What Your Dreams REALLY Mean — 6 Common Signs

Photographed By Ben Ritter.
There are few things more mysterious than our own dreams.

Scientists have learned a lot over the years about what's happening in our brains, physically, while we dream. But the actual meaning behind those subconscious adventures — and what role they can play in our emotional lives — is much less clear. Carl Jung, the founder of the school of analytical psychology, is responsible for perhaps the most famous theory about our dreams: that they reflect unconscious imbalances we might be struggling with.
Whether you subscribe to this idea or not, it's hard not to wonder if there might be something to the crazy things your brain comes up with while you're sleeping. So, we reached out to Anne Cutler, a licensed psychoanalyst with expertise in dream interpretation, to get her take on some common dream types.

"Everyone has unique dreams to themselves, in their own inner psyche and conflicts," Cutler says. "What we’ll do in our dreams is we’ll start with something that is up-front in our mind, in the days leading up to the dream, and we’ll make connections about what’s going on in our current life, and what went on in our history."
Ahead, Cutler shares four steps to help you decode your dreams — plus some common recurring clues that might prompt you to see a dream in a new way.
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"An anxiety dream is driven typically by some worry or concern on the dreamer’s mind, and the dream will be an attempt to make sense and/or try to resolve the source of the anxiety," Cutler says.

Fortunately enough, anxiety dreams are the most commonly remembered type of dreams, Cutler says. "We all dream multiple times a night, every night, so you're probably forgetting a good dozen or so dreams on any given night," Cutler says. If a dream ends before you wake, you are less likely to remember it, Scientific American reports. But anxiety dreams — which often manifest themselves as nightmares — are more likely to be remembered because of the amount of stress they cause.

"Often, the anxiety in the dream itself becomes unbearable, and we will actually wake up from the dream," Cutler says.
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The first step to decoding your dream is to think about anything that is happening in your life that may have triggered the anxiety.

"Think about anything significant that was on your mind before you went to sleep, and any significant things that stand out in conversation, or feelings in the several days leading up to the dream," Cutler says. "That’s the entry into the dream."
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"The next important step is to take each element of the dream as a separate element, and think about what you associate that with," Cutler says. "If it’s a chair, a specific chair, and it looks like the chair you sit in...at work, or it looks like a rocking chair in your mother's house, and she used to sit there and rock in it every night, that means something."

Once you figure out the specific associations with each item, then you can start putting together what your dream means. "It’s like picking apart the puzzle pieces, and at the end, you put them back together," Cutler says.
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Since each dream could vary in interpretation based on the person, it's hard to come up with generalizations for the meanings of specific dream sequences. "I think [dream analysis] is very much personal to the individual," Cutler says, and popular dream types do vary based on culture and geography.

Cutler suggests noting how personal the details are — is the chair from your childhood? Is the person who shows up a blast from the past, or a stranger? Ahead, a few common dream images and how to think about them.
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Chase scenes — either on foot or in a vehicle — are incredibly common in anxiety dreams, Cutler says. The more details you remember, the better.

"Someone who is being chased...who is driving a car and being chased in a truck, that might mean one thing, versus someone who is running on foot and a wolf is chasing them," Cutler says. "The specific details of any dream [are] super important [to] understand what the dream means to a dreamer."

Being chased, generally, can mean that there's some obligation, or something that is pressing on you, that you don't want to do. "You're trying to elude it, but it's nagging at you," Cutler says. Whether you're on foot or in a vehicle and what or whom you're being chased by are all important details to consider.
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Dreams about taking a test and not being prepared are also common. "It's a point of reference for most of us who go through the school system, and there is a finite and repetitive anxiety that we've gotten time and time again," Cutler says.

If you're still in school, you could just be stressed out by a test. But you could also be more nervous about something else. "The best thing you can do to understand [this dream's] relevance to your current life is to think about what is going on that could create a similar type of anxiety, where you might feel like you're going to be judged and...fear that you will be found lacking," Cutler says.
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Tsunamis, earthquakes, fires — natural disasters are common anxiety-dream situations, and might represent something that is far out of your control. "Any kind of natural disaster can be a symbol for anxiety, but it's more something that is really far out of all of our control," Cutler says. "If there’s an earthquake, it’s not humanly possible to stop an earthquake from happening, so it might be about a bigger issue that feels overwhelming."

Still, think about your own experiences and perspectives on these situations. Someone who grew up in California would have a different experience with earthquakes than someone in New York, Cutler notes.

If you dream about an earthquake, "Think to yourself, what comes to mind about an earthquake?" Cutler says. Focus on what these disasters mean to you — and what the fear can represent.
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Some nightmares might deal with crime — like someone breaking into your home, or someone robbing you. While it might sound a little bit like a natural disaster, dreams that deal with these situations tend to hit closer to home.

"This is a little bit more personal, more immediate," Cutler says, "So ask yourself what you felt like in the dream. Do you feel unsafe in your own home? Could the home be a representation of yourself?"
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People you know can show up all the time in dreams. Maybe it's someone you see daily; maybe you haven't thought of the person for years. But somehow, these people pop up in your subconscious and end up in one of your dreams.

This doesn't necessarily mean that these people are important to you. Instead, they could represent aspects of yourself, certain times of your life, or character traits that you are thinking about.

"What you want to do is think, what does that person represent? Is he or she a historical reference for a time in your life? Does that person represent a certain character trait or type?" Cutler asks.
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One of the great things about dreams is that there are no limits — we can access our memory breaks and draw from our life experiences. One important way to decode dreams is to note if something is showing up from the past.

"One of the ways a dream will signal that the conflict you're dealing with has roots for you personally is that you might find yourself walking through your childhood home where you grew up," Cutler says. If you see anything from a past time that doesn't belong in your dream, note it; it could mean that your problems trace back to a specific point in your life.