If you’ve ever dreamed about being lost, then you know it can be borderline nightmarish. Whether you’re lost in the woods, can’t find your way around a city, or are circling the same path over and over again in a bizarre dreamscape, it’s all enough to make you wonder what your nighttime visions might mean.
Many times, what you experience while asleep doesn’t have much meaning, says licensed psychologist Lindsay B. Jernigan, Ph.D. “Some dreams are the result of what is called ‘day residue’ — memories of events from the day that are still processing through your brain,” Jernigan tells Bustle. It’s why you might dream about a friend after hanging out with them, or about being lost if you quite literally got lost a few hours before. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything more than that.
It’s only the vivid dreams — the ones you remember long after you wake up — that might be trying to tell you something, says licensed psychotherapist Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA. It’s often these hyper-detailed dreams that have a takeaway message, usually about a conflict or challenge that you’re facing while awake, she explains. To figure out what your specific dream means, write down the plot as well as all the details, like the weather, the lighting, the setting, and especially your emotions.
The emotions you felt during your dream can tell you a lot. “The ‘feeling content’ is often the key to what the dream is trying to tell you,” Englander says. You can also ask yourself questions like, “Where else have I experienced the emotions from my dream?” to further link it to a real problem or experience in your waking life. Here, experts break down a few possible explanations to help you figure out what those dreams about being lost might mean.
1. You Feel Lost In Life
Let’s start with the most obvious meaning. If you have a dream about being lost — maybe you can’t find your way while driving or you’re fumbling with a map — it could be a sign that you feel lost in life, says psychotherapist Valentina Dragomir. Not being able to find your way home may also point to a loss of security in some area of your life or a sense of overwhelm. (Being lost is stressful, after all.)
To peel back the layers even more, consider where the dream happened. “For example, a dream that takes place outside might symbolize being in the world or feeling exposed,” Dragomir explains. “Depending on the person, it could also suggest feelings of freedom.” If your dream self got lost indoors, it might suggest that you feel trapped or that you feel safe and protected, depending on the emotional tone of the dream.
“The time of day can also be significant,” Dragomir adds. “A dream that takes place at night might suggest feelings of being lost in the dark or feeling vulnerable, especially if the emotions that you felt in the dream were negative — such as scared or afraid — while a dream that takes place during the day might suggest that you are feeling lost in your everyday life.”
2. You’re Searching For Something
Now let’s say your dream centered around searching for a specific destination — for example, maybe you were following a map but never quite found what you were looking for. “This might suggest that you are searching for something in your life, but feel like you are coming up empty,” Dragomir says. “This could also be a metaphor for feeling lost and alone.”
3. You’re Going Through A Big Change
If you dream that you’re tumbling through a wacky dreamscape, or that you’re spinning directionless in a strange city, Dragomir says it likely symbolizes that you feel out of your element or uncomfortable in a new situation. As you could probably guess, this type of dream is way more likely to take over your sleeping brain when you’re going through uncertain moments in life.
“It is not uncommon to dream about being lost after major changes in life, such as changing careers or jobs, after a breakup, relocating for work, or a different big change,” says Dragomir. “As people can be afraid of the unknown that these changes bring, the dream might be a way of our subconscious mind trying to deal with the transition.”
4. Your Career Path Is Uncertain
Dream about going in circles or repeating the same path, and it could be a sign that you actually are repeating a similar pattern in your waking life and have yet to find “the right way,” says therapist Laurie Groh, MS, LPC, SAS. More often than not, this type of dream will relate back to your career. If you keep having this type of dream, it’s possible you aren’t sure what you want to do in life or which career path to take, the same way you didn’t know which path to take in your dream. According to Groh, it can also mean you’re experiencing a gridlock problem, and now your frustration is manifesting in the form of a dream.
5. You Feel Stuck In A Relationship
Dreaming about being lost may also mean you feel stuck in a relationship or that you aren’t sure how to get out or move on, Groh says. If the dream is super vivid or you’ve had it more than once, consider what it might be trying to tell you.
According to Dragomir, stressful dreams tend to stop once you understand the message they’re trying to send. “Repetitive dreams are a sign that something in your life is not being addressed,” she says. “If you keep dreaming about being lost, it might be helpful to explore what this dream could mean for you and consider addressing the problems that cause these dreams.” She suggests talking to a therapist to start making a positive change so you feel less lost, both in real life and while asleep.
6. You’re Weighing Your Options
Remember, it isn’t so much about where or why you’re lost in the dream, but how you feel about it. “For example, if you are lost in a confusing maze and in your dream you feel frightened, you may be processing some anxiety and confusion about how to move forward with a situation in your life,” says Jernigan. “But if you are in that same maze and it feels playful or neutral, then you may still be processing some options about your future, but anxiety isn't central in the experience.”
7. You Crave Novelty
This type of dream doesn’t always have to be scary. Sometimes they’re about being in situations that you aren’t used to, and can even feel positive as a result. “Imagine that in your dream you are lost in Paris, [casually] wandering the streets without a care in the world, taking in the smells of the fresh-baked bread and wheels of cheese,” Jernigan says. “This dream may communicate a desire for novelty, or an appreciation of a sense of freedom in life.” If this rings true to you, you might want to consider booking a trip or switching up your daily routine.
Of course, it’s important to remember that there’s no single interpretation for every type of dream. Jernigan suggests writing down your dreams and taking a closer look at the emotional content for hints. “Also, pay attention to your own interpretation of the dream,” she adds. “Whatever it means to you is more meaningful than someone else's interpretation. You will feel a sense of ‘rightness’ when your interpretation is accurate.”
Nielsen, TA. 2004. Immediate and delayed incorporations of events into dreams: further replication and implications for dream function. J Sleep Res. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2004.00421.x.
Nir, Y. 2010. Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Trends in cognitive sciences. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.001.
Lindsay B. Jernigan, Ph.D., licensed psychologist
Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, MBA, licensed psychotherapist
Valentina Dragomir, psychotherapist
Laurie Groh, MS, LPC, SAS, therapist