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We Asked a Dream Analyst to Tell Us What Our Recurring Nightmares Mean

VICE Staff

VICE Staff

Is the answer to our emotional problems found in our dreams? We found out.

Illustrations by Jennifer Ilett

Whether it's your teeth repetitively falling out of your head or going on a homicidal rampage, waking up sweaty and disoriented from a bizarre dream can leave you wondering what the hell is wrong with your head. And it really doesn't help when you have the same dream over and over. Concerned about whether or not our recurring nightmares meant we were awful people or simply unwell (probably both), we reached out to a professional dream analyst, Layne Dalfen, to find out.

"The dream is triggered by and about a very specific current issue you are working on in your life," Dalfen told VICE. "Dreaming is just thinking." According to Dalfen, decoding the strange sleeping thoughts you have is a two-step process: Find what current issue in your life it's addressing, then look for a solution. Our dream analyst also recommends paying close attention to the language used to describe a dream, as well as symbols like people, places, and things that could remind you of someone or something IRL.

Dalfen warns that she has never met any of the VICE staffers who shared their dreams for the purposes of this article, so she doesn't know the nuances of our lives—the following analyses are ideas that we can use to puzzle out our deeply rooted issues for ourselves.

Falling into Nothing

For more than a decade now, I've had a weird dream where the ground just drops out from underneath me. When this happens, I jerk awake startled. Sometimes it happens more than once in the same night, and often it's just after I've fallen asleep. I have this dream at least once a month. (Manisha Krishnan, Senior Staff Writer)

Analysis: Falling can be an symbol to describe anxiety, insecurity, or a loss of control and feeling helpless. I might ask Manisha what you feel you are "falling" into? Falling into self-destructive behavior? Falling in love? Falling into depression?

That sudden jerk just as you are drifting to sleep is a physical response to your body relaxing and has no psychological meaning. Falling dreams typically occur during the first stage of sleep. Dreams in this stage are often accompanied by muscle spasms of the arms, legs, and the whole body. These sudden contractions are also known as myoclonic jerks. Sometimes when we have these falling dreams, we feel our whole body jerk or twitch, and we awaken from this. It's thought that this jerking action is part of an arousal mechanism that allows the sleeper to awaken and become quickly alert and responsive to possible threats in the environment.

Teeth Falling Out

Ever since I can remember, I've had dreams of dental trauma. Whether it's my teeth coming loose, having them fall out, or getting into accidents where I lose a tooth, I have had on and off nightmares of this theme for my entire life. I had them more frequently as a child and teenager, but since I've become an adult, I don't have teeth dreams as much. Regardless, whenever I do, they are some of the most anxiety-producing dreams I've ever had, and I wake up the next day feeling like complete garbage, albeit happy since I still miraculously have all my teeth. (Allison Tierney, Staff Writer)

Analysis: Since this image has recurred at different periods in your life, each time you had the dream it was for a different waking life experience you had at that particular time. However, the image brings up the same feeling.

Here's some common situations that can inspire teeth dreams:

  • A sign of transition, growing older, a stage, a metaphor for losing our teeth when we are children
  • A concern with your appearance
  • Did you have something to express, and the teeth coming out symbolize words that came out of your mouth? Or is the dream inspiring you to speak up about something you have been holding back?
  • The inevitable: The same way we have no control or choice about it when we are children and our teeth fall out, so this image may appear to remind you that whatever your situation is has you feeling powerless.

It makes sense that Allison notices she had these dreams more frequently as a child than as an adult. As adults we have much more control over life's dilemmas than we do as children. Feelings and frustrations must come out. When we don't have the power to get them out during the day, they will come out at night, hence the greater frequency of having nightmares as children.

A Forget-Your-Skates Dream

I've had this dream for at least a decade, fairly often. It's a common dream in Canada (enough to get a Tragically Hip lyric about it)—I am late to my hockey game and coach is going to be mad. It starts with just getting to the rink, but there's a series of obstacles I must overcome. Sometimes I wake up late (within the dream) and I have to rush to the rink, game time is 15 minutes away. Other times, my parents refuse to drive me (I'm often a teenager in the dream, though I've had this dream mostly as an adult). Then I have to get my gear on, and there's some kind of equipment malfunction; either I have forgotten my skates, or most commonly, I'm putting on my skates and one of my laces breaks. Finally, I get to the bench, and the game has already started (a total humiliation), and then coach tells me I am sitting because I am late. Finally, I am called on to get on the ice and then... I wake up, a nervous wreck. (Josh Visser, Managing Editor)

Analysis: There's some questions I'd ask Josh. What situation in your life this week has you feeling there are obstacles you must overcome? Is the dream a comment about you procrastinating recently? Is it there to inspire you to get started nice and early to get where you want to go? Always look for situations in your life. Do you think it's about your job and what you are trying to accomplish in the long run? Where is it you want to get to or what are you trying to find?

Here's another idea. In what current situation are you feeling that you just can't get what you want? More importantly, you might be saying you are trying to "get into the game." This could be about a relationship.

I think two things are important here. One is that in your plot, to add insult to injury, when you finally do get there you are punished. It's no good. Once you figure out what life situation the dream is addressing, assess what the point of the dream is. For me, it would be to either give up whatever it is I am having so much trouble getting to or into. Is it worth it? Here's another question I would be asking myself. Is it that I should be asking for help? If I had asked for help in the dream, would it have helped me to get where I wanted to go?

Finally, if you can't figure out the situation that triggered the dream, ask yourself what in your current life is making you feel humiliated. That one might direct you to the decoding of this dream.

Killed by the Ocean

I've had this same dream for decades: I'm standing alone on a cliff's edge or a beach by the ocean. The sky is a very ominous and powerful purple hue, and I can see nothing but water and horizon ahead. Then I watch as a giant tsunami builds in the distance and makes its way towards me. I'm rooted to the ground, powerless to move. The wave crashes over me, and I assume I die. (Amil Niazi, Associate Editor)

Analysis: If this were my dream, I would be looking for a situation in my life I can see coming down the tracks. Maybe it's a pile of work that I have with deadlines. Maybe I'm moving, and the date is in the distance but I know it's coming. Whatever situation is ahead, the important aspect of the dream is how you describe feeling "powerless to move" in the face of a pressure building up. It's a doomed feeling and similar to a tsunami; you are not in control.

Question, Amil: Is the dream describing a situation in which you actually do not have any control over? Or is the situation one you feel you have no control over? Those are quite different and the answer to the question will inspire you to the appropriate solution. The dream could be suggesting you take action and quickly move to a "higher ground." Another message might be to call out and alert others, speak up about how you are feeling. Or the dream could be about acceptance: going with whatever is happening realizing and accepting you are powerless to change the situation.

Finally, as for you assuming you die, I can tell you that when I have a pile of work to get done and deadlines attached to them, I too feel like I'm going to die! This part of the dream has a pun in it. The puns and play on words are all there to help you decode the dream and match it to your current waking life situation.

Architectural Anxiety

I often find myself dreaming about being in houses or buildings that are very elaborate and confusing, yet seem familiar. Sometimes they're simply the setting for mundane scenarios and become the only remarkable thing I remember about the dream. Other times I seem to have a specific purpose, like trying to find a bathroom or trying to find a way out. (Chris Bilton, Deputy Editor)

Analysis: You see how the hockey nightmare reflected the dreamer's difficulty getting to or getting into something? Well, in this dream the Chris is clearly trying to find a way out of his situation!

Chris describes, "houses or buildings that are very elaborate and confusing, yet seem familiar." Is it a familiar feeling for you to want to find your way out of situations that you feel lost in?

Another key about this dream points to a solution. It is the action of the dreamer "trying to find a bathroom." Since we all go to the bathroom to relieve ourselves—to let something out that we have been holding in—looking for a bathroom might point you to the solution to your life situation. Maybe the way to find your way "out" of the current life situation is to speak up. Let it out!

I Murdered My Racially Diverse Family

There's one particularly strange nightmare I had. I went to jail for killing my white grandparents and white siblings, all of whom I don't have. I helped my two older Latina sisters—whom I also don't have—create a poisonous drink that they later served to my grandparents. Then, my sisters brutally murdered my brother and sister.

The police knew it was us because they found a couple glasses of my favourite pinot noir at the murder scene. When the police searched my house (which took place at my real life grandmother's house), they found an opened bottle of the same wine. Turns out these police officers were also wine connoisseurs because they knew their wines by taste. They each sipped my pinot noir straight out of the bottle and confirmed that it was the same pinot noir that was at the murder scene.

So, the police took me and Latina sisters away in handcuffs and sentenced us to five years in prison. I was crying for weeks in jail, realizing that all of my real life aspirations over the next five years weren't going to happen. But it wasn't too bad because I had my MacBook, iPhone, and chargers in my cell. (Ebony-Renee Baker, Editorial Intern)

Analysis: This dream is a good example of why I would have to converse with the dreamer in order to best analyze the dream. The only thing that comes to mind is those times in my life where I have "killed" my chances of achieving something I never had in the first place. I say this because Ebony describes killing people who she "doesn't have" in the first place. A situation that comes to mind from my dating days 100 years ago is if I said the wrong thing to a guy I liked who I was hoping to date, but then killed my chances.

Another example of what can trigger a dream like this one might be saying the wrong thing in a job interview and killing my chances of landing something I didn't have in the first place.

The most poignant part of this dream is how Ebony describes, "I was crying for weeks in jail, realizing that all of my real life aspirations over the next five years weren't going to happen. But it wasn't too bad because I had my MacBook, iPhone, and chargers in my cell."

Whatever situation the dream is reflecting, the solution is staring Ebony in the face. She has a very positive "the glass is half full" attitude in her life. She has the ability to know how to look at what she has, even in the face of what she has lost. This attitude will carry her all through her life. And what symbols do MacBooks, iPhones, and chargers stand for? In my life they are my ability to reach out to people, to communicate. I know I am never alone, even when I am sad, because I know how to reach out.

Terrific reveal about your strength, Ebony!

Visit dream analyst Layne Dalfen's site here.