"Dreams don't happen to us, we happen to them," says Edinburgh-based dream psychologist Ian Wallace, author of The Top 100 Dreams. In other words, we're the director, star, and producer of all the movies that play inside our heads after we fall asleep (in fact, we create about five 15- to 40-minute dreams per night). But it's not just for our own entertainment. "In dreams, new information is combined with old information of the person's life in a creative way so that new solutions might emerge," says researcher Michael Schredl, PhD, from the Central Institute of Mental Health sleep laboratory in Germany. If you want to make sense of your own dreams, first put paper and pencil on your nightstand, and write down what you dreamed about when you first wake up, Schredl advises. Then compare notes with this list of 10 common dreams, what they mean, and what to do about them. It's about to get straight-up Inception in here.
1. Being Chased
The Dream: Run as fast as you can. You still won't get away from whatever's on your tail, even if you don't have a clue what it is.
What It Means: Just like you can't seem to lose the bad guy behind you, chances are you're having trouble getting past some issues in your waking life. It could be a relationship squabble, a business opportunity, or just a nasty nagging feeling, according to Wallace.
What You Should Do: What are you avoiding? According to Schredl, this dream is often a representation of avoidance behavior, which is linked to psychological problems including anxiety and depression, according to a 2003 study published in Addictive Behaviors. By examining the issues you can't seem to shake-and are probably running from in the real world-you can address them head-on and eventually move past them.
2. Teeth Falling Out
The Dream: It's like a scene out of a cheesy horror film-your teeth dangle, crumble, shatter, and leave you freaking the hell out.
What It Means: Teeth are symbols of power and confidence. After all, you show them when you are smiling, biting, or even snarling. Having this dream means that your self-assurance may have taken a hit in the kisser, says Wallace.
What You Should Do: Fake it till you make it, Wallace suggests. Studies show that mimicking confidence leads to the real thing. For example, research by Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, PhD indicates that confident body language increases testosterone levels, which leads to higher feelings of confidence. Similarly, research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University shows that if you dress to impress, you'll feel pretty darn good about yourself. Everyone loves a good placebo effect.
3. Unable To Find A Toilet
The Dream: After running around like a madman and waiting through one freakishly long line for the bathroom, you discover that the toilet you've been waiting on is filthy or exposed to the whole world-not to mention that there's not a scrap of toilet paper in sight.
What It Means: If you can't take care of business in your dream, it's possible that you're metaphorically blocked in waking life, Wallace suggests. You may have something you need to purge-whether it's a toxic friend or a soul-crushing job-and you fear it will be messy (cue the poop humor). So what do you do? Hold it in.
What You Should Do: Learn to say "no" from time to time. Stop letting people dump all of their problems on you and look out for Number One. Research has linked people-pleasing tendencies to everything from weight-gain to depression. "You need to take care of your needs first and foremost," says Wallace.
4. Naked In Public
The Dream: You're naked-full frontal and everything. And while no one seems to notice, you're desperate to hide yourself.
What It Means: "You're feeling out-of-place, vulnerable, and scared of being exposed," Wallace says. But just like no one notices your package, your fears remain hidden as well. Perhaps your new job or relationship is making you uneasy. If the dream takes place in a classroom, it's possible that whatever you learned there continues to make you insecure. If the dream is in a cafeteria, this could reflect social anxiety, no matter how long you've been out of school.
What You Should Do: It's time to let it all hang out-emotionally, that is. Give some thought to your insecurities and share them, Wallace advises. In the end, it's less exhausting than taking pains to make sure no one sees your inner turmoil. "With help, you might even find solutions to your problems," he says.
5. Unprepared For An Exam
The Dream: You're back in school and it's time to get out the number-two pencil. Only problem is you've done absolutely no studying. Why? You're not quite sure. You knew about the test and bought the books-but now you're screwed.
What It Means: Are you a perfectionist? If this is a recurring dream (or nightmare), chances are you live in fear of messing up even things you're well prepared for, suggests Wallace. If you dream about flunking an exam you've already passed, this could reflect worries about performance, not actual competence, Schredl adds.
What You Should Do: Give yourself a break or you'll always feel like a failure, advises Wallace, who notes perfectionists are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. What's more, perfectionists have 50% higher rates of early death, according to researchers from York University in Canada. It might be time for you to differentiate happiness from success, and start making the former your goal, rather than the latter.
The Dream: Whether you're soaring on your own or in an aircraft, your head is literally in the clouds. Even Superman would be jealous.
What It Means: Just like in your dream, you've most likely surmounted a big obstacle in your life, according to Wallace. At this moment, you may feel free of limitations, and open to making unfettered decisions.
What You Should Do: "Look for other opportunities on the horizon," Wallace says. The best time to make a move is when you're feeling confident from recent accomplishments. After all, having an expectation that you will succeed is the strongest predictor of achievement, according to research from the University of Florida.
The Dream: You step off of a curb and fall flat on your face-or you take a nosedive right off a cliff. Either way, you usually jolt awake as soon as you hit the bottom.
What It Means: While the sensations may feel similar, these are actually two types of dreams, according to Wallace. The minor slip dream happens when you first fall asleep and have that last little twitch (called a myoclonic jerk) after your muscles completely relax. The second, more dramatic dream, happens when you're already in a deep sleep. This dream often reflects a perceived failure in your life or a realization that you don't have control over a situation.
What You Should Do: Whatever type of fall you take in your subconscious, tension is to blame. And not to make you even more anxious, but 60 to 90% of doctor visits are related to stress or stress-related symptoms, according to the American Psychological Association. So relax. Do something you enjoy, spend time with friends, exercise more, or stretch before bed. People who exercise regularly have 20% less anxiety than those who don't exercise, according to a 2012 study from the University of Georgia. Also, it might be time to pinpoint what exactly is stressing you out and work toward solving it, Wallace says.
8. Out Of Control Vehicle
The Dream: You're barreling down a road, over sidewalks, and screaming like a baby. You hit the brakes, turn the steering wheel, but still have no control of the car. Crap.
What It Means: In dreams, vehicles represent an ability to move toward a goal or destination. And if the car is out of control, your life probably is, too, suggests Schredl. You're afraid that a wreck is imminent.
What You Should Do: Just like you learned in Driver's Ed, overcorrecting only makes things worse. But it might be natural: MRI scans show that every time you do something-like worrying-you create new brain cells for that exact purpose in the future. Don't let worry cells overtake your brain. "Evaluate what areas you can take charge of in your current situation," Schredl advises. Calmly approach those details, and learn to stop fighting the ones that are beyond your control.
9. Finding An Unused Room
The Dream: You're walking through a house, maybe the one you grew up in. Normally, you'd know every square inch of that place-but you soon find a door you've never seen before. Behind it is an empty room.
What It Means: Home is the most frequently occurring symbol in dreams. It actually represents the Self, and each room reflects a different aspect of your personality (sociability, strength, sexual prowess). When you find an unused room, you are discovering an aspect of your identity that you may be stifling, according to Wallace-it could even be an untapped talent or passion. The bigger the room you find, the bigger the opportunity you may have to realize your full potential.
What You Should Do: If you're frequently having these dreams, doors should be opening up for you in your real life. First, you must identify them. According to research from leading economist Israel Meir Kirzner, PhD, opportunity recognition is central to all entrepreneurial success. Stay open to things you would otherwise be hesitant to explore, says Wallace, who cites the Corridor Principle of economics: Starting one venture allows you to recognize other opportunities you couldn't have imagined or taken advantage of otherwise.
10. Being Late
The Dream: You thought you had plenty of time to hit your deadline, make your meeting, or get to your date. But now you're supposed to be across town in 15 minutes and everything is going wrong. The alarm didn't go off. Your phone is ringing. Traffic's a bitch.
What It Means: Whatever you're rushing to in your subconscious represents a real-life goal or milestone, Wallace says. There is likely an actual deadline looming or maybe an arbitrary one (like having a certain salary by the age of 30 or 40), and it's stressing you out big time.
What You Should Do: Ask yourself: In the waking world, are you being proactive-or reactive? There may be changes that have distracted from your original goals in life, according to Wallace. Now is the time to commit. Once you start to focus, you'll control your own time, dictate a schedule, and get to where you really want to be. Try an accountability partner: A recent study from clinical psychologist Gail Matthews, PhD showed that people who write down their goals, share them with others, and send progress updates to that friend are 33% more successful in hitting their goals than those who don't.