Nightmare meanings: What’s the meaning behind the most common bad dreams?

What keeps you awake at night?

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Nightmare meanings can vary depending on what your dream was. We’ve all woken up in the middle of the night in a hot mess, heart pounding, thinking “was that real?” Nightmares can plague just about anyone. But have you ever wondered if they have greater meaning than just a simple dream? 

Why do I keep having bad dreams?

If you keep having bad dreams, a psychologist from Harvard University, Deirdre Barrett, has suggested that nightmares are a way of the brain giving more attention to issues than need addressed in your everyday life. 

“With the modern dangers of house fires, car crashes, rapes and muggings unlikely to repeat soon for the same victims, this adaptive mechanism doesn’t always serve us well,” says Deidre. 

“However, some nightmares may be calling to your attention something you might do well to worry about or something that, once you are more conscious of the concern, you can convince your subconscious to stop wasting time on.” 

While the benefits of sleep are plenty, having recurrent nightmares might make it hard to get some good shut-eye - so make you sure exactly how to relax before bed.

But what about the most common bad dreams? With the nights getting longer and the spooky season just around the corner, these are the top 10 nightmares and what exactly lies behind them, according to analysis from MattressNextDay

The meaning behind your bad dreams

Teeth falling out  

This is the most common nightmare people experience, with 27,100 monthly Google searches in the UK, up 50% compared to last year. 

Environmental psychologist, Lee Chambers, says this dream is often a sign of psychological stress. 

“If you are under intense pressure, significantly worried about major life changes or neglecting your self-care, this dream can be extremely common. 

“Whilst it is scary in the moment, it is likely a sign to look at your overall health and wellbeing.” 

 Getting shot  

The number of Google searches for an explanation to this dream rose by 84% in the UK this year, with 390 people asking the question per month.

But it can mean different things, depending on the outcome, according to fear and phobia expert Lauren Rosenberg. 

If you experience death as a result of the shot, this apparently indicates that you’re being hurt by someone in your life. 

However, if you survive, then it means you’re passionate and fighting for something in your waking life.

Being in a fire  

Dreaming of being in a fire has multiple meanings. If you weren’t afraid of the fire, then it suggests you’re “on fire” with creativity and drive in your life. 

But, if you’re burned in the fire, it means your temper is raging and you’re “burning up” inside. 

However, it can also be a warning against risky or dangerous activities - or playing with fire.

 Seeing a ghost 

Nightmares about seeing ghosts can be a subconscious expression after suffering from grief or loss.

Seeing ghosts in your sleep can also happen due to the effect of a sleep disorder called sleep paralysis. The stage of sleep when we dream, called REM (Rapid Eye Movement), is also a stage where you’re paralysed. Sometimes during this stage we can be partially awake, which means you can experience hallucinations but struggle to move. 

However, if the ghost you’re seeing is a deceased relative or loved one, it could feel like more of a positive dream, rather than a terror.


The dream of drowning is often linked to a fear of losing yourself in some way. Either being overwhelmed by work, a relationship or perhaps stress in your life. 

You could feel like you’re drowning under the weight of emotions and unable to handle or process them. 

However, at the moment simply dealing with life’s daily struggles could be enough to induce this nightmare.

woman having nightmare

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 Being chased 

The key to figuring out this dream is working out who or what is chasing you. It can often suggest you’re avoiding a person or an issue that needs attention in your life, or something that you feel uncomfortable addressing. 

Being naked in public 

This dream is about feeling embarrassed about something others don’t know about you.  

Being attacked 

Often unresolved internal conflict can cause this nightmare. There might be something in your life that you need to get rid of - a behaviour or belief that you’ve now outgrown. It’s not usually about wanting to hurt anyone or yourself.

Woman sleeping on one side of the bed

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Surrounded by bugs  

Dreaming about insects can be a symbol of negative thoughts and feelings, especially when there’s swarms of them. For example, this could be guilt or anxiety, or something else that’s crawling through your unconscious mind. 

Getting lost  

Being lost in a dream is often linked to an anxious situation where you aren’t quite finding your way. Perhaps you’re not fitting in or you feel lost in life. 

But, these dreams also have a habit of helping you find direction. 

Alternatively, getting lost can symbolise grief, and the feeling of losing something of yourself or someone else. 

Beth Gault

Beth Gault is a freelance journalist and editor.  She is the former news editor at fashion magazine Drapers and has written for multiple titles across lifestyle and business media, including GoodtoKnow and Woman’s Own. She loves chatting about ending period poverty, is a self-confessed coffee snob, and is never one to turn down a good book.