Recurring Dreams: Stress Dreams

This is the first post in a series on recurring dreams, dreams that repeat across the course of a person’s life, with either similar content or similar themes to previous dreams.

I can remember recurring dreams as far back as early childhood. There are three dreams, in particular, I remember repeating. One of these three dreams involved a giant tarantula chasing me through a building with tall columns, like one you would find in Greece. Another had me driving the family car, running over a strange man, and knocking out his tooth.

In childhood, recurring dreams can often present themselves as “nightmares.” As we get older, starting in puberty, recurring dreams may re-enact stressful social situations, or events that commonly occur in waking life that call into question the control we do or do not have over our own lives.

As a woman in my forties, I find it very funny when I wake up in the morning from a dream in which I have lost my locker combination or never got my class schedule mailed to me. How long before I stop having these recurring dreams from high school?

When you start actively and intentionally working with your dreams, one of the first signs that the dreamwork is “working” is when you start making different decisions or reacting differently to the previously stressful situations in recurring dreams.

For instance, I had a recurring dream a few months ago in which I am in a hallway of my high school. This time, I actually have my printed schedule in my hands (yay!) but the bell is about to ring, it’s hard to make out which classroom my next class is in, and I don’t know where this particular classroom even is.

Have you had a dream like this?

There were, however, a few new characters and situational elements in this version of the recurring dream that I took advantage of.

First, I start the dream off in possession of my printed schedule. For years and years, there was a version of this dream where the entire challenge was not having a schedule, trying to get it at the school administrative office, not finding a printer, etc. To have my schedule, to me, indicates some growth or progress.

Nonetheless, a problem soon presents itself: In the dream, I can’t really “see” on the schedule where my next class is meant to be.

Soon appears a girl in the hallway who wants to help. She looks at the schedule and offers to walk me to the classroom. The girl wasn’t someone I identified as a friend, but I recognized (and wrote in my journal) that she was “nice and friendly.”  

The “nice and friendly” girl is a new feature to this particular recurring stress dream! But rather than allow that to be the happy ending and resolution of my dream, my dream mind gives me another “problem” to solve. (My dream mind is very used to trying to solve problems. My waking mind is, too.)


We arrive at the classroom and the girl notices and tells me that this class is for “remedial students.” I’m a little embarrassed and confused since it’s an English class, and I have a Master’s Degree in English Literature. But I head into the small classroom, sit down, and wait for class to begin.

The teacher sits at a large desk in the front of a crowded small classroom. She accepts my excuse for being late, but then asks the class a question. I raise my hand determined to prove to her I am way too smart for this class, but the answer that comes out of my mouth is so long and convoluted I myself recognize it doesn’t sound intelligent.

I’m again embarrassed and confused. But in that moment, as  my shoulders sink in defeat and I recognize how I feel in the dream — frustrated and sad at my inability to  talk myself out of this place where I am “not supposed to be”– my dream self has a revelation inside the dream.

When you’re in the remedial class, you aren’t expected to know everything. In fact, expectations tend to be lower for the students in remedial classes than in honors or advanced track classes.

Maybe being placed in the remedial class isn’t the worst thing.  Maybe it would give me time to rest. Maybe it would just generally be easier. Perhaps, in this class, I could get really good grades without having to work so hard or compete with others.

Also, if I am not the smartest person in the room, it’s not even so bad I made a mistake. 

I felt myself relax in the dream. The dream ended.

It can be so very exhausting, and ultimately very unhealthy, to think that I can or should always be the smartest person in the room (or in my family, friend group, neighborhood, or industry). It’s a lot of work, too, to always aim to be placed in the “smartest class.”

In fact, I realized the next day, trying to be the smartest, to always “know where the classroom” is, and expect myself to have the best answer limits me from being the person who gets to just sit back, relax, and be taught something new by someone else smarter than I am. 

What would my life be like if I simply did not know the way? What would my relationships be like if I finally gave up trying to “find the classroom” and accepted help from a stranger, even if I look stupid in the process?

I credit this shift in the dream narrative to efforts I am making  working my dreams with my Natural Dreamwork teacher. (Interestingly, someone a lot wiser about dreamwork than I am!)

I am also paying a lot of attention to synchronicities in my waking life that match events, elements, and themes of my stress dreams. Doing so gives me the opportunity to practice with these types of situations in waking life, and in the process, get into better habits that then trickle into my dreams. And vice versa!   

Lastly, when I work stress dreams, I follow up by intentionally changing the imagery and story using my imagination. I practice a self-guided visualization exercise to see what kind of different feelings a new version of this story elicits in me.

Recurring dreams don’t have to keep playing on repeat for the rest of our lives. And, even if the story is somewhat the same, over and over again, we have tools to use to try to influence the way the story plays out the next time it arises in our dreams. In a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of way, we have the ability to see what happens if we don’t go down the hall, but go up the stairs instead. Or, in the case of my recent dream, we get to accept help from a nice stranger instead of ignoring the other people in the hallway, rushing around, trying to be the smartest person in the room, doing it all by ourselves.

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