Like death and education, dreams are one of the great equalizers. For up to two hours a night, people across all cultures, ages and credit card scores experience vision as they sleep. Depending on many various factors, nightmares may appear.
And while some of these REM-inspired emotional remixes are deeply personal (a deceased relative appears; your boss chasing you with a giant stapler), others are nearly identical to what others have experienced (teeth fall out, you fail an exam).
“The reason shared nightmares exist is because we all have similar waking experiences of anxiety-producing events,” says renowned psychoanalyst Anne Cutler. “Familiar scripts and images get recorded in the psyche and are available to come back subconsciously in the form of nightmares.”
“Even in sleep, an active part of our brains want to tell stories and resolve emotional tensions,” adds dream psychologist Ian Wallace. Essentially, we experience the same dream patterns because we have the same behavioral patterns.
Here, Wallace and Culter explain some of the most common shared nightmares. Look for personal meaning at your own risk.
#1. Teeth falling out
A nightmare about teeth falling out is a very common dream symbol. This dream symbol typically represents a fear or anxiety about losing something important. The teeth in our dreams represent our sense of power, strength, and vitality. Losing our teeth can symbolize a loss of confidence or a fear of becoming powerless.
“In most cultures, we tend to show our teeth on two main occasions,” says Wallace, “When we’re happy and smiling, or when we’re snarling and aggressively asserting our power.” In other words, teeth are all about power and confidence.
“If you dream that your teeth are falling out or crumbling, there may be a situation in waking life where you feel a loss of power or confidence — particularly in the face of someone aggressive or more dominant.”
#2. Showing up naked or in your underwear
Nightmares about showing up naked or in your underwear represents the presence of social anxiety and fear of rejection — you may be feeling helpless and exposed in some area of your life. You feel that you are not good enough or that you will be ridiculed by others, a reflection of your own insecurities and self-doubt. Alternatively, it may also be a sign of some unresolved sexual issues or anxieties.
“Showing up naked or undressed in a dream implies vulnerability in your waking life,” says Cutler. “You’re probably nervous about how people may see or judge you, or afraid that you’ll reveal of yourself than you intended.”
#3. Failing an exam
The thought of failing an exam is absolutely terrifying whether you are awake or asleep, and is a common dream for ambitious people. This is because of the amount of pressure that is placed on students to pass their exams, the dread of which can resurface at any point in our lives because we are feeling under pressure.
The dream may be symbolic of a situation in your life in which you feel overwhelmed and hopeless. You may feel that you are not prepared or that you are not good enough. To dream that you are failing an exam suggests that you are not ready or prepared for the challenge ahead. You may be lacking confidence in your abilities. Alternatively, the dream may be a metaphor for some form of failure in your waking life.
“This dream often surfaces during periods of high stress when the dreamer is anxious about upcoming events or expectations,” says Wallace. “If you’re repeatedly having this dream, you’re probably an ambitious person with a strong fear of failure, which manifests into one of the most common scripts of being graded on your ability to succeed: a school exam.”
#4. Dying or death
Dreams about death or dying can be very symbolic. After all, death can be interpreted as an ending or a beginning. According to Culter, dreams of expiring can often also suggest a fear of loss or not accomplishing what you want. But they can also be a signifier of something in general coming to an end. The dream may also be a message from your subconscious about wanting to end something in your life, such as a bad habit or a relationship. “[Dreams about dying] can also symbolize the ending of a significant life phase, whether that’s a job or relationship,” she says.
If you dream about a close friend or family member dying, then it may represent your feelings of anxiety or guilt about their well-being.
There’s a physiological phenomenon called a hypnic jerk, which is your body releasing residual muscle tensions as you fall asleep. “Often you’ll associate this reaction with imagery of falling off a curb or cliff,” says Wallace. “But if you’re falling in an actual dream, it suggests you may be holding on too tightly to a situation in waking life, and you need to relax.”
Rather than being concerned about losing control in this situation, you should let go and let everything fall into place. “It’s about trusting yourself,” he says.
#6. Being trapped
Nightmares about being trapped, caged or held captive can be extremely worrying and may cause you to wake up feeling disturbed and sweaty. But the reason for it may be something as simple as an unfulfilling job.
Prisoner dreams usually occur during a period of change or stress in your life. They may represent feelings of frustration or powerlessness in a situation. Alternatively, these dreams may be a warning from your subconscious mind to watch out for someone or something that is limiting your freedom.
“Our dreams represent metaphorical language and imagery of a psychological state we’re experiencing in waking life,” says Culter, who adds that we take these anxieties into our sleep state.
“Being trapped, caged or held captive in a dream suggests there’s an equivalent real-life situation that you feel you can’t escape — perhaps an unfulfilling job.”
#7. Being chased
Spent the night sprinting from the clutches of some nefarious other? Nightmare about being chased can mean different things depending on whether it’s a monster or an inanimate object. “As a generalized theme, being chased in a dream overlaps with being trapped or held captive,” says Culter. “If a person is chasing you, that suggests there are certain relationship obligations you feel you can’t get away from.”
If you’re running away from an inanimate object, Culter says this hints at the Sisyphean. “It could mean you’re trying to stay ahead of tasks that you never seem to get on top of, no matter what you do.”
#8. Missing a flight
In this dream, you are at an airport or bus station and you are trying to catch a flight or get on a bus. You see the bus or plane pull away and you were not able to get on it. You feel upset because you know that you needed to be on that plane or bus, but you were not able to get on it.
Everyone can relate to the stress that comes along with travel, especially at airports. The nightmare about missing a flight or not getting on the bus in time (etc) is a common one even thought it’s most often associated with ambitious people. This dream is often a reflection of your anxiety about something in your life, and it may be that you are worried about missing an opportunity or not being able to do something that you really want to do.
“In dreams, a missed plane can represent the desired progress in your personal life or career,” says Wallace. “And the inability to make the ‘connection’ reflects frustration as you try to achieve the satisfaction you crave.”