What Do Dreams Mean? Origin of Recurring Nightmares of Falling, Failing and Being Attacked Discovered by Scientists

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Some individuals may be more likely to suffer from bad dreams than others. JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

We've all had the odd nightmare, often tied to some stressful situation or problem. But what about those recurring bad dreams that surface from time to time or even day after day? Their origin has been more of a mystery. New research from the University of Cardiff in the U.K. points to an unexpected cause for these repeated nightmares.

A great deal of research has been focused on interpreting dreams and understanding their cause, most famously by Carl Jung, who first proposed that dreams acted as a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind. But this new study, now published online in the journal Motivation and Emotion, is the first to explore whether three specific daily psychological issues could be linked to our nighttime imaginings, particularly the ones on repeat.

Related: Only in Dreams: Analyzing Your Unconscious Mind

To parse the mystery of recurring dreams, the team of psychologists conducted two experiments. Both aimed to investigate whether needs people experienced during their waking life were related at all to their dreams. The study focused on the three basic psychological needs: the need for competence, or the need to know how things will turn out in our own lives; the need for relatedness, also known as the need to feel connected with others; and the need for autonomy, also referred to as the need for independence.

For the first experiment, 200 volunteers were asked to reflect on their most common recurring dream and write it down. They were also asked to report on the extent to which their psychological needs were being met using a numerical scale. Taken together, these tests gave researchers an idea of how the volunteers' dreams over an extended period of time may have been related to their psychology.

Related: Scientists Are Finally Figuring Out Why We Dream—and the Brain Processes Responsible

In the second experiment, the team looked at dream diary entries of 110 individuals over the course of three days. These participants also completed a survey assessing whether they were feeling satisfied or frustrated when it came to their three basic psychological needs to be connected, feel a sense of freedom and have control over their lives. This experiment gave researchers an understanding of how a volunteer's mental state and their dreams were related over a short period of time.

Overall, the most common recurring negative dreams included those of failing, falling, or being attacked. Individuals who reported these dreams most frequently were also more likely to feeling unsatisfied in their three basic psychological needs.

Individuals lacking these basic needs—such as those who felt that their decisions did not reflect what they really wanted, or who felt more distant from those they loved—were more likely to describe their dreams using negative descriptive words such as "full of stress," "sad" and "frustrating," the study read. And volunteers with more positive mental states were more likely to use positive descriptive words to describe their own dreams.

In other words, individuals who felt alone, or helpless in their waking lives were more likely to experience these negative dreams on a regular basis. Lead study author Netta Weinstein said the results suggest that nightmares may "represent the psyche's attempt to process and make sense of particularly psychological challenging waking experiences," according to a statement.

Weinstein explained that although experts have long argued that recurring dreams are a way for us to work through our waking problems as we sleep, this research specifically suggests that these dreams are affected by a lack of three basic psychological needs.

This concept brings full circle the Jungian original theories on the purpose of dreams, which stated that dreams are a representation of the unconscious mind and serve as a tool to help a person come up with a solution to a waking life problem.