Common recurring dreams include falling and being back in school

I go through phases where I remember my dreams in vivid detail, and other times I don’t remember them for months at a time. I am currently in the memory-hole phase. But when I remember my dreams, a lot of them are repetitive. I dream all the time about having car trouble, and also about running, which is probably because I cannot run at all because of an injury. Running has become my ultimate fantasy, as well as dancing. Real Simple has an article about recurring dreams, and they are really common–at least 65% of Americans have them. Common themes include falling, being chased, and being back in school. Sometimes the dream can reflect an emotion or topic we’re trying to avoid, or sometimes it’s something we are thinking about a lot during our waking hours.

65 to 70 percent of us have recurring dreams: According to an October 2023 study from Amerisleep, the most common subjects of recurring dreams involve falling, being chased, and being back in school. The Sleep Foundation reports that between 60 and 75 percent of Americans experience recurring dreams.

Why do they happen: Recurring dreams can happen for any number of different reasons. For instance, unresolved issues, including unaddressed emotions or experiences in a person’s life, can contribute to a recurring dream.

“For example, if a person feels guilty about something or is worried about a particular relationship they have, this can manifest in their dreams,” Freedman says. “Certain traumatic events may also contribute to recurring dreams, such as car accidents, natural disasters, experiences of abuse, or interpersonal violence.”

It’s hard to really know what dreams “mean”: “At best, we can speculate on what a particular dream, or set of recurring dreams, means, and if an interpretation resonates for someone in a way that is helpful, that’s great,” she says. “While some people believe their dreams reflect unresolved emotions or ongoing life situations, the specifics can only be determined by examining the dream’s details and the dreamer’s context. It could be the individual’s way of signaling that it’s time to work through a trauma or process that’s holding them back.”

Therapy or dream journaling can help: “If your dreams are signaling that you may be avoiding certain emotions, situations, or topics, therapy can help the individual address those topics while you are awake so that perhaps they will not plague the person while sleeping,” she says.

Additionally, she recommends dream journaling. “Dream journaling can help identify whether a recurring dream might continue popping up and help the individual make sense of the themes and details involved,” she says.

[From Real Simple]

There’s no doubt that day-to-day things influence our dreams, like what we’ve watched on television just before going to sleep. (I strategically fall asleep to Gilmore Girls for just this reason). But I think there’s value in paying attention to our dreams. A framework that is helpful to me is imagining that each character in a dream represents a part of my own psyche. So if I am having dreams that I’m being stalked by a dangerous man, it means there’s something lumbering around in my psyche that is self-destructive. If I’m having that dream all the time, it means my negative self-talk is probably worse than usual during my waking hours. But I feel like almost everyone I know still has nightmares about being in school again, which is kind of funny. Why is high school the universal dream symbol for suppressed anxiety?

Photos credit: Kenneth Surillo on Pexels, here’s a link to his Instagram

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52 Responses to “Common recurring dreams include falling and being back in school”

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  1. BrainFog says:

    I have the one about being back in school. Sometimes I’m not wearing shoes, but it doesn’t seem to bother me. Sometimes I’m worried about being late to my final exams. Weird stuff.
    I have one about running, but I am always struggling to move. Like I’m stuck in place. I’m also a bad runner IRL.
    I also used to have really bad dreams about really bad weather. Those stopped when I ended my relationship back then.

    • JanetDR says:

      It would be wonderful if I were just not wearing shoes- at some point (whilst looking for the classroom and finding a number 2 pencil and realizing that I never attended the class), I look down and discover that I am naked!
      I haven’t had that one in awhile though.
      Before that it was my teeth falling out.

    • Christine says:

      This is the only recurring nightmare I have. I have it every time I kick all of the covers off and get really cold. I am back in college, and showing up for what I think is the first day of class, only to be told that it’s the final.

      When I am awake, my phobia is flying, so I would really love to reanimate Freud, so he could smart mansplain what the hell my brain is doing.

  2. Nutella toast says:

    I use Gilmore Girls like a palate cleanser at the the end of the day – my dreams are usually light and full of flirting or crushes or seasonal celebrations instead of past trauma or my verbally-abusive boss murdering me (that’s my repeat dream over the last few years). Yep…stuff to work though

  3. Arizona says:

    I have a recurring stress dream in which I am back in college and realize at the end of a semester that I have forgotten about a class and I am now failing and there’s nothing I can do. I haven’t been in college for like 15 years.

    I do tend to have vivid dreams and have some dreams that will continue on different nights.

    I keep thinking of keeping a dream journal but haven’t yet.

    • Kittenmom says:

      Yes, yes, yes! I’ve had this exact dream about forgetting the college class, many times over. And i haven’t been in college for some multiple of 15 years 😭

      • Jess says:

        All. The. Time. I didn’t attend a class for the whole term (or didn’t even know about it) and now it is exam day and im in a panic.

      • Megan says:

        I still have that dream and I graduated over 30 years ago. Apparently it never goes away.

      • Danbury says:

        OMG I’m glad I’m not alone!! I have that dream all the time and I graduated in 2000! What the hell?!

      • Kathryn says:

        That is my recurring dream topic too. Sometimes I’m in college and realize that I’ve never attended a class I signed up for. Sometimes I’m in high school and don’t know my schedule or where my classrooms are.

      • Christine says:

        Same, Kittenmom. I graduated from college in the 90s.

    • Bren says:

      I have similar dreams about skipping classes for a semester and worrying about not being prepared for the final exam. I graduated from college 20 years ago.

      I had a recurring dream about not making an international flight. I got to the airport and there was always something stopping me from boarding the plane. Usually, I forget my passport or wallet or get lost on my way to the terminal. No matter what, I could never make the international flight. Until this year, I hadn’t traveled overseas in 15 years and I thought the dream was my desire to travel overseas again. I traveled to Spain over the summer and I haven’t had that recurring dream since returning. I wonder if I’ll have it again after a few years.

    • TigerMcQueen says:

      I have this dream a lot, and I HATE it. It’s so stressfu. And I’m always so relieved when I wake up and realize I haven’t been to college since the 90s.

      • Kathgal says:

        SAME!!! It is the end of the semester and I haven’t been to class yet and I have to write an exam. I am actually quite relieved that I am not the only one who dreams this!

      • Christine says:

        Yep! There has to be something that happens in the brain, in the 20s, that really traumatizes all of us.

    • Lizzie Bathory says:

      Oh, yeah. This is the only recurring dream I have & it’s awful.

    • AnneL says:

      I’ve had that dream! It’s a very common one. So many people I know have had the same one or a variation. Another one I have is discovering that I never finished a class or took a test I needed to actually pass the Bar and be an attorney. I’ve had it so often that I can now will myself into my dream and remind myself that no, I checked all of the boxes YEARS ago and I don’t need to be stressing about this! Now wake up!

    • salmonpuff says:

      Oh my gosh, I just had a dream that spanned the course of a couple of nights a few weeks ago! It was the first time I can remember that happening, and it was wild. I’m glad to know it’s a thing!

    • Tina says:

      Same it’s always that I realize I was enrolled in a course and have to take an exam and don’t have any notes or the books. I graduated uni 21 years ago lol.

    • Seraphina says:

      Thank you CBs, I am so glad to know I am not alone. I have had variations of all these scenarios. And when I wake up, I am very much relieved that it was a dream.

    • Carmen says:

      Everybody’s had that dream, often several times. I’m back in college and realize I have a calculus final the day after tomorrow and I haven’t cracked a book all term. I graduated from college in 1965.

    • AprilUnderwater says:

      Oh my GOD me too! Right down to not having attended classes all semester.

      Last time I had it I had the presence of mind to think “No wait, I’ve graduated!” but in the dream I rationalised it like all lawyers had to go back to uni for new subjects, and my uni friends (who now live all over the world) were also there taking these new classes.

    • Kreama says:

      I get this all the time. Even though it never happened to me! I’m a lawyer and I think law school and 100% final exams screwed me up for life.

      Other recurring dreams:
      My car breaks don’t work and I’m swerving into traffic at stoplights etc.

      My parents are moving across the country and I have to leave my life behind and move with them. We had some major moves as a kid and it was really hard.

      My parents are threatening to spank me if I don’t do what they want (I’m in my 40s irl). I threaten them with calling the police and child protection and charging them criminally and my dad gets so angry but he doesn’t spank me.

      I’m naked in a crowd or using the bathroom in a toilet that’s in a public place.

      I need to run but can’t, need to scream but can’t, need to walk somewhere but kept floating up off the ground.

      I’m racing the clock to pack my things in a hotel to check out in tome but just keep getting farther and farther behind.

  4. seaflower says:

    I often have one where I’m flying, but instead of having wings, I swim through the air using breast stroke. Sometimes I’m too low to the ground and can’t seem to swim higher no matter how hard I try, but more often than not I swim easily through the air.

    • Seraphina says:

      I am very envious. I once had a dream I was flying and it was glorious.

    • CherHorowitz says:

      My flying dreams involve a cycling kind of action where the faster you ‘pedal’ the higher you go.

      I usually have the same (or slight variations of) the same dream for 2-3 years at a time. The current one is that I return to a non real place I’ve been on holiday before and loved, and in every single dream I end up in one way or another somehow entirely wasting the time there and doing nothing, or trying to find a place I visited before and not being able to ever find it, not making the most of it and ultimately feeling unbearably regretful when it’s time to leave.

      I wOnDeR wHat iT cOuLd meAn

    • Surly Gale says:

      I have the swimming, flying dream also. To get lift off I have to flap my arms really hard, but once up, I swim and glide.

  5. Shawna says:

    Dreams get fears past the firewall of your will.

    My recurring dream is packing. I’m traveling and have to pack in a frantic rush because I’m about to miss my plane. God I hate those dreams.

    PS: Freud says that you dream about school and exams because your brain wants to remind you that you’ve been successful at tests before and you’ll also succeed at whatever test is facing you now.

    • Seraphina says:

      Thank you for that information. My reoccurring fear is that I did not graduate college yet I wonder how I got my job.

  6. Scottiegal says:

    I dream about driving a lot. I don’t know why. I enjoy driving. I kept a dream journal in college for a class assignment. It was very interesting. I need to start keeping one again.

    • Nick G says:

      @ scottiegal driving dreams often have to do with how you’re managing your life, the paths you’re taking, etc.

    • salmonpuff says:

      My only recurring dream involves driving, too, but driving into water, usually the ocean. Sometimes I can swing the car out of the water, but often I wake myself up.

  7. Mads says:

    Truly sublime photographic choices. Well done.

    • ML says:

      Thanks, Mads. I also want to praise these excellent photo choices! Great job, Carina!

      As to reoccurring dreams: Falling or being chased when something is bothering me. Flying when happy.

  8. Jay says:

    I always had the “going back to high school dream” whenever I had new responsibilities or started a new job. In the dream, I would find out that actually, there was a mistake and I was missing a credit – I would have to go back and retake my entire senior year of high school as an adult, Happy Gilmore style. Obviously, it was related to imposter syndrome and anxiety about never feeling qualified enough, but it plagued me for years!

    However, I read something that helped me: tell your waking self that if this happens again, to go to the school guidance counselor, Tammy Taylor (Hey, it’s my dream!). The last time I had the dream, Tammy immediately realized that it’s a terrible idea to have an adult studying with teens, fixes my transcript, and tells me she knows I’ll be great at the new job. I haven’t had it in years☺️.

    • LulaChloe says:

      I have this exact dream too! I somehow made it through college and 2 masters programs, but still really need to do 10th grade social studies. I also have the one where I’m in college and it’s the end if the semester and just realize there’s a class I’ve never attended. I have the falling dream too, but I’m always INSIDE a building that starts to tip over. So weird.

  9. Mair says:

    I used to be a teacher, so one of my recurring stress dreams is not being able to find my classroom. Endlessly wandering halls with an increasing level of panic because I’m missing my class. Lovely feeling….

    • Mair says:

      And I almost forgot one of my heartbreaking dreams. I have had horrible vision most of my life and I dreamt that I could see perfectly without glasses or contacts. I wanted to cry when I woke up still blind as a bat.

  10. BB says:

    I used to have an awful reccurring dream about one or the other of my kids drowning before my eyes and me not being able to take him out of the water because his body was so slippery.
    This summer, my youngest almost drowned : he jumped into a pool we were in while no one was paying attention. On one moment I turned around and saw him underwater struggling, I firmly gripped him and took him out. I was traumatized and I am now more paranoid than ever around water. I thought the dream was going to be even more recurrent but I never had it again.

    • Kreama says:

      Agh how terrible. Im so sorry.

      I have a dream about my kids/nephews disappearing into the water. I was just in Hawaii with my kids and definitely remembered those dreams.

  11. AnneL says:

    Has anyone had flying dreams? I haven’t had one in quite a long time, but I went through a period of flying in my dreams and it was amazing. I was just swooping around and never felt afraid. I think my literal bird brain might have taken over in those dreams because the visuals were so detailed and it felt so real.

    • orangeowl says:

      It’s been awhile, but I used to. I would be walking down the sidewalk and jump, then jump higher and higher, sort of bouncing, until I cleared the trees and would be flying above them.

      My most common dream is the one so many others mentioned, where I’m about to take a final exam for a class I blew off or forgot about all semester. I also have pretty frequent dreams where I need to get somewhere but I can’t move and I can’t see. Very unsettling, always.

  12. Kendall says:

    What about dreams about spiders especially tarantulas?

  13. Jessica says:

    I have dabbled with a dream journal recently but it’s hard to get the dream out before it fades. I realized years ago, if I went to sleep in the nude, I’d have dreams about showing up to school naked, so I don’t do that anymore. And sometimes, if I’ve been working in a lot of PO’s that day, I’ll just dream of numbers- literally just PO numbers being generated

  14. Sarah says:

    The flying dream is awesome! It must mean life is going well.
    I have also have a recurring dream about finding another room in my house that I didn’t know was there. Sometimes it’s my childhood home.
    I have had the dream about being back in school. It’s exam day and I never attended the class. It is very stressful. I read somewhere that it’s a common dream because for many of us school is the first place where we experienced stress and anxiety due to deadlines and expectations so it has stayed with us into adulthood.
    My sister told me when her twins were born she had a dream that her former high school principal called her and told her that she never finished one essay and she had to complete it or she never graduated. In her dream, she said but I don’t have time because I have twin newborns! Obviously she was under a lot of stress.

  15. MY3CENTS says:

    A couple times a year a have a dream where our family needs to flee our home urgently (it’s a home but not our real life home) as it is not safe, and we need to pack only one or two suitcases with our most important possessions, and I can never get everything in there.
    It’s pretty awful to wake up to.

    • Abby says:

      I used to have a recurring dream that there was a fire at my home, and I had to choose which loved ones and which possessions to get out in time. It was SO stressful! I could never get all the possessions and round up the animals.

      Other recurring dreams I’ve had: being chased by a bear around my house/yard, and I often have one where I dream I’m falling off a play structure or a swing — two things that happened to me when I was little. The falling dream usually happens when I’m almost asleep and it’ll jerk me awake.

  16. Jack says:

    I have the college dream where I haven’t been in class all semester and it’s time for finals. I have the dream where someone is chasing me and I can’t run. I also have a dream where I’m somewhere and just want to get home and I can’t get home. I usually wake up before I get there.

  17. J.Ferber says:

    I have dreams of being back in college, but more dreams of when I was teaching. They are definitely stress dreams because things are always going wrong.

  18. Scratch says:

    I never have the school dream but I do have 2 recurring dreams and one I think is similar. Im waitressing. I can’t get to the tables fast enough. I can’t remember something they asked me for. Just that overall feeling of not being able to handle it all. The other one is awful. It’s encountering or watching someone I love dearly drowning. I force myself awake now because I’ve had it so many times that I know its a dream. Ugh. Traumatic all the same.