What Dreams About Drowning Really Mean

Human beings have likely ascribed dreams with meaning since consciousness first emerged. According to Professor J. Donald Hughes at the University of Denver, seemingly all ancient cultures treated dreams as significant events, whatever their belief about the exact nature of dreaming (via Research Gate). Similarly, many pivotal moments in the history of antiquity, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar, are reported to have been accompanied by strange dreams on the part of the events' principal actants, which are typically interpreted as premonitions or omens.

This all changed around 1900, with the publication of "The Interpretation of Dreams" by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Freud, along with his similarly influential acolyte Carl Jung, believed that dreams cast a light on human beings' unconscious minds, expressing through symbols an inner world of desires and drives typically repressed by waking consciousness as it goes about its daily life (via Penn State).

This century-old concept has remained prominent in popular attitudes towards dreams and dreaming, and today dreamers often look to humans' shared symbology as a way of interpreting dreams which recur in millions of sleeping minds across the world. One particularly common dream — which those who experience it find particularly disturbing — is the dream of drowning. But what does such a dream actually mean?

Dreaming you are drowning

Though some neuroscientists argue that dreams are nothing more than random brain signals (via Psychology Today), many people today still find dreams meaningful, especially considering the visceral reaction we often feel in response to them. As Freud argued, striking images in dreams — and our reactions to them — seem to offer some insight into ourselves, regardless of whether we were looking for that insight or not.

Per the same source, what is striking about dream interpretation is the surprisingly small number of images that dreams tend to entail, and their near-universal recurrence in the subconsciousness of distinct people from all walks of life. As such, drowning is a common dream motif alongside images of flying, of parents, siblings, and children. 

According to The Cut, drowning in water may be seen as a metaphor for being engulfed by one's own emotions, or that you are being weighed down by stress. However, per Psychology Today, Freud saw images of water as being directly related to birth, either being born or giving birth to someone else.

Disturbingly, The Cut reports that images of drowning in blood and other liquids are also common. Those kinds of dreams reveal a subconscious preoccupation with pain and illness, either real or imaginary.

Dreaming of seeing others drown

As The Cut notes, the image of drowning can also appear in another way: the horrible sight of another person or living thing drowning in front of you. In such dreams, it is important to try and identify the symbolism of the person or object you witness being submerged and to identify how such a symbol fits into your current preoccupations and life situation. In an interview with dream expert J.M. DeBord, he told The Cut that a dream is like a "picture that says a thousand words." 

If you are willing to watch the object sink without intervening, then it is likely that there is a part of your waking life that your subconscious is trying to make you aware of, and which it is willing you to abandon. The example DeBord uses is the image of a horse, which he interprets as a symbol of a "workhorse" mentality that a dreamer maintains in their career and which is eventually threatening to pull them under. The image of something you are trying to save from drowning, on the other hand, acts as a reminder of what you hold dear, and what may be slipping from your grasp.