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The 10 Most Common Nightmares and What They Mean

If you’ve been having more vivid dreams or frightening nightmares since the COVID-19 pandemic began, you’re not alone. The stress and anxiety felt by people around the globe have led many to report that they’ve been experiencing bad dreams—that they’re remembering the next day.

An ongoing study by the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France has found that the pandemic has caused a 35 percent increase in dream recall among participants, as well as a 15 percent increase in negative dreams. And in Italy, a separate study of those who have been in isolation found that they have been experiencing nightmares and parasomnias similar to those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Scientists say we’re having more nightmares because we may be hyper-vigilant to distress or the threat of danger right now. “We are wired to stay awake in the face of danger,” said Jennifer Martin, a clinical psychologist, member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, to CNBC. “In that way, it’s normal to have struggles with sleep throughout all kinds of difficult situations.”

Still others may be having odd dreams because the humdrum nature of sheltering at home has left us with little inspiration or stimuli. Sleep experts believe this may be causing our subconscious minds to create more interesting scenarios while we sleep.

Whether we’re in the midst of a pandemic or not, on average we all dream more than two hours per night, with nightmares tending to occur in the later phase of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Since we process our emotions and traumas during REM sleep, it makes sense that our fears would take root within our dreams. (It’s important to note that nightmares differ from night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, which occur during non-REM sleep.)

While nightmares are a normal nocturnal event for adults—and all part of the development process for children—it is still alarming to wake up suddenly with your heart racing. And in fact many of us have similar nightmares throughout our lives. Here are 10 of the most common and how dream analysts often interpret their meanings.

The one where you’re being chased.

What it could mean: You may feel overwhelmed, stressed or that something you’ve avoided is catching up with you. “[This dream means you’re] being told by your unconsciousness that you’re avoiding an issue or a person,” says Richard Nicoletti, J.D., a psychotherapist trained at the Jung Institute in Boston. “Who is chasing you matters. Is it a male, female, animal or an unknown being in the darkness?”

The one where you’re naked in public.

What it could mean: You may feel vulnerable, exposed or inadequate.

The one where you’re failing a test.

What it could mean: You may feel unprepared, as if you have to prove yourself or that you have done something incorrectly. In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Dennis Rosen, M.D., says, “… the more preoccupied (and nervous!) you are about not succeeding at something, the harder you will work at it in order to prevent the bad outcome you fear. Conversely, if you aren’t worried enough, that’s likely to be reflected both in your preparations and in your dreams, which will be focused upon the things that you are.”

The one where your teeth fall out.

What it could mean: You may feel out of control, powerless or inadequate. The author of Dream Dictionary for Dummies, Penney Peirce, says, “The real essence of teeth is their ability to bite through, to cut, tear, and grind. If your teeth fall out, you lose personal power and your ability to be assertive, decisive, and self-protective.”

The one where you’re lost.

What it could mean: You may feel out of control of your life or confused about what direction to go next.

The one where you’re falling.

What it could mean: “Dreaming of falling is very common. It is a symbol of fear in real life - perhaps of failing at work or in your love life,” says Russell Grant, author of The Illustrated Dream Dictionary. “Falling often expresses a need to let yourself go more and enjoy life more.”

The one where you’re having car trouble.

What it could mean: You may be feeling not in control or able to move forward in life.

The one where you’re drowning.

What it could mean: Dream analyst Lauri Quinn Loewenberg says, “Water in dreams will often reflect our emotional state at the time of the dream, so whenever you dream of threatening water, it’s a good indication your emotions are getting to be too much [or that] you are in over your head, and it may be a good idea to take something off your plate.”

The one where you’re attacked or injured.

What it could mean: You may be afraid of being “figuratively” attacked by others, not fitting in or being criticized. Or you may literally be afraid of violence.

The one where you have a disease or health emergency.

What it could mean: You may fear not being able to enjoy life or feel that there’s something wrong in your life. However, it’s more likely right now that you have an underlying fear of illness or of contracting a serious disease—namely the coronavirus. 

If worries about the coronavirus are impacting your sleep, try disengaging from the news for a couple of hours before bed. Achieving peace of mind prior to sleep can have what is called a “positive dream effect,” where you’re more likely to feel good about your dreams rather than be upset about them. And you can take comfort in the fact that your nightmares will likely go away when the pandemic ends.

“Nightmares related to this should dissipate following the resolution of the pandemic,” said Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, a leader in sleep healthcare, to FoxNews.com. “Continued nightmares or parasomnias may indicate a form of PTSD, which your medical or mental health professional should be able to help you with.”