I have a recurring dream (this has been going on for many, many years now) that I am at my high school trying to get to my class. I cannot find my class, and I know that if I don’t get to that class and make up my work that I am not going to graduate from high school.

When I wake up from my dream my heart is pounding, and I sit up in bed and wonder if I have received my graduation diploma (which I did). Why do I constantly dream this exact same dream over and over again?

My opinion is that I wish I had tried harder and had not hooked school (missed school without permission) like I did the last two years of school.

I feel that I am way too stupid to go to college; and besides, if I failed at that, people would probably see just how stupid I really am. Perhaps I am just not satisfied with the way my life is turning out — what do you think?

-winnie, age 45, female, married, Pasadena, MD

Hi Winnie,

“Back-to-school” dreams are common and perplexing. In these dreams we are magically transported back in time to our high school or college years. Suddenly, with a pang of terror in our hearts, we realize we have completely forgotten about a test or final exam. If we do not complete the exam, we will fail to graduate from school.

Usually we spend the remainder of these dreams in a state of semi-panicked confusion. Like you, we may search endlessly for the classroom, but never be able to reach it. Or we may realize, as we enter the class, that we are naked or half-dressed. (Unprepared again!) Or perhaps we recognize, with a sense of dismay, that we already missed the test. (We overslept.) As we awaken, we are aware we must repeat another year of school.

What is the significance of these dreams? Do we miss our high school or college years and wish we could go back? Are we still suffering anxiety from that difficult math or science class we took? Or is there a deeper meaning?

The metaphor that joins these diverse dreams is the theme of graduation. Rather than reflecting concerns about your past, your dreams suggest you are experiencing doubts about your ability to “graduate” to the next station in life that you envision for yourself. Your real life concerns may include a better job, a desired social status or perhaps, in your case, a level of education that you feel is consummate with your abilities.

Why don’t you take these dreams as a call to action — as reminders of the goals that you have for yourself, and of the normal fears and doubts that accompany any new project or challenge? If you enroll in that college class you have been thinking about, I believe you will be doubly rewarded. Your anxiety dreams will stop (you will be achieving your goals) and you will learn that you are a much better student than you currently give yourself credit for.

Charles McPhee is a graduate of Princeton University and holds a master’s in communication management from the University of Southern California. He received his board certification to perform polysomnographic testing for the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders in 1992. McPhee is the former Director of the Sleep Apnea Patient Treatment Program at the Sleep Disorders Center of Santa Barbara, California; the former coordinator of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA , and the former coordinator of the sleep research laboratory at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD. Please visit his website for further information.