Dream Analysis: The Real Meaning Behind 6 Common Nightmares

What’s really going on when you wake up in a cold sweat.

We all have those dreams—full-blown nightmares—that have us jumping out of our sleep in a panic. Maybe you take a look in the mirror and watch your teeth fall out one by one, find yourself butt naked in the middle of your highschool English class, or walk in on your significant other sleeping with someone else.

Of course, these things aren’t real, but they still have the ability to rattle you, leaving you feeling off-kilter for the rest of the morning.

While it may not be the universe trying to send you a message that your girlfriend is cheating on you or that you need to see a dentist STAT, there is some serious meaning to be found in these sorts of dreams. While the literal meaning may be far from the truth, understanding the underlying ideas fueling the nightmares can provide important insight into your mental and emotional state—and clue you into underlying issues that you may want to tend to.

“Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious and a great way to process the impractical thoughts that get pushed away,” said Claudia Luiz, Certified Psychoanalyst. “When we can listen to what we may be feeling, we don’t unwittingly block people or ideas which is what happens when we block our own thoughts. So getting to understand our dreams is powerful.”

While every individual is different, dream experts have found some commonalities behind the psychological factors that manifest themselves into certain nightmarish themes while you sleep. And using these general insights as a guide may then allow you to dig deeper into subconscious emotions that are manifesting themselves in your dreams.

“In addition to the common themes the mind uses to represent things that it is dealing with, a person can look to their dreams for personalized insight about their current condition,” said James I. Millhouse, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist.

The next time you wake up in a cold sweat, here is the expert translation exposing the real issues your nightmare is symbolizing:

Being Naked in Public

“If you dream that you are naked or naked in public, you might be feeling exposed, vulnerable, or unprepared emotionally or professionally,” said Kelly Sullivan Walden, dream expert and interpreter, and bestselling author of I Had the Strangest Dream; It’s All In Your Dreams, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams & Premonitions. “If you’re comfortable while naked, then this reflects that you are comfortable with your authentic expression. If you’re embarrassed, ask yourself what you’d prefer not to see about you. This dream can reflect your desire to be exposed and to reveal the true you, and a desire for true intimacy or heart-to-heart communion.”

Being Back in High School or College

“In dreams, school signifies a learning phase in your work, or relationship, as you grow and grapple with issues relating to independence and dependence,” said Walden. “School dreams may hearken back to the first time you felt pressured to fit in or make the grade. These dreams may help you find redemption so you can remove your heavy backpack of insecurities and graduate to a more empowered version of yourself. Most people who have recurring school dreams are highly driven, success-oriented individuals who are constantly testing themselves.”

Teeth Falling Out

“Dreams of your teeth reflect communication issues. Perhaps you’ve been biting back (withholding) the words or backbiting (saying things that disempower you or others). Either way, this dream might be a message for you to say what you mean, without having to say it mean,” said Walden. “Your teeth are the gatekeepers for your self-expression, so make sure your communication empowers, uplifts, and enlightens. If you dream of teeth falling out, you may be feeling insecure and hungering for support or protection. Or you may also be processing an argument. Take this dream as a message to chew on your thoughts before you make agreements, so you can express yourself impeccably with mindfulness. Additionally, teeth falling out in a dream can reflect insecurity (financial) and could be triggered by teeth grinding in your sleep due to stress in your waking life. If you dream of strong teeth, then you may be feeling confident about speaking your needs and desires.”


“Falling can symbolize feeling out of control, overwhelmed, or over your head. This dream might indicate that you could be falling in or out of love,” said Walden. “Alternatively, falling is believed by some indigenous tribes (e.g., the Senoi of Malaysia) to indicate that ‘falling spirits’ are calling you to assist you in dropping further into your depth, becoming more grounded and stabilized so you can handle more of the love you are capable of feeling. This dream might be a reminder that sometimes things need to fall apart before they can come back together in a new and more life-serving way.”

Death—of Yourself or a Loved One

“If you dream about the death of a loved one, it might indicate an ending of a pattern in your life. Dreams of death can also be a preparation for coming to terms with the literal death of yourself or a person you love,” said Walden. “However, usually a dream of death symbolizes the ending of a dynamic, and that a new phase about to begin. This dream can be a blessing, because it can remind you to be more present and love the one(s) you’re with.”


“If you dream of cheating on
 your lover, this could indicate dissatisfaction in your relationship and a desire for variety, adventure, and sexual stimulation that you’re not finding in your present love affair,” said Walden. “This dream could represent your internal struggle with loyalty, guilt, shame, and commitment issues. You might be thinking that the
grass is greener on the other side. This dream may help you process your feelings and get
 a clearer perspective before you do something that you might regret.”

What about if your partner is the one doing the cheating?

“If you dream of your lover cheating on you, you may be processing feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and how you might weather the storm should it actually come to pass in waking reality,” said Walden. “Remember, seldom are these dreams literal; they should prompt you to ask yourself, ‘Where am I cheating on me?’ Consider whether or not you are dishonoring yourself in this relationship and ignoring your intuitive guidance, needs, and desires.”



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