simple terms, "as Freud noted, as we sleep, dreams present us with a different way of thinking." This is why knowing the meaning of dreams is so important. 

The meaning of dreams 

1. Dreams about driving too fast

Sometimes the meaning of dreams is not quite straightforward. Dream of driving fast? Contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t mean you’re worried about being a bad driver or being involved in an accident. Cars represent our current life - the path we’re on or the direction we’re taking, whether that's related to work, family, relationships, or something else.

"An out-of-control or speeding car suggests you might be veering off track or moving faster than you should be," reveals Theresa Cheung. "You may be heading for danger in some areas of your life. Are you rushing into a new relationship, or leaving an established one? Or perhaps you’re plunging too hastily into a big life change, such as a new job or a relocation."

If you’re not the driver of the car in the dream, it could be telling you that you ought to be. Someone may be leading you in the wrong direction, or perhaps you’re being influenced by someone else’s agenda. A driverless car on the other hand points to powerlessness, a sense of aimless drifting.

2. Dreams about teeth falling out

If you’ve ever dreamed about your teeth falling out, you’re not alone - it’s one of the most common anxiety dreams. But the meaning of this dream isn't linked to dental problems - its significance runs much deeper than that. "It can point to a fear of aging or of feeling unattractive in some way," says Cheung. "It can also symbolize fear of losing something or someone important to your emotional or material survival. After all, without your teeth, you can’t eat and nourish yourself." 

And that's not all. "Teeth are symbols of viability or, sometimes, power, so this could mean you are feeling neglected, frustrated, overlooked, or inferior in some way," adds Cheung. "It’s also worth noting that in Chinese tradition teeth crumbling or falling out is associated with telling lies or not being true to yourself."

woman falling off pink blocks

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3. Dreams about falling

You’re falling through space, down a hole, or from a cliff, roof, or plane. Wherever you’re falling from, the chances are it’s terrifying, and you can’t see an end in sight. You’ve probably guessed it doesn’t mean you’re afraid of heights, but what deeper message could it be trying to send you?

"Falling in a dream is a clear sign that some situation or relationship is out of your control," explains Cheung. "Perhaps you find you have no sense of stability, or it may be that you see no solution to your problems, have little support or have a strong urge to escape a challenging situation."

4. Dreams about being naked

If you often dream about being unclothed, there are several possible meanings. "Being naked is a strong indicator of feeling vulnerable," says Cheung. "Perhaps you’re hiding something or not being true to who you really are, and you might have anxiety that others will see through your disguise. Or perhaps you’re trying hard to impress someone, but are afraid you’ll cause disappointment."

It could also be highlighting tension. On the one hand, you want to be completely honest and open with people. On the other, you’re afraid that revealing your true feelings or personality will lead to ridicule or leave you exposed as a fraud. Perhaps imposter syndrome is getting the better of you...

5. Dreams about being unprepared

Have you ever dreamed about turning up for an exam or a job interview only to realize that you’re completely unprepared? No doubt you woke up feeling panicky and embarrassed. But what does it mean? It could point toward the fact that you feel as though you’re not meeting the standards you’ve set for yourself. 

"It may appear in the dream as though you’re worried about being judged by others but, in reality, you're judging yourself harshly," says Cheung. "Your dreaming mind wants you to feel more confident and live life on your own terms. It’s prompting you to focus more on your strengths than your weaknesses." Of course, if the dream corresponds literally with a real-life situation, it’s simply reflecting your anxiety about being ill-prepared.

6. Dreams about bugs or spiders

Wake up dreaming that bugs are crawling over you? "Dreaming about insects, especially in large numbers, is often a symbol of negative thoughts or feelings," says environmental psychologist Lee Chambers (opens in new tab)

"This could be guilt or anxiety. These feelings are haunting you or, more metaphorically, are crawling through your unconscious mind," he adds. Not a pleasant thought. 

burnt and unburnt matches on blue background

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7. Dreams about fire

To dream of a fire can mean many things. "If you were unafraid of the fire, then it suggests you are ‘on fire’ with drive and creativity," says Chambers. "If you are burned from the fire, it indicates that your temper is raging, and you are ‘burning up inside’. 

Alternatively, it could be trying to warn you against risky or dangerous activities of ‘playing with fire'."

8. Dreaming about death or dying

If you’ve ever dreamed about death - whether it’s you or someone else dying - the chances are you’ve woken up in a panic. So perhaps you’ll be surprised to learn that it doesn’t signify death - in fact, quite the opposite.

"Dreams about death are typically a sign of positive change," says Cheung. "They signify shedding the past and moving forward. If you are dying in a dream, this suggests inner growth and self-discovery, or that you’re starting a new phase in your life. If someone else dies, this could mean simply that your relationship with this individual is evolving, or it could be that they represent an aspect of yourself that needs to be transformed."

There's no doubt the meaning of dreams can be traumatic though. If you find that you're often having disturbing dreams, it may be time to get some help. "Rather than fighting ‘bad’ dreams, the solution is to work with them creatively and therapeutically," Powell, who specialises in lucid dreams, says. "This may involve doing dreamwork with a psychotherapist so that we can safely recall and re-engage with deeply emotional memories. Taking time to write down, draw, or tell a dream helps us to reflect on what the dream might be trying to tell us." 

9. Dreams about seeing a ghost

Had a spooky dream involving seeing a ghost? "While this may seem like a scary thought, it’s usually a subconscious expression that you are suffering from grief or loss," explains Chambers. "However, if the ghost is a deceased relative or loved one, this will feel distinctly different, and usually more positive."

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10. Dreams about struggling to find a bathroom

This very specific dream is common, particularly if you’re deeply worried about some aspect of your personal life, or are feeling blocked or frustrated.

"Using a bathroom is a very personal thing to do, so the dream is probably concerned with some deep aspect of your inner life," says Cheung. "It could be telling you to let go of anger, guilt, shame, jealousy, fear, hate, or sadness - emotions that appear to be holding you back. It could also mean that you’re not paying enough attention to your true priorities or that you’re neglecting your own needs."

11. Dreams about being chased

If you’ve ever dreamed about being chased you’ve probably woken up out of breath and panicky. But what does it mean?

"Being chased in a dream strongly suggests that you’re trying to avoid someone or something," explains Cheung. "Running, or feeling the need to hide or escape usually carries the same meaning, even when there’s no specific threat. When the identity of the threat is apparent, it may give clues. But if it remains vague, generalized, or unknown, as it often does, the chances are it has an emotional source. Maybe you’re trying to hide from painful feelings, or perhaps you’re running away from responsibility or expectation, either self-imposed or put on you by others."

12. Dreams with secret rooms

A house or home in a dream represents yourself. Just as with you, there’s an inside and an outside. So, rooms that are locked, unknown or secret could mean there are areas of your personal transformation that are not yet being expressed - whether you are not aware of them or are not capitalizing on them. 

And, that's not all. "An empty room suggests you aren’t taking steps to get to know your own strengths and talents: inspiration is waiting to happen," says Cheung. "But bear in mind that a hidden room can also be where your dark side is to be found. You need to face this aspect of yourself and come to terms with it."

illustration of hands reaching out to touch

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13. Dreams about flying or floating

Flying through the air in your dreams probably feels like a positive, exciting dream -and the good news is, that’s exactly what it is. "It’s generally a symbol of something happening in your life that gives you a high," explains Cheung. "Perhaps you’ve achieved, or are about the achieve, something significant. It can relate to travel, work, relationships, or a personal project. It may also come from a sense of freedom, the lifting of restrictions after a period of confinement, or perhaps a leap forward in your personal development."

Pay attention to the direction you’re flying in: upwards, or flying high, suggests spiritual growth or worldly ambitions. Downwards or flying low to the ground suggests newfound determination and strength. Plus, backward suggests happy memories. Whichever it is, there’s very little to worry about here!

Other common dreams and what they meaning

Do you often have dreams that are even more bizarre? Chambers explains what they mean:

  • Being pregnant—this dream indicates feelings about some change in life and the concerns and worries of this change.
  • Losing hair / being bald—whilst this could be taken literally, it’s mostly linked to you feeling insecure or vulnerable about certain aspects of your life.
  • Seeing a dead person—signifies the end of something, whether it’s a relationship, job, or even phase of your life.
  • Being attacked—this is not usually about wanting to hurt yourself or others, but is more linked to your own unresolved internal conflict. Perhaps there is something in your life that you need to get rid of—such as a behavior or belief you have outgrown.
  • Snakes—snakes don’t always have negative meanings and can be a symbol of health or healing.
  • School—dreaming about school can reflect your experience in work, highlighting anxieties as well as achievements in learning.

Why do we dream?

Although computer algorithms used in conjunction with fMRI scans of brain activity during rapid-eye movement sleep can now recreate dream imagery, we are still learning about how the brain creates dreams and, importantly why, Powell says. 

But along with knowing the meaning of dreams, we also know when dreaming happens. "The more vivid and memorable imagery we associate with dreams occurs during what is known as rapid eye movement or REM dreaming," she explains. "In recent years, the development of Functional MRIs enable neurologists to see, not only where brain activity occurs during dreaming, but also how the brain processes dreams in real time while the research participant sleeps."

When we're in REM sleep, the emotional centres of the brain become 30% more active, especially the parts that handle making memories. "Thus, in dreams strong feelings may be elicited from a seemingly random mixture of emotionally charged memories, from past to present," Powell says. "As brain activity associated with emotional arousal and hallucinatory imagery increases, the activity of the frontal cortex, associated with the capacity for self-reflection and reasoning, decreases."

This gives dreams their sometimes bizarre and occasionally irrational or random features. "And in terms of how you feel in your dream, dreams engage a form of associative and intuitive reasoning that the logical mind finds difficult to comprehend," she explains.

Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021. Currently Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships.