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Health & Lifestyle

Nightmares Across The Nation

In this article

We’ve all woken in the middle of the night, heart pounding, sweat across our brow, disturbed by a bad dream or nightmare. But what are the most frequent nightmares afflicting the nation? And does it vary across cities? 

After analysing some of the most mentioned dream queries and UK search volumes over the past 12 months, we’ve been able to determine the nightmares that cause the most trouble across the UK and how they differ across UK cities.  We also enlisted the help of dream experts and psychologists to find out what those dreams might mean.  

Dreams about teeth falling out are the most common nightmare in the UK and have risen 50%.

The most common nightmare we’ve probably all had at least once, teeth falling out has increased by 50% in the last year. An uncomfortable dream of losing your teeth can manifest in different ways, from your teeth coming out one by one, crumbling all at once or smashing as you trip and fall onto the pavement. All of these are unlikely to happen in real life, but the strong feelings and disturbing nature are common of nightmares.

Lauren Rosenberg, a fear and relief expert says that “dreams about teeth falling out could be connected to the subconscious mind trying to alert the dreamer to an issue that needs self-care or medical attention. The mind is trying to tell us to look after ourselves.” 

Indeed, a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information into the content and themes of nightmares and bad dreams found that they frequently contained: 

  • failures and unfortunate endings
  • bizarre and emotionally intense situations
  • physical aggression.

It was also noted that one in three of these nightmares contained emotions other than fear. Founder of psychology website Psychreg, Dennis Relojo-Howell agrees. “There are a host of factors that contribute to us experiencing nightmares, such as stress, trauma, side effects of medications, or even existing medical and mental issues.” 

We also looked at the nightmares across 20 of the UK’s biggest cities and discovered which ones had seen the biggest increases over the past 12 months in each city. 

30% Of UK Cities Cite Dreams About Ghosts As Their Biggest Nightmare.

Ghostly dreams have increased the most for 6 out of the 20 cities we investigated and while this might seem like a scary thought, there are many variations of a spectre-led nightmare. Not all of them are alarming. In fact, some could be trying to deliver messages or be a subconscious expression of grief, loss and pain.  

Not far behind, were dreams of going bald. 20% of UK cities in our study had this as one of their most common dreams with the highest increase. This can often reveal someone's fear of ageing and losing their sex appeal as a result of getting older. It can also express a fear of losing power in certain situations.

Going Bald is the Biggest Nightmare for Bristol, Oxford, Aberdeen and Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Bristol, Oxford, Aberdeen and Newcastle Upon Tyne had a 100% increase in dreams about going bald.

While this could signify a genuine fear of going bald, this dream is often linked to our sense of confidence and self-worth. It can reflect areas of the person’s life where they feel insecure or vulnerable. 

In comparison, Londoners too saw an increase in this nightmare almost more than any other, but only by 33%.

The Biggest Nightmare for People in York, Aberdeen and Chester Is About Being Late Indicating FOMO During Lockdown. 

A 100% increase in nightmares of being late was discovered for the cities of York, Aberdeen and Chester. This can be due to an unconscious fear of missing an opportunity. 

Over the last 6 months in particular, many people have felt this sense of missing out. We have adapted to a world where many of our activities, including those related to work, family and friends, have all been massively downscaled, making us feel a sense of loss at the experiences we might normally be having. It seems people in York and Chester are feeling that more keenly than elsewhere in the UK.

Dream Cheating Increased by 16% in the UK During Lockdown.

Dreams about cheating, being cheated on and being the one doing the cheating saw no increase in average search volume over the past year. However, looking more closely, comparing January 2020 with April 2020, when lockdown was in full swing, we discovered there was a 16% increase in search volumes during this time. 

But before you start feeling horrified at what this means for your relationship, know that you’re not a bad person and these dreams don’t mean that you’re secretly thinking of cheating. Your partner probably isn’t cheating on you either. Dreams don’t observe the same boundaries we’re used to during our daily lives, so pay attention to the feelings within the dream. Does anything give you a similar feeling in real life?  The dream may have a metaphorical meaning. Are you being unfaithful to yourself? Is there something you feel guilty about? Are there issues with trust in your relationships and this could be friends and family, not just the romantic type. 

We asked Lee Chambers, Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant about this increase over the past months. He says, “Given the underlying anxiety and interdependence on couples during the pandemic, it is no surprise that these dreams have increased significantly.”

Lauren Rosenberg says that “dreaming of cheating can signify mistrust, suspicion or insecurity within the relationship and the pandemic has radically changed the traditional relationship norms we have known in the past.  The impact of separation on couples forced to communicate online during lockdown and the lack of physical contact can give rise to feelings of distance and loss of closeness, while tensions may rise to the surface when couples have been subjected to prolonged periods of isolation in unusually close proximity at home. The altered relationship dynamics can trigger underlying doubts, jealousy or insecurities, leading to trapped emotions which are streamed into our subconscious in the form of dreams about cheating.” 

Why Do We Have Nightmares?

A psychologist from Harvard University Deidre Barrett, has theorised that nightmares are a way of focusing the brain to give more attention on issues that need to be addressed.  They may have been helpful to our survival in ancestral times, making us anxious about potential dangers. And while this may not be the case nowadays, in the same way, our minds still try to protect us from anything deemed threatening.

Deidre Barrett explains, "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. 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 unconscious to stop wasting time on." 

Lee Chambers adds, “nightmares are something we all experience, but hopefully not often. They are certainly a mechanism to heighten our awareness that something is amiss. From an evolutionary perspective, if they were not useful we would have evolved to mitigate the impact. They are often related to heightened anxiety or trauma.”

The Top 10 UK Nightmares Explained.

1. Dreams About Teeth Falling Out

According to Lee Chambers, MSc MBPsS, an Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant, dreaming of your teeth falling out is often a sign of psychological stress. He says, “if you are grieving, under intense pressure, significantly worried about major life changes or neglecting your self care, this dream can be extremely common. While it is scary in the moment, it is likely a signal to look at your overall health and wellbeing.”

2. Dreams About Pregnancy

Dreams about pregnancy don’t always mean the birth of a child. Pregnancy can often symbolise the relationship between the dreamer and their creativity. It could point to a project or idea that is formulating in your mind. An event could be due, or your subconscious could be giving you a nudge to share something with the world. Fear and phobia relief expert Lauren Rosenberg adds “a pregnancy dream could indicate feelings about some change in life and concerns or worries about trusting the change and the unknown.”

3. Being Chased in Dreams

Being chased in your dreams is a common theme and one that points to being told by your subconscious that you are avoiding a person or an issue that needs attention. The key to figuring out these dreams is to focus on who or what is chasing you. What that person or thing represents is important. Is it an animal? A being? Male or female? Or is it a presence or a feeling? You could be running away from your fears or something you feel uncomfortable addressing.

4. Dreams About Death

If you’re entering or leaving an uncertain time in your life, you may very well have a dream about death. While these can be frightening, they’re also an opportunity for growth and taking a look at what’s going on in your waking life. It often indicates the end of something, whether that be a relationship, a job or a phase of your life. It can also hint at not being at peace with a part of your life and so could be a chance to take stock and change things if needed. 

5. Dreams About Falling

Ever had that sensation that you’re tripping or tumbling over something? Only to jerk awake? Well that could be a physiological reaction to the body going to sleep. As the nervous systems begins to calm, heart rate and blood pressure drop, and this can trigger a falling dream. Most often though, it’s a symbolic way of alerting the dreamer to something in their waking life that makes them feel out of control. A feeling of things ‘going downhill’ or ‘slipping away’ can manifest as a literal fall. If this is you, pay attention to daytime emotions of vulnerability or being overwhelmed. You may need to deal with these and the associated situations to regain your balance. 

6. Being In A Fire

To dream of fire can mean many things. It can symbolise passion, light, destruction, anger and more. The trick to working out what your fire dream means is to look at the rest of the dream. If you were unafraid of the fire, then it could be a reference to your own internal fire. Your views and opinions could be changing, bringing forth a renewal of self. 

If you are burned by fire, it indicates that your temper is raging, and you are ‘burning up inside’. 

Fire can also represent your drive and creativity. When someone says you are ‘on fire’, it’s an expression of being really good at something. 

Alternatively, it could be trying to warn you against risky or dangerous activities, of ‘playing with fire’.

7. Dreams About Cheating

Dreams of cheating can often be traced back to a few sources. Lee Chambers explains. “Firstly, it may be your own emotional balance, and is more prevalent if you are feeling insecure, anxious or angry. It may be born of fear from a previous relationship where you were cheated on. It can also be a precursor for a lack of satisfaction in your own relationship.”

8. Dreams About Drowning

Drowning in a dream is often a fear of losing yourself in some way. Whether this is from being overwhelmed by work, a relationship issue or stress, there’s the fear of ‘drowning’ under the weight of the emotions and being unable to handle or process them. 

Even if you’re not in turmoil however, simply dealing with life’s daily struggles and trying to survive as a well-functioning human being in today’s society, is enough to induce these dreams. 

9. Dreams About Ghosts

Ghostly apparitions are often the effect of a sleep disorder called sleep paralysis. We move through different stages of sleep through the night. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is when we dream. We’re also paralysed at this stage, so that we don’t act our dreams out. But sometimes we can partially wake, experiencing hallucinations but struggling to move. It can be terrifying, but it does explain why you could ‘see’ a person or figure near your bed or in your room and also feel unable to move. 

There are many people who also dream more positively about deceased relatives and loved ones. These are often known as ‘visitation dreams’, where people believe that it is a way for spirits to visit and communicate with us through our dreams, where we are more likely to be open and receptive to them. These dreams are said to be clear, vivid and more intense, with the dreamer feeling it to be distinctly different to their normal dreams. 

While this might be a stretch too far for some people to believe, there’s no doubting that many civilisations have seen dreams as divine guidance. Romans and Greeks saw them as direct messages from the gods. Ancient Chinese and Mexican civilisations believed dreams allowed them to communicate with their ancestors. Even the Bible has a famous dream decipherer in Joseph with his amazing technicolour dreamcoat.  

10. Dreams About Being Lost

To dream of being lost can invoke feelings of frustration, of not fitting in and of confusion. If you have a situation in your waking life where you are anxious that you may not find your way, these dreams can help you find direction. It can also be a dream for those grieving. A way to process the loss of a person, or part of yourself that is missing. Although other people in your dreams can often represent other parts of yourself, so it could also be that you feel you have lost an aspect of yourself. 

Worldwide Nightmares on The Rise

All but 5 of the 17 nightmares we investigated are on the rise globally.

Dreaming of the Dead has increased 45% Globally, While Dreaming of Ghosts Has Increased 33% in the Last 12 Months.

While not everyone can utter the immortal line “I see dead people”, many of us do dream of ghosts or lost loved ones. Sometimes the lines between being asleep and awake are blurred and we can feel we’re having a paranormal experience. So, is it real? Are you being visited by a spirit? Haunted by a spectre? Or is it a trick of the mind?

Lee Chambers, Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant says,

“Dreaming of the dead is always a profound experience. These visitation dreams are often intense, emotional and so often feel like they are conferring a message. They can often be the manifestation of the emotions you felt at the time of passing, or emotions suppressed. It can be part of the grieving process or even a sign of healing from the loss of someone dear.”

Such a large increase in both these dreams is understandable with the huge number of losses seen around the world due to Covid-19, but they’re also a part of the healing process. 

Dreams, even the bad ones, have multiple benefits. They are said to be important for memory consolidation, conflict resolution and can help to heal trauma, overcome your fears and alleviate depression. According to Matthew Walker and his research for the American Psychological Association, REM sleep is the only time when our brain is completely devoid of the anxiety triggering molecule noradrenaline. He believes that dreaming is like overnight therapy. 

So maybe those nightmares aren’t a bad thing after all. 

For tips on how to get a good night’s sleep, check out our advice hub


We curated a list of nightmares from those often mentioned across the web. We then used Google Keyword Planner to find average monthly search volumes for each dream in the UK and worldwide between Aug 2019 and July 2020. A total of 17 nightmares were looked at.

The 20 UK cities were chosen from the most populated in Britain. We included cities to give representation in all regions.

An image of the author, Martin Seeley, Senior Sleep Expert Martin Seeley, Senior Sleep Expert Bio & articles

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