THEIR RELATION TO LIFE EVENTS AND WELL-BEING
Antonio L. Zadra
This book has described a wide variety of traumatic events that can cause nightmares.
Recurrent dreams and repetitive dream themes are similar in many respects to traumatic nightmares.
Most recurrent dreams have negative content, arise during periods of stress, and dissipate once the
stressor has been successfully dealt with. Though the continuity between nightmares and other forms
of dream recurrence is not a new idea, much of the data that supports this continuity is new.
The Prevalence and Content of Recurrent Dreams
Relatively little is known about the prevalence and content of recurrent dreams. Until recently,
what appeared in the clinical literature was mainly passing mention that the occurrence of recurrent
dreams had been noted in some patients. For instance, Freud’s (1931) only comment on the prevalence
of recurrent dreams was that “dreams that recur periodically have often been observed” (p. 44).
Almost all of the studies that have used questionnaires to assess the prevalence of recurrent
dreams have done so by simply including a question such as “Have you ever had a recurrent dream?”
Thus, these studies did not evaluate the length of time that the subjects had experienced their recurrent
dreams. Moreover, with the exception of data presented by Brown and Donderi (1986), these studies
have failed to differentiate between true recurrent dreams (in which the dream content is always
identical) from repetitive dream themes that occur across dreams with varying contents. Finally, the
literature on the content of recurrent dreams has been largely impressionistic. Only two studies have
used well-established, quantitative dream content scales to evaluate recurrent dream content
(D’Andrade, 1985; Larue, 1970). Both are unpublished undergraduate research papers by students of
In terms of the prevalence of recurrent dreams, 60% to 75% of college students and older adults
report having had one or more “recurrent dreams” at some point in their lives on questionnaire surveys
(Browman and Kapell, 1982; Cartwright, 1979; Cartwright and Romanek, 1978; D’Andrade, 1985;
Robbins and Houshi, 1983; Robbins and Tanck, 1991-92; Webb and Fagan, 1993). Seventy to 80% of
adults who take part in dream studies report having had a recurrent dream in early childhood (Brown
and Donderi, 1986; Zadra and Donderi, 1992). In some cases, recurrent dreams which emerge during
childhood may persist into adulthood (D’Andrade, 1985; Robbins and Houshi, 1983). Questionnaire
and home dream diary data collected by Zadra and Donderi (1992) showed that 80 of 217 non-student
adults reported experiencing an ongoing recurrent dream, or ongoing recurrent themes, of at least one
years’ duration. There is also some evidence to indicate that recurrent dreams are more prevalent in
women than they are in men (Browman and Kapell, 1982; Cartwright and Romanek, 1978; Robbins
and Houshi, 1983).
In terms of dream content, 60% to 85% of recurrent dreams are described as being unpleasant
by the subjects who report them (Cartwright and Romanek, 1978; D’Andrade, 1985; Zadra and
Donderi, 1992). In one female sample, 46% of the recurrent dreams reported were rated as being
highly unpleasant (Cartwright, 1979). Dream content is described as being pleasant in approximately
10% of recurrent dreams (Cartwright, 1979; D’Andrade, 1985), while about 8% of recurrent dreams are
rated as containing a mixture of both positive and negative emotions (D’Andrade, 1985).
Cartwright (1979) and Robbins and Tanck (1993) examined retrospective accounts of childhood
recurrent dreams. These studies show that between 86% and 90% of childhood recurrent dreams are
unpleasant or of a threatening nature. In approximately 70% of the childhood recurrent dreams,
external agents (e.g., monsters, witches) were responsible for the unpleasant content. Both studies also
showed that as people grow older, fewer recurrent dreams are reported as having threatening contents.
Furthermore, in recurrent dreams from people’s second and third decade of life, the dreamer and not an
external agent becomes increasingly responsible for the dream action (Cartwright, 1979).
Though the precise content of recurrent dreams is invariably idiosyncratic, themes common
across individuals who report recurrent dreams have been noted (e.g., Delaney, 1991). These include
recurrent dreams of flying, falling, being chased, taking an examination, loosing one’s teeth, and
nudity. These themes are similar to typical dreams, or non-recurrent dreams that many people report
having had at least once (e.g., Griffith, Miyago, and Tago, 1958; Kramer, Winget, and Whitman, 1971;
Ward, Beck, and Rascoe, 1961). Though several studies have investigated the content of typical
dreams, no systematic classification of the thematic content of recurrent dreams has appeared in the
A Content Analysis of Childhood and
Adult Recurrent Dreams
The goal of this study was to obtain more detailed data on the content of recurrent dreams than
had been previously reported. In particular, the study establishes a classification of the thematic
content of childhood and adult recurrent dreams.
The data presented in this study is based on the content analyses of 163 recurrent dreams.
These dreams were collected from the dream reports of 352 subjects who completed the McGill
Sleep/Dream Questionnaire as part of our studies on dreams between 1990 and 1992. These 163
recurrent dreams were selected from a pool of over 250 recurrent dreams and were all of the dreams
which met the following inclusion criteria: the recurrent dream must have occurred over a period of at
least six months; the content of the recurrent dream had to be rated by the subject as being “always” or
“almost always” identical; and the recurrent dream had to be described in sufficient detail to allow a
content analyses of the dream’s setting, its affective tone, and the type of characters present. The
recurrent dreams were classified as being from adulthood if they first occurred after the age of 18, and
from childhood if they ceased to recur before the age of 12.
Dream content was evaluated using the objective content analysis system developed by Hall and
Van de Castle (1966). The measures of dream content are described below.
Dream Affect. Dream affect was scored using the Emotions scale of Hall and Van de Castle
(1966). Negative affect includes classes of emotion such as anger, apprehension, sadness, and
confusion. One class of emotions, called Happiness, encompasses all the adjectives that describe
positive affect (e.g., pleased, relieved, relaxed, elated).
Success and Failure. Success and failure were scored according to Hall and Van de Castle’s
scales for Achievement Outcomes. Success consists of an expenditure of energy and perseverance in
pursuit of a goal, resulting in goal attainment. Failures occur when there is expenditure of energy and
perseverance in pursuit of a goal resulting in failure to attain the goal because of personal limitations
Good Fortune and Misfortunes. Good fortune and misfortunes were scored according to Hall
and Van de Castle’s scales of Environmental Press. Misfortunes are defined as “any mishap, adversity,
harm, danger, or threat which happens to a character as a result of circumstances over which he has no
control” (p.103). Good fortune is scored when “there is an acquisition of goods or something
beneficial happens to a character that is completely adventitious or the result of a circumstance over
which no one has control” (p.105).
Categories for the classification of the thematic content of childhood and adult recurrent dreams
were not determined a priori. They were constructed following the content analysis of the recurrent
dreams and were based on the most frequently reported themes contained in the childhood and adult
Results and Discussion
Table 1 presents the percentage of recurrent dreams from adulthood and childhood which
contain the dream content categories described above.
Insert Table 1 about here
The percentage of adult and childhood recurrent dreams that were found to contain either
negative affect, positive affect, or a mixture of both positive and negative emotions is consistent with
the previously reviewed findings. Approximately 5% of all the recurrent dreams in this sample were
described as containing no affect. Data on the absence of affect in recurrent dreams have not been
Among recurrent dreams containing negative affect, fear or apprehension was the most
frequently reported emotion, occurring in 67% and 79% of the adult and childhood recurrent dreams
respectively. The rest of these recurrent dreams contained other negative emotions including sadness,
anger, confusion, and guilt. This finding is of particular interest since there is evidence suggesting that
approximately 20% of nightmares contain emotions other than fear and that a significant percentage of
individuals cite emotions such as sadness and anger to be primary in their nightmares (Belicki, Altay,
and Hill, 1985; Dunn and Barrett, 1987; Zadra and Donderi, 1993).
In terms of Achievement Outcomes, adult recurrent dreams were nine times more likely than
the childhood recurrent dreams to contain one or more failures. Success was rare in both groups,
occurring in less than 3% of all recurrent dreams.
Approximately 42% of the adult and childhood recurrent dreams contained one or more
misfortunes. The dreamer was the recipient of the misfortune in 70% of the adult recurrent dreams and
in 74% of childhood recurrent dreams. Thus, for both groups of recurrent dreams, misfortunes were
about three times more likely to happen to the dreamer than to any other character. The other
Environmental Press category, good fortune, occurred in less than 5% of the adult and childhood
Table 2 presents the most frequently reported types of themes in the current sample of recurrent
dreams from adulthood and childhood. For both adult and childhood recurrent dreams, the most
frequently reported theme is one in which the dreamer is being chased. The nature of the threatening
agent, however, differs between childhood and adulthood recurrent chase dreams. In 19 of the 22
(86%) chase dreams from childhood, the dreamer was being pursued by monsters, wild animals,
witches, or ghoulish creatures. By contrast, such threatening agents appeared in only 3 of the 16 (19%)
adult chase dreams. The latter contained predominantly human characters including burglars,
strangers, mobs, and shadowy figures. These findings are consistent with those reported by Robbins
and Tanck (1991-92).
Insert Table 2 about here
Next to chase and pursuit dreams, the second most frequently reported theme in the adult
recurrent dreams was one in which the dreamer is having difficulties with house maintenance. In these
recurrent dreams, the dreamer may be overwhelmed by an inordinate number of household chores that
must be quickly completed, discover that the house is falling apart or in ruins, or have to choose
between maintaining one or the other of two houses. Other common themes include being alone and
trapped (e.g., in an elevator or container), facing natural forces such as volcanic eruptions or tidal
waves, and loosing one’s teeth.
In the childhood recurrent dreams, the second most frequently reported theme was one
involving the death of family members. All of these recurrent dreams involved the murder or
accidental death of the dreamer’s parents. By comparison, the five adult recurrent dreams from the
same content category were either dreams in which a distant relative had died, or about people who
were already dead in actual life (e.g., mourning dreams).
Themes in which the dreamer is in danger (e.g., threatened with injury, death, or chased) have
been found to characterize approximately 40% of recurrent dreams (Cartwright and Romanek, 1978;
Robbins and Houshi, 1983). Using the same broad content category, 42% of the adult recurrent dreams
and 65% of the childhood recurrent dreams could be classified as containing themes in which the
dreamer is in danger. In most of these dreams with threatening content, the subject is either fleeing,
attempting to hide, or helplessly watching.
Relatively little is known about the content of pleasant recurrent dreams, because they occur
infrequently. In the present sample, 5 of the 6 dreams that involved “discovering and exploring new
rooms in a house” and 4 of the 5 flying dreams were described as containing positive emotions. Other
examples of pleasant recurrent dreams included excelling at a particular task (e.g., figure skating),
finding oneself in a bountiful environment, and being involved in sexual activities.
These results demonstrate key differences between adult and childhood recurrent dreams. For
instance, adult recurrent dreams were nine times more likely than the childhood recurrent dreams to
contain one or more failures. Since failures in dreams result from a character’s “personal limitations
and inadequacies,” these data suggests that recurrent dreams from adulthood are more likely to reflect
issues of personal competence than do recurrent dreams from childhood. This hypothesis is consistent
with Cartwright’s (1979) suggestion that “as the subject grows, the responsibility in the repetitive
dreams with an unpleasant tone is less often attributed to things beyond her control” (p.135). Though
the thematic content category “being chased” was common in both the adult and childhood recurrent
dreams, the threatening agents in former usually were human characters, whereas monsters, wild
animals, or ghoulish creatures were predominant in the latter. Finally, several of the thematic content
categories reported in adult recurrent dreams are noticeably absent from the childhood recurrent
dreams. These include themes involving problems with house maintenance, teeth falling out, and being
unable to find a private toilet.
These findings indicate that the content of recurrent dreams changes with age and suggest that
the dream symbols or metaphors believed to depict current problems or concerns that underlie recurrent
dreams also change with age.
Theories of Recurrent Dreams
Dream theorists generally agree that recurrent dreams are related to unresolved difficulties in
the dreamer’s life (Fosshage and Loew, 1987). For example, in Gestaltist dream theory, recurrent
dreams are viewed as depicting an individual’s current state of psychic imbalance. Presenting this
psychic state to consciousness allows for a possible restoration of self-balance (Fantz, 1978; Perls,
1969). Neo-Freudian, object-relations, and ego-psychology dream theorists believe that the dream
repetition of emotionally painful events allows the ego to attempt to master or assimilate the painful
event (Bibring, 1943; Renik, 1981; Silverberg, 1948; Stewart, 1967). Freud viewed recurrent
(traumatic) dreams as expressions of a neurotic repetition compulsion (Freud, 1955; Cavenar and
Sullivan, 1978). Jung believed that recurrent dreams not only indicated the presence of psychological
conflict, but that they were also “of specific importance for the integration of the psyche” (Jung, in
Adler, 1973, p. 93). Finally, culturalist dream theory (Bonime, 1962) maintains that recurrent dreams
indicate a lack of positive change or development in one’s personality. In recurrent dreams “people
continue to reflect unresolved personality difficulties with the identical symbols” (Bonime, 1962, p.
41). Thus, many kinds of dream theories converge in their view that recurrent dreams are associated
with a lack of progress in recognizing and resolving conflicts in the dreamer’s life.
If recurrent dreams signal the presence of an unresolved conflict, then the cessation of a
recurring dream should indicate that the conflict has been successfully dealt with. Dream theorists
from many different perspectives have suggested that this is the case (Bonime, 1962; Cartwright, 1979;
Delaney, 1991; Jung, cited in Mattoon, 1978, p.84; Sharpe, 1978; Ullman and Zimmerman, 1979;
Recurrent dreams, however, are not a unitary phenomenon. The repetition of dream symbols or
themes over a series of dreams is not the same thing as a recurrent dream, in which the dream content is
always identical from beginning to end. Domhoff (1993) has argued that repetitive dream themes and
recurrent dreams are related experiences in that they are both part of a “repetition dimension.” In the
next section, a summary of the types of dreams which make up this dimension will be presented.
The Dream Repetition Continuum
Bonime (1962) distinguished between recurrent dreams in which “the patient reiterates, again
and again, his symbolic statement of the core problem” (p.41) and dreams in which repetitive themes
are depicted over a range of symbols. Domhoff (1993) defined a continuum of repetition. At one
extreme are the traumatic dreams that repeatedly reproduce overwhelming experiences. Almost any
event that is perceived as being traumatic by an individual can produce traumatic dreams, and their
occurrence is recognized as a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (APA, 1987). As trauma
victims begin to deal successfully with their difficulties, there are often positive changes in the content
of their traumatic dreams (e.g., Hartmann, 1984). Domhoff (1993) iterates this point by stating “to the
degree that the experience gradually is assimilated, to that degree the dreams decrease in frequency and
become altered in content” (p. 297).
Next on the continuum is the recurrent dream. The content of recurrent dreams, like that of
many traumatic dreams, is replayed in all (or almost all) of its entirety. As noted earlier, recurrent
dreams are frequent in both children and adults, and are primarily unpleasant. Though recurrent
dreams do not always seem to be directly tied to any particular experience, the evidence suggests that
they occur during times of stress and that they cease to recur once the problem has been resolved
(Brown and Donderi, 1986; Cartwright, 1979; D’Andrade, 1985). However, unlike many traumatic
dreams, most recurrent dreams do not reflect a conflict or stressor directly, but rather depict it in a
Further along the repetition continuum are recurrent themes within a long dream series. In
these dreams, the theme is always the same (e.g., being late or lost) but the content is not. Finally, the
repetition of mundane characters, activities, and objects that occurs in every-day dreams consistently
over decades lies at the other end of the continuum. Several examples of repetitive themes and
repeated dream elements are presented by Domhoff (1993).
Domhoff (1993) maintains that the dreams which constitute the “repetition dimension” all
reflect attempts at resolving emotional preoccupations. Empirical data that support both the validity of
the dream repetition continuum and its proposed association with emotional preoccupations will now
Recurrent Dreams and Well-Being
A number of case reports have described positive changes in repetitive dream elements as a
function of successful psychotherapy (e.g., Bonime, 1962; Maultsby and Gram, 1974; Rossi, 1985).
Bergin (1970) presented the case of a client who lacked self-assertion skills and who was excessively
intimidated by authority figures. Following an improvement in his condition, the client spontaneously
reported that both the negative content and affective tone of a previously recurrent dream had changed
in a positive manner. This case is especially interesting given that the therapy involved behavioral
techniques, and the client’s dreams had never been discussed during therapy. The changes reported
above are consistent with Bonime’s (1962) assertion that “to the extent that these alterations of the
same symbol take place in accordance with alterations of the personality during therapy, the symbol
changes become important indicators of clinical progress” (p. 45).
In addition to anecdotal and clinical case reports, research data support the theory that the
repetition of negative dream content is associated with the presence of unresolved conflicts or stressors.
Robbins and Houshi (1983) found that undergraduate students who reported having a recurrent
dream had moderately significantly higher scores on the Beck Depression Inventory and reported a
significantly greater number of problems in their daily lives than did undergraduate students who did
not have recurrent dreams.
Brown and Donderi (1986) published the only study to have specifically investigated the
relation of recurrent dreams (as opposed to repetitive dream elements) to well-being. Recurrent
dreamers, former recurrent dreamers, and non-recurrent dreamers were asked to complete a battery of
well-being measures, and record a fourteen-day sample of their own remembered dreams. People in
the recurrent dream group were currently experiencing a recurrent dream. The former recurrent dream
group was composed of individuals who had experienced a recurrent dream in adulthood, but for whom
the dream had not recurred for at least one year. The recurrent dreams reported by the subjects in both
of these groups had persisted over at least a six month period. Subjects in the non-recurrent dream
group had never experienced a recurrent dream in adult life. Recurrent dreams were differentiated from
dream series that contained repetitive themes or repeated dream elements and were defined as dreams
which “are distinguished by their complete repetition as a remembered experience” (p. 612).
The recurrent dream group scored consistently lower on measures of well-being than both the
past-recurrent dream group and the non-recurrent dream group. For example, recurrent dreamers had
the least adaptive scores on measures of anxiety, depression, personal adjustment, and life-events
stress. Moreover, content analyses of the dream reports showed that the recurrent dreamers
experienced more anxious, dysphoric, and conflict-oriented dream content than either of other the two
groups. Finally, past-recurrent dreamers scored consistently higher than the non-recurrent dreamers on
indices of well-being and positive dream content. This latter finding is of particular interest, since it
suggests that the maintained cessation of a recurrent dream is associated with a positive rebound effect
Several of Brown and Donderi’s (1986) findings have been replicated in a younger adult
population by Zadra, O’Brien, and Donderi (1993). Using the same methodology as in Brown and
Donderi (1986), Zadra, O’Brien and Donderi (1993) found that recurrent dreamers scored consistently
lower on measures of well-being than non-recurrent dreamers. Specifically, recurrent dreamers
reported significantly higher levels of neuroticism, anxiety, depression, somatic symptomatology, life-
events stress and significantly lower levels personal adjustment. This study also replicated Brown and
Donderi’s (1986) finding that the dreams of recurrent dreamers contain significantly more negative
dream content than those of non-recurrent dreamers. For example, the dreams of the recurrent dream
group contained significantly greater proportions of anxiety, hostility, failure, and misfortunes. This
finding cannot be attributed to the presence of negative recurrent dreams in the recurrent dream group’s
two week dream log reports. Only 2 of the 187 dreams reported by the recurrent dream group were
A past-recurrent dream group was also included in Zadra, O’Brien and Donderi’s (1993) study.
This group was composed of individuals who had experienced a recurrent dream in early childhood,
but for whom the dream had ceased to recur between the approximate ages of 10 and 12. Participants
in this group had not experienced any other recurrent dreams since then. The authors found that these
past-recurrent dreamers did not differ from non-recurrent dreamers on the measures of well-being or on
any of the dream content measures.
Taken together, these studies provide support the following conclusions. In both late teenagers
and older adults, recurrent dreams: 1) occur in times of stress; 2) are accompanied by negative dream
content in everyday dreams; and 3) are associated with a relative deficit in psychological well-being.
Furthermore, the cessation of a previously recurrent dream in adulthood is associated with increased
psychological well-being. The cessation of a recurrent dream in early childhood, however, does not
appear to have any long-term psychological benefits. These conclusions are consistent with the clinical
dream theories reviewed earlier in this chapter.
Zadra, Miller and Donderi (1994) extended some of the aforementioned findings on recurrent
dreams to dreams with recurrent themes. Specifically, they compared individuals who reported
repetitive themes in their dreams with people who did not have such dream patterns. Recurrent themes
fall lower on Domhoff’s (1993) continuum of repetition than do recurrent dreams. For this reason,
Zadra, Miller and Donderi (1994) predicted that, relative to non-recurrent dreamers, people with
repetitive dream themes would show deficits in well-being and negative dream content, but not to the
extent shown by recurrent dreamers in their previous studies.
As in the studies by Brown and Donderi (1986) and Zadra, O’Brien and Donderi (1993), group
membership was based on responses to several questions on the McGill Sleep/Dream Questionnaire as
well as on the subjects’ written descriptions of any type of “recurrent dream” they remembered.
Inclusion criteria for the repetitive theme group consisted of having “recurrent dreams” in which the
content was “rarely” or “never” identical but in which the theme was “always” or “often” identical.
Furthermore, the repetitive dream themes had to be currently experienced and have persisted for at least
12 months. The non-recurrent theme group was composed of people who reported never having
experienced recurrent dreams or recurrent dream themes in their adult life.
People with repetitive dream themes were found to score significantly lower than people
without repetitive dream themes on four of the six measures of well-being. What is more, the scores of
the repetitive theme group on these four measures were higher (more adaptive) than the scores obtained
by the recurrent dreamers in both Brown and Donderi’s (1986) and Zadra, O’Brien and Donderi (1993)
A content analysis of dream diary reports revealed that the dreams of the repetitive theme group
contained more negative dream elements than did the dreams of the control group (e.g., more anxiety,
negative affect, hostility-toned content). However, the frequency and intensity of these negative dream
elements were not as great as that which was found in the everyday dream reports of people with
The results from the studies reviewed in this section support both the validity and heuristic
value of Domhoff’s (1993) repetition continuum. The data indicate that people who experience
recurrent themes show a deficit on measures of well-being, but not to the extent shown by those with
recurrent dreams. These results form a pattern which suggests that scores on measures of
psychological well-being are inversely related to the position of a dreaming experience on the
repetition continuum. If this is correct, we would expect that people with recurrent traumatic dreams
would score lower on measures of well-being than people with either recurrent dreams or repetitive
dream themes. Similarly, the data from the dream content analyses suggest that, as one moves towards
the traumatic dream end of the continuum, people’s everyday dreams should contain greater
proportions of negative dream elements (e.g., aggressive, anxious and dysphoric dream content).
Domhoff (1993) argues that the dreams which make up his repetition dimension (i.e., traumatic
dreams, recurrent dreams, repeated themes, and frequent dream elements) all reflect attempts at
resolving emotional preoccupations. If this hypothesis is correct, then the cessation of any of these
types of “recurrent dreams” should indicate that the emotional issue has been resolved. Consistent with
this view, Brown and Donderi (1986) presented evidence that the cessation of recurrent dreams in
adulthood was correlated with an elevation in well-being. Whether or not the cessation of previously
recurring themes or dream elements in adulthood is also associated with increases in well-being
remains to be determined.
A possible exception to the aforementioned conclusions concerns positive recurrent dreams. As
was described earlier in this chapter, approximately 10% of recurrent dreams are described as being
pleasant. Because positive recurrent dreams occur infrequently, their association to measures of well-
being has not been investigated. Thus, we do not know if people who report positive recurrent dreams
also show a relative deficit on measures of well-being. Similarly, we do not know whether the
maintained cessation of pleasant recurrent dreams is correlated with positive, negative, or no changes in
The theories and data on recurrent dreams presented here are consistent with a broader view of
the dream as an attempt to resolve current emotional concerns, one of the possible function of dreams
as proposed by contemporary dream theory (e.g., Baylor and Deslauriers, 1986-87; Breger, 1967;
Cartwright, 1977; Delaney, 1991; Fiss, 1986; French and Fromm, 1964; Greenberg and Pearlman,
1975; Hall, 1953). However, the data do not show that emotional concerns are resolved by
incorporating them in dreams. Given the correlational nature of the data, the direction of causality
between dream content and waking emotional states cannot be inferred. In other words, dream content
could either reflect, or influence, waking adjustment. At the present time, no firm conclusions as to
which of these possibilities is correct can be drawn. The nature of the association between dream
content and waking state personality may also vary with the individual and the life circumstances.
Thus, it may turn out that dreams can both influence and reflect waking state personality, albeit at
different points in one’s life.
The causality issue cannot be resolved until dream content is manipulated as an independent
variable. For example, one could attempt to alter recurrent dream content using lucid dream induction
techniques or waking imagery exercises. Case studies have shown such treatments to be effective in
the treatment of recurrent nightmares (e.g., Halliday, 1982; Marks, 1978; Tholey, 1988). In a
controlled treatment study, it may be possible to demonstrate a causal relationship between the
experimental manipulation of dream content and pre- to post-manipulation changes in objective
personality measures, including measures of psychological well-being. Such a study is currently
underway in Donderi’s laboratory. The clinical applications of lucid dreaming in altering recurrent
dream content will now be briefly reviewed.
Lucid Dreaming and Repetitive Dream Content
Several authors have suggested that there are psychological benefits from lucid dreaming (e.g.,
Kelzer, 1989; LaBerge, 1985; Tholey, 1988). Lucid dreams occur when one becomes aware that he or
she is dreaming while still in the dream state. Sometimes, lucid dreamers can recall events from their
waking life, can reason, and can move their dream bodies as desired. Furthermore, some lucid
dreamers can change the dream scenery at will. It is now known that lucid dreams occur during
unequivocal REM sleep (e.g., LaBerge and Dement, 1982; LaBerge, Greenleaf, and Kedzierski, 1983;
Schatzman, Worsley, and Fenwick, 1988).
A number of case studies have described the successful use of lucid dreaming in the treatment
of recurrent nightmares (e.g., Halliday, 1982; 1988; Tholey, 1988; Zadra, 1990). Dream lucidity can
also give rise to positive psychological elements which carry over into waking life (e.g., Brylowski
1990; Tholey 1988). Lucid dreaming may operate through a number of mechanisms to achieve
positive therapeutic outcomes. For example, LaBerge and Rheingold (1990) have suggested that what
a person expects to happen next in a dream can play an important role in dream construction or the
manner in which the dream will unfold. It is possible that individuals who have recurrent dreams
(including recurrent nightmares) may be locked into a fixed way of responding to the dream’s imagery
and of anticipating what will happen next. This in turn leads the dreamer to re-experience the same
imagery, which is often threatening in nature. Lucid dreaming may provide such individuals with new
responses and expectations concerning the dream’s progression, thereby altering the repetitive nature
of such dreams. Galvin (1990) suggests that by turning nightmare sufferers into lucid dreamers, the
sufferers may develop "a more coherent psychological sense of self through the experience of a degree
of mastery in the dream state and possibly resolve their nightmare condition" (p.78).
When working with recurrent nightmares, I have often combined lucid dreaming with exercises
in relaxation and guided imagery. In this treatment approach, subjects are first asked to close their eyes
and to make themselves comfortable. If a subjects is unable to relax, he or she may be trained in
progressive muscle relaxation (Bernstein and Borkovec, 1973). Once the subjects are relaxed, they
rehearse (i.e., imagine) their recurrent dream in as much detail as possible while describing it to the
therapist. The therapist guides this rehearsal, for example, asking about various dream elements (e.g.,
emotions, settings, characters) or bringing particular details to the subject's attention. Once the dream
has been described, the subject is asked to select a part of the recurrent dream which is emotionally
and/or visually salient and is instructed to carry out a particular task at this salient point in the dream.
The subject imagines performing this task in the dream while saying that he or she is dreaming (i.e.,
that the dream is now a lucid dream). When performed during the actual dream, this action is a cue that
the experience is a dream. Typically, this task is as simple as looking at one's hands or calling out a
word. Once the relaxation and imagery exercises have been completed, subjects are instructed to
practice them at home, especially just before going to sleep.
The rationale for this treatment is as follows: by repeatedly rehearsing the recurrent dream,
together with a task which is intentionally carried out at a preselected salient point in the dream, the
subject will remember to carry out the task when the recurrent dream occurs. The task serves as a pre-
rehearsed cue to remind the subject that the experience is a dream. At this point, the subject is
dreaming lucidly and can consciously choose the manner in which he or she wants to respond to and
interact with the dream imagery. This treatment is a variation of Tholey's (1983) intention technique
for lucid dream induction.
The therapist then consults with the subject to find an appropriate way to modify the recurrent
dream once lucidity is achieved. Various approaches include Garfield's (1974) suggestion to "confront
and conquer" the feared scene, Halliday's (1982; 1988) suggestion to alter some small aspect of the
dream, and Tholey's (1988) suggestion to have the dream ego engage in conciliatory dialogue with
hostile dream figures. Some subjects may be tempted to use lucid dreaming to fly away from
threatening agents in their recurrent dreams. I believe that this kind of approach should be
discouraged or used only as a last resort. Compared to other methods of dealing with repetitive dream
content when lucid, running or flying away from an aversive dream environment is not a constructive
act. Moreover, such an approach may deprive both the subject and the therapist of a unique
opportunity to gain new insights into the possible significance of the recurrent dream.
Though the ability to become lucid in one’s dreams can be of therapeutic value, it remains
unclear whether the principal factor responsible for the alleviation of recurrent dreams and nightmares
is lucidity itself, or the ability to exert some control over the dream. For example, some of my subjects
never became lucid in their recurrent dreams but nevertheless “remembered” to carry out their
rehearsed actions with positive results. Conversely, both Zadra (1990) and Halliday (1988) have
reported case studies in which lucidity without the element of control actually worsened the nightmare.
The dreamer’s ability to alter some detail in the otherwise repetitive dream, either through new
responses or altered expectations during the dream, may therefore represent a key factor in the
elimination of recurrent dreams.
General Comments and Conclusion
A question of interest to some dream researchers and to most clinicians who work with clients’
dream reports is whether people with similar life events report similar recurrent dreams. The answer to
this question has implications about how specific dream content may be constructed across individuals.
Clinicians’ interests lie in their desire to understand the possible significance of specific dream content
for the dreamer and the possible metaphorical expressions represented by specific dream content. In
the large sample of recurrent dreams we have reviewed, different people never reported the same
recurrent dream, but different life-events have produced the same type of recurrent dream content. For
example, two people in Zadra, O’Brien and Donderi’s (1993) recurrent dream group reported recurrent
dreams involving the loss of their teeth. However, there was no overlap in any of the life-events or
difficulties reported by these two people. The opposite scenario has also been noted. People reporting
the same life-events (e.g., major financial difficulties, divorce, unwanted pregnancies) were found to
have very different content in their recurrent dreams. Thus, the same dream themes or symbols may
represent different things to different people.
Some adults who experienced the same recurrent dream since childhood report that the content
of the dream changes gradually over the years. Although the thematic content of the dream remained
the same, the dream’s setting or characters had become altered in ways that often reflected changes in
the person’s life. One such example came from a 23 year-old student who reported a recurrent dream
in which someone she cared about would hurt her emotionally and show no consideration for her
feelings. During this women’s childhood, the recurrent dream consisted of her mother giving away
belongings that the subject cherished to other children. In early adolescence, she also began to have
recurrent dreams in which her older brother would be verbally abusive towards her while damaging her
personal belongings. These dreams began to decrease in frequency around the age of 18. From that
point onward, she began to have recurrent dreams about her boyfriend, who would say hurtful things to
her. In these recurrent dreams, the setting was always the subject’s home, while the feelings were
always ones of extreme sadness and frustration. Invariably, the subject would cry and beg the other
characters to stop what they were doing, but her appeals were always ignored. These dreams were
described as emotionally intense and extremely vivid. Frequently, the feelings experienced in the
recurrent dream would persist upon awakening. The subject reported that at times these feelings were
so strong that on several occasions over the past two years, she made her boyfriend apologize to her in
Some of our recurrent dreamers also report that their recurrent dreams cease for a period of
years, only to resurface when a new stressor is encountered. One 38-year old woman, who had kept a
dream diary since the age of 15, reported having had the same recurrent dream intermittently for over
20 years. The dream was an “examination dream” in which she found herself unprepared for an
important college exam. This dream had first appeared at the age of 19 when she had been in college.
She reported that this dream reappeared every seven to ten days for several months prior to her getting
married, but that it stopped recurring shortly after her wedding. Though she had not had the dream for
over five years, she stated that the dream had re-occurred with varying frequencies in the previous 18
months. During this period, she had lost her job and had been actively looking for a new one. This
case is similar to the examples described by Kramer, Schoen, and Kinney (1987) in their work with
Vietnam veterans. Many veterans re-experience their old traumatic dreams when dealing with marital
crises, demonstrating that old recurrent dreams can reappear when one is faced with new stressors.
The same phenomenon can take place in individuals who have non-traumatic recurrent dreams.
The data reviewed in this chapter support the generic depth psychological position that dreams
are related to waking states. It has been shown that the link between people’s dream content and their
current levels of well-being is particularly evident in dreams which make up Domhoff’s (1993)
repetition continuum. Moreover, it has been shown that the cessation of a recurrent dream in adulthood
is associated with an elevation in self-reported levels of well-being. This suggests that changes from
repetitive to progressive dream patterns may be important indicators of how well people are adapting to
their life circumstances.
These findings underscore the importance of examining series of dreams instead of focusing
solely on individual dreams. There is much to be gained from the study of repetitive dream content.
This is equally true for clinicians seeking to better understand their clients, and for researchers
interested in the possible psychological functions of dreaming.
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Dream Content Measures For Adult and Childhood Recurrent Dreams.
77.3 81.1 78.5
Positive Affect 10.0 7.6 9.2
Mixture of Both Positive
and Negative Emotions 7.3 5.7 6.7
No Affect 5.5 5.7 5.5
Total for Emotion 100.1 100.1 99.9
Dream Content Scales
Failure 17.3 1.9 12.3
Success 1.8 3.8 2.5
Misfortune 41.8 43.4 42.3
Good Fortune 4.6 3.8 4.3
Total for Achievement
and Environmental Press
Dream Content Scales
65.5 52.9 61.4
Note: RD = recurrent dreams. Totals for emotion dream content scales do not equal 100
due to rounding. Totals for Achievement and Environmental Press Scales do not add up
to 100 as several dreams did not contain one or more of these dream content categories.
CONTENT % OF RD FROM
% OF RD FROM
% OF TOTAL
Thematic Content of Adult and Childhood Recurrent Dreams.
14.6 41.5 23.3
House Maintenance 10.9 0 7.4
Being Alone and Stuck or Trapped 6.4 3.8 5.5
Facing Natural Forces
5.5 3.8 4.9
Teeth Falling Out
4.6 0 3.1
Discovering/Exploring New Rooms
in a House 4.6 1.9 3.7
Death of Family Members
4.6 9.4 6.1
Not Knowing Why or to Whom One
is Getting Married 3.6 0 2.5
Unable to Use a Telephone During
an Emergency 3.6 0 2.5
Unable to Find a Private Toilet
3.6 0 2.5
Being Late or Lost
2.7 1.9 2.5
Driving a Car That is Out of Control 2.7 0 1.8
2.7 3.8 3.1
Other 30.0 34.0 31.2
Total 100.1 100.1 100.1
Note: RD = recurrent dreams. Totals do not add up to 100 due to rounding.
% OF RD FROM
% OF RD FROM