You’re not exactly sure how it happened or why, but for some reason, you find yourself in a vast pool of water—and it’s rising. As the water rises, you feel panic well up inside you. But then, just as it seems as if you’ll be lost beneath the waves, you wake up. You weren’t actually drowning; you just had a nightmare about drowning.
So, what on Earth does it mean?
Humans have been analyzing the contents of their dreams since antiquity, always eager to find the hidden meanings of the items, people, animals, and events their brains concoct during sleep. What’s more, some themes seem to show up with a high degree of frequency, particularly in nightmares—themes like falling, being chased, and, yes, drowning.
What exactly your nightmares might mean—if anything—depends mostly on you—your thoughts, fears, wishes, and desires. But, if you have a nightmare about drowning, here are a few things your bad dreams may be trying to tell you about your waking life.
Symbols, Interpretation, and Dream Dictionaries
Most modern dream dictionaries posit that dreams about drowning signify the presence of something overwhelming in your life—typically something connected to your emotional health. According to popular online dream dictionary Dream Moods, such dreams may indicate that you’re “feeling overwhelmed by emotions”; accordingly, the site recommends proceeding “cautiously and slowly” as you attempt to unravel your subconscious thoughts to get to the bottom of these feelings. Dying from drowning, meanwhile, denotes an “emotional rebirth” for you, while surviving a drowning suggests that “a waking relationship or situation will ultimately survive the turmoil.” Seeing someone else drowning in your dream may indicate that you’re either in too deep with something outside of your control, or that you’re at risk of losing your own identity in service of someone or something else; however, rescuing the person you see from drowning may mean that you’ve come to terms with the emotional turmoil in your life.
Similarly, another commonly consulted online dream dictionary, DreamDictionary.org, claims drowning dreams “connect us to our emotions” and function as metaphors for “the overwhelming stresses in our life we are unable to cope with.” These stressors could be related to work or school, to obligations in your everyday life, or relationships with specific people. In all cases, though, the purpose of a drowning dream is to “let us know to relax.” If someone is trying to drown you in the dream, the site recommends taking a good long look at the people in your life to figure out which ones might be a source of worry or concern for you. However, if you see someone else drowning, then your brain may be trying to tell you that someone in your life needs your emotional support.
Interestingly, though, dream dictionary interpretations of what it means to dream about drowning have changed over time. For example, according to 10,000 Dreams Interpreted by Gustavus Hindman Miller, which was initially published as What’s in a Dream: A Scientific and Practical Interpretation of Dreams in 1901, drowning in a dream indicates not stress in your own life, but rather a “loss of property and life.” If you’re rescued from drowning, Miller claims, it means that “you will rise from your present position to one of wealth and honor.” Helping or saving someone else you see drowning results similarly in good fortune for you—it “signifies that you will aid your friend to high places, and will bring deserved happiness to yourself.”
The Science of Dreams
These changing interpretations highlight something worth noting about dream dictionaries— there’s little to no scientific evidence supporting their accuracy—and not much in support of the general idea of dream interpretation, either. As Stephanie A. Sarkis, Ph.D., explained in Psychology Today in 2012, “Sometimes stuff in dreams is just…stuff. It doesn’t really have any meaning to it.” So-called symbols that arise your dreams may be there solely because you saw something that reminded you of them at some point during your waking hours— what’s termed as “day residue” or “dream lag.” What’s more, dream symbols aren’t universal; they don’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. Say, for example, you had a dream about a chipmunk: As Sarkis wrote, “Your chipmunk is not someone else’s chipmunk.”
However, just because dream dictionaries aren’t scientifically supported doesn’t mean that dreams and nightmares are meaningless. The brain is extraordinarily active during sleep; in fact, evidence suggests that our minds often work to solve waking problems while we’re sleeping. Studies have also found that what we dream about has the power to influence our real-world decision-making—and that bad dreams and nightmares, in particular, help our brains learn how to respond more effectively to fear-inducing situations in real life.
As such, it’s possible that having a nightmare about drowning may better prepare you to deal with stress or negative emotions in your waking life. Your brain may be using your sleeping hours to render a solution for the problem that’s prompting those feelings of stress. Or, your dream may even help you to identify that you’re stressed in the first place. Knowledge, as they say, is power—and even your nightmares can provide valuable information.