If we keep a record of our dreams it will soon become obvious that some of our dream themes, characters or places recur again and again. These recurrences are of various types. A certain theme may have begun in childhood and continued throughout our life – either without change, or as a gradually changing series of dreams. It might be that the feature that recurs is a setting, perhaps a house we visit again and again, but the details differ. Sometimes a series of such dreams begin after or during a particular event or phase of our life, such as puberty or marriage.
The theme of the dream can incorporate anxious emotions such as the example below, or any aspect of experience. One woman, an epileptic, reports a dream that is the same in every detail and occurs every night.
In general dreams recur because there are ways the dreamer habitually responds to their internal or external world. Because their attitude or response is unchanging, the dream that reflects it remains the same. It is noticeable in those who explore their dreams using such techniques as described under processing dreams, that recurring themes disappear or change because the attitudes or habitual anxieties that gave rise to them have been met or transformed.
Example: ‘This dream has recurred over 30 years. There is a railway station, remote in a rural area, a central waiting room with platform going round all sides. On the platform mill hundreds of people, all men I think. They are all ragged, thin, dirty and unshaven. I know I am among them. I looked up at the mountainside and there is a guard watching us. He is cruel looking, oriental in green fatigues. On his peaked cap is a red star. He carries a machine gun. Then I looked at the men around me and I realise they are all me. Each one has my face. I am looking at myself. Then I feel fear and terror.’ Anon.
A recurring environment in a dream where the other factors change is not the same. We use the same words over and over in speech, yet each sentence may be different. The environment or character represents a particular aspect of oneself, but the different events that surround it show it in the changing process of our psychological growth and experience. Where there is no such change, as in the example above, it suggests an area of our mental emotional self is stuck in a habitual feeling state or response.
Some recurring dreams can be ‘stopped’ by simply receiving information about them. One woman dreamt the same dream from childhood. She was walking past railings in the town she lived in as a child. She always woke in dread and perspiration from this dream. At forty she told her sister about it. The response was, ‘Oh, that’s simple. Don’t you remember that when you were about four we were walking past those railings and we were set on by a bunch of boys. Then I said to them, ‘Don’t hurt us our mother’s dead!’ They left us alone, but you should have seen the look on your face.’ After realising the dread was connected with the loss of her mother, the dream never recurred. Another woman who repeatedly dreamt of being in a tight and frightening place, found the dream never returned after she had connected it to being in the womb.
Recurring dreams such as that of the railings, suggest that part of the process underlying dreams is a self regulatory homeostatic one. The dream process tries to present troublesome emotions or situations to the conscious mind of the dreamer to resolve the trauma or difficulty underlying the dream. An obvious example of this is seen in the recurring nightmare of a young woman who felt a piece of cloth touch her face, quoted under nightmares. See: processing dreams.
But recurring dreams can arise because there is a need to learn something. Also the growth instinct is incredible powerful one and pushes us through growth, sometimes unwillingly. And if we resist it can cause recurring dreams.
Here is an example:
A young girl kept coming up to me and placing my hand upon her breast. She was just developing her breasts, and they felt so very beautiful.
Still asleep I asked myself what the dream meant, and saw that the young girl is the divine female that I long for. At present she can only relate to me as a young girl whose breasts I caress, due to the fact that my sexuality is still developing. In other words, I have not yet developed out of my sexual stage of growth. But if I simply allow this stage to go on being experienced, it develops into a new relationship with her. She herself develops or grows as I grow, and this suddenly threw a new light on all my sexual dreams in the past.