I dreamed a dream… and dreamed it again

By Jordy Grinpukel, Class of 2016


You race down the corridor, trying to avoid the milling crowds lining the hallway. Get out of the way! Your final exam has just started, how are you so late? And why is everyone so in the way?! They won’t let you in, you’ll fail! And God, why now to need the toilet so badly?! You’re absolutely busting! What else could possibly go wrong? And suddenly you freeze, everyone staring right at you. You feel the breeze, swirling around your thighs, and the blood drains from your face – how could you forget your pants!

The feeling of falling is a common theme among recurring dreams. Image credit: Aung || Photography via Flickr.

Chances are, at least one of those disasters is somewhat familiar. These are the common themes that invade our minds every night, pestering us during our rest hours and preventing a decent night’s sleep. In fact, these are the themes that return to us over and over again during times of stress, in the form of recurring dreams.

Recurring dreams are far from uncommon – 60 to 75% of adults report experiencing them at some point in their lives, with even higher rates among university students and adolescents. And while the majority involve public indecency, failure, being chased or some other unpleasant activity, around 1 in 10 recurring dreams actually involve a positive experience! But what is it that forces us to relive these experiences over and over again?

All just a dream – or was it?

Far from being “just a dream”, experts agree recurrent dreams are closely tied to the waking world. It might be a school exam, a date, or a traumatic experience – the build up of stress translates into our rest hours, and has been linked to lower levels of psychological wellbeing.

And a repetitive dream during an exam period is just the start. It may resolve, leaving you to sleep peacefully for many years once you’ve passed your final, only to rear its head 5 years down the track the night before your big job interview! The script for the dream is written in stone; all that’s required to dive right back in is just a little bit of stress.

But wait, stress isn’t always bad…

What’s fascinating about recurring dreams is that even though they can be markers of stress or unresolved conflict in our lives, they do actually serve a purpose. A survey of aspiring medical students going into their entrance exam showed the majority dreamt of the exam the night before – the majority of those involving tardiness or ill-preparedness – and that dreaming was associated with improved exam performance. Where it gets really interesting is that the frequency of dreams about the exam actually predicted higher performance!

That’s due to something called memory consolidation, and the action of the stress hormone cortisol during your sleep cycle. Dreaming of recent memories throughout the night may replay those memories, and strengthen the pathways between neurons that allow us to recall events in our lives.

So want to do well on your next exam? Stress on, but make sure you get a good night’s sleep!