Even if you've never had a cavity in your life, chances are that you still have the "oh my god my teeth are falling out" dream. Your brain might even combine it with a few other problems — like, in addition to struggling find your teeth on the floor, you're trying to remember what geometry theorums are, and your'e also nude and trying to escape a giant tidal wave about to crash down around your town. What is all this chaos about? Aren't dreams supposed to be a time to decompress, and also possibly imagine that you and Channing Tatum have been assigned to practice CPR on each other?
While it would be awesome if dreams were just a time for our minds to power down and/or create erotic Magic Mike fan fiction, most theorists agree that dreams are one of our mind's most important psychological processing mechanisms — dreams help us cope with emotions and solve problems that turn up in our waking life.
And when our waking lives are full of stress, our dreams tend to reflect that stress, often with a very common set of symbols. In fact, a 2009 poll by Self found that one third of women are plagued by frequent stress dreams, full of commonly recognizable stress dream tropes like missing appointments and facing down impending catastrophes.
But while stress dreams can be a hassle, paying attention to them can be helpful — because they can provide insights into the specific stress that you're experiencing, including factors or details that your conscious mind may be missing. And getting a handle on these details can be your first steps towards dialing down the stress in both your sleeping and waking life, and also maybe getting back to those weird sex dreams.
So read on to find out about seven of the most common stress dreams — and what they can tell you about the stress you're experiencing in your pajama-free hours.
Common Stress Dream #1: Your Teeth Are Falling Out
Dream: You're going about your average dream day — jogging at the gym, manning a submarine, accepting the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Watching Netflix — when suddenly, your teeth just begin falling out of your mouth like it ain't no thing.
Meaning: Dream Moods notes that dreams where you lose teeth are typically associated with feelings of powerlessness and loss of control (on a personal note, I can recall a friend going through a very drawn-out divorce having these lost tooth dreams on the regular). They can also mean that you're worried about losing something, like a job or a relationship.
Solution: While there's often nothing proactive that you can do in overwhelming situations where you feel powerless, sometimes just being aware of your feelings — like that you're stressed out by how little control you have over some specifics of your life situation right now — can be helpful, and take some of the edge off.
Common Stress Dream #2: You've Lost Your Car
Dream: You parked your car where you always do, but when you go to get it, it's gone. Did it get stolen? Or did you not actually park it where you were supposed to? Did the streets around your house randomly rearrange themselves while you were inside cooking dinner? Also, why is Alison Williams your next door neighbor now, and why doesn't she have any pants on?
Meaning: According to dream analyst and author Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, dreams about lost cars are really about our own inner drive. Are you feeling unmotivated in a certain area of your life, and worried about it? Are you concerned that you might not have what it takes to reach your goals? You don't even have to be conscious of the worry to have this particular dream.
Solution: This dream is an opportunity to check in with yourself, and see if a certain area of your life — a job where you aren't being promoted, a stalled relationship — is secretly stressing you out, and then figure out what you can do about it.
Common Stress Dream #3: You've Forgotten To Study For A Test
Dream: You're at school (or back at school) and find that you have to take a test that you didn't prepare for — perhaps even for a class that you don't remember signing up for, or forgot to attend all semester. You might also not be able to find a class or your locker, and then realize, with rising panic, that the school principal is your childhood hamster, Mr. Funfetti. He's not going to help you — not after the way you made him wear all those Bratz outfits!
Meaning: Dreams about school are often tied to work worries; they can mean that we feel like we're not good enough for our jobs, or are in over our heads with our work loads or projects, according to University of Illinois clinical psychology professor Milton Kramer, M.D. Feeling lost at school in a dream can also mean that you feel lost or unsure of yourself at your job, according to Loewenberg.
Solution: Though you might genuinely be in over your head at work, and need to develop a plan to get everything done, the solution might also be to simply take things easier on yourself. Kramer notes that perfectionists are most likely to have dreams where they struggle to do things that they already accomplished in their real lives (like graduating or taking the SATs), so if this sounds familiar to you, try to be more generous to yourself about your work (and your life in general), and see if it makes a difference.
Common Stress Dream #4: You're Naked in Public
Dream: You're at work, or at school, or walking to the bagel store, when suddenly, to your horror, you realize that you're completely nude. And the fact that the guy at the bagel store just handed you a fistful of car parts instead of a poppy seed with scallion cream cheese is definitely not helping.
Meaning: According to dream interpretation site Dream Moods, nudity dreams can mean that you "fear... being found out and exposed over your activities," or feel that someone is misjudging you.
Solution: Is there something you're worried about revealing to family or friends? Is the secret really important enough that it's worth the stress of keeping it? Take time to really think this through, or maybe even write in a journal about why the secret seems so important and is stressing you out so much — often, when we're keeping a secret, we get ourselves worked up about how high stakes it is, when in reality, most of the people in our lives wouldn't be that upset or concerned about it. And if it is a really serious secret ... well, that might be worth getting off your chest anyway.
Common Stress Dream #5: A Flood Is Bearing Down On You
Dream: Even though you live in a landlocked city, you're somehow running through your town, trying to outrun a tidal wave. Or you look out your window and suddenly see a tornado whirling your way. Or you step out your front door into a massive flood. It doesn't matter what kind of natural catastrophe it is — only that it's big and unexpected.
Meaning: Though these kinds of dreams can be a form a PTSD for those who have survived a major catastrophic event. But for others, they can mean that you're just feeling overwhelmed, according to Kramer — whether by increased work and home responsibilities, acclimating to a new job or life situation, or just by day-to-day life.
Solution: If you find yourself having this dream, Loewenberg advises seeing if you can somehow delegate or split up some of your responsibilities, and try to make your own work load more manageable. And try to take things easy on yourself — don't feel bad asking others to do things, or for not being able to do everything you feel like you're supposed to do. Your brain is telling you that it feels like it's about to drown, and you should listen to it.
Common Stress Dream #6: You're Being Chased
Dream: Someone — most likely a faint, blurry figure whose face you can't make out, but also possibly an animal or imaginary creature — is pursuing you, possibly through a Gotham-style moodily lit alley. You run, but feel like you can't get away. You might try to scream, but nothing comes out. You may even find that eventually, you are no longer able to move, and must helplessly wait as your pursuer draws closer.
Meaning: Again, a dream of being chased can be a sign of PTSD for survivors of a physical attack or assault (survivors with PTSD having this dream should definitely reach out to a therapist or counselor about it); but it can also mean that in your waking life, you're avoiding a certain issue or putting off making a specific decision, according to Dream Moods.
Solution: Reoccurring chase dreams can mean that there is a pressing issue in your life that you need to address ... and if you won't admit to that in your waking life, your unconscious mind will keep reminding you. So as painful as it may seem, your best bet might just be to bite the bullet and deal with the issue or decision you've been putting off — if nothing else, finally making a decision about it will let you have some less spooky dreams.
Common Stress Dream #7: You're Running Late
Dream: Whether it's because of an endless TSA line, a faulty alarm clock, or a shuttle bus driven by a cantankerous dragon, you're running late and have missed out on something important.
Meaning: Dreams about running late or missing appointments are some of the most literal stress dreams out there — Loewenberg says that they're typically about fear of missing a deadline, whether work-related or self-imposed. Dream Moods similarly postulates that running late in a dream means that "you may be overwhelmed or conflicted with decisions about your future."
Solution: If you often find yourself dreaming of trying (and failing) to leave on jet plane, it might be worth examining what deadlines are hanging over your head, and how you could manage them in a way that would stress you out less. Have you been handed a literally impossible workload? Or are your deadlines looming because you spent the past week blowing your work off to look at a Tinder fail tumblr?
Either way, making an honest assessment of your deadline situation is the first step towards calming down your dream life, as well as your actual life.