Even if it's not real, anyone who's had the misfortune of drowning in a dream will know it's a pretty horrific experience. The effect of drowning in a dream is pretty powerful. The feeling that – despite being safe under the duvet – it feels very much real (or at least the feeling of fear is incredibly real), and then you wake up trying to catch your breath, a feeling that sticks with you throughout the day. But what does it actually mean? What does it mean when you drown in a dream? And what can you do about it? Some explanations are more obvious than others, so we talk to the experts to find out all the answers.
What does drowning in a dream mean?
When you're drowning in workloads, deadlines, and the general external stressors that invariably make life interesting, as well as stressful, the last thing you want is to spend an unrestful night dreaming that you are legit drowning. However, those external stressors are often the things causing your midnight dips.
“When we talk about dreams it helps to think in metaphor. When we say we’re ‘drowning’ in daily life, it usually means we’re feeling overwhelmed,” Delphi Ellis, qualified counsellor and dream expert, tells Bustle. “So drowning in dreams can be a sign that at the time of the dream we may be feeling overwhelmed at work or at home. Drowning can also represent the feeling that we can’t catch our breath; this may also be a metaphor for not getting a moment to ourselves.”
Ellis notes that this explanation could have changed slightly in light of the coronavirus pandemic: “Since the COVID-19 outbreak so much focus has been placed on our breathing, so some people may be having the drowning dream because they’re anxious about their or someone else’s health, or them catching the virus.” However, the dream doesn’t mean that they have reason to be worried, she adds, just that the dream may be highlighting their anxiety.
In the same way, if we have a fear of water and specifically drowning, this may be an acknowledgement of that fear playing out in the dream; this is sometimes referred to as Rehearsal Theory. Our dreams may practice what we might do if we found ourselves in that situation in real life, especially if it’s something we’re anxious about.
Language of metaphors also marks a larger part of understanding drowning in dreams: being “carried away” by something, or being in “floods of tears” may be symbolised by a tidal wave in a dream, and can represent the intensity of emotion at the time; “waves of emotion” could explain why our feelings in dreams are often symbolised by water; equally we sometimes say we’re in “deep water” when we think we’re in some sort of trouble and the a dream of drowning in an ocean, for examples, may represent feeling stuck in our daily life, or perhaps feeling out of our depth.
Does dreaming of drowning in different scenarios mean different things?
In short, yes. “Specifics in a dream matter, nothing is ever random,” Lauri Loewenberg, a certified dream analyst, and dream expert to the stars, tells Bustle. “Every detail in a dream is a clue, is a piece of the puzzle of the big message your subconscious is trying to relay to you.”
Different bodies of water can represent different things in a dream, both in size and in context, especially where drowning is involved. Depending on what’s happening in it, the dream may reassure the dreamer that everything is as it should be (regulated and contained like a swimming pool), or that they’re venturing out into unknown territory, symbolised by the ocean, says Ellis. “Swimming pools are also public spaces, so if in the dream it’s crowded, the dreamer may be feeling like there’s too much going on in their public life,” Ellis adds. “Where an ocean is calm and peaceful in the dream, that may be a reflection of what the dreamer is feeling – or wants to feel – in daily life.”
Context in the dream scenario is important to understand its meaning, too. Personal associations to a particular body of water is significant in unlocking the dreams' meaning. “For example, if you are drowning in a favorite swimming hole from childhood,” says Loewenberg, “it could mean a relationship or situation in your current life, that started out as fun and made you feel young and carefree, has now become too much for you.”
Your emotional state in a dream is very important to pay attention to, Loewenberg adds. “If you are calm, and discover that you can breathe underwater (this is a very common occurrence) then that suggests you are feeling confident that you will be able to get through this difficult waking life situation,” says Loewenberg. “If you are panicked, ask yourself what in real life has you panicking, like you are going to run out of time if you don’t correct something? To be suddenly swept under a wave with no warning would suggest some difficult situation suddenly fell in your lap, so to speak and you are feeling very uncertain of how to get out of it.”
What can you do about dreaming of drowning?
“Keeping a dream diary can be helpful in noticing patterns that may assist in making sense of the dream when we wake,” says Ellis. “Some people may have dreams of drowning every time they're coming up on a deadline at work for example; a dream diary would help them notice it.” However, if you dream that you are drowning frequently and you wake up gasping for air, “you may want to get checked for sleep apnea,” says Loewenberg.
Often dreaming of drowning in open bodies of water would likely indicate that the waking life situation seems endless, and that you can’t see how you will get out of it, adds Loewenberg. It doesn't mean the situation won’t improve, it just currently feels like there is no hope. Nobody wants to feel like they have lost hope, and it's certainly not a good state of mind to be in so what you should take from that dream, says Loewenberg, “is that it is time to come up with a strategy, a step by step plan that can turn your situation around.”
Whatever your drowning in a dream scenario, taking a look at the stressors in your waking life will certainly help you understand why you are dreaming of drowning in the first place, and go a long way in reducing the amount of times you drown in a dream. Having a healthy sleep routine, and adding relaxing practises such as meditation, can improve the quality of sleep and stress within dreams.