As a metaphor for a person’s internal state, drowning feels pretty easy to parse: People like to talk about how they’re drowning in deadlines, or drowning in emails, or drowning in chores. Typically, they mean that the staggering volume of obligations, or feelings, or unmanageable circumstances threatens to tow them under unless they receive a lifeline soon.
That same interpretation holds for dreams about drowning, according to J.M. DeBord, author of The Dream Interpretation Dictionary: Symbols, Signs, and Meanings and moderator of Reddit’s dreams forum. “You want to begin with how a dream could be enacting a metaphor,” DeBord tells the Cut. “As you’re dreaming, your mind is going through a process of collating and sorting your memories from the day, clearing out the memory banks.” It presents your experiences to you as symbolic imagery, he says: “a picture that says a thousand words.”
Autumn Fourkiller, an Indigenous mystic and the writer behind the Dream Interpretation for Dummies newsletter, says drowning dreams can be an excellent window into your emotional state. “Dreaming about drowning usually indicates that one is going through significant emotional turmoil or that they have a swath of repressed emotions inside them that are threatening to pull them under. Though it is a frightening image and a profoundly negative one in some sense, this does not mean it cannot bring forth new growth. In fact, a ‘death’ inside of a dream can be a sign that rebirth is on its way.”
In fact, Fourkiller notes this sort of dream could be an opportunity for an emotional cleanse of sorts: “Any event that produces emotion you cannot control or you feel powerless in the sway of is more likely to spur a drowning dream. In that, though, emotions that you have long held close to your chest will eventually try to beat their way out. Even if they happened many years ago, they still need to be processed.”
DeBord urges you to take the often intensely emotional dream as an opportunity to look inward. “When you have dream that features drowning, the idea is that something needs to be saved. The next question that needs to be asked is: What needs to be saved?” And maybe more specifically: “What about you needs to be saved?”
So with that in mind, here’s what it might mean if you’re dreaming about drowning.
If you dream about drowning in water …
According to Fourkiller, dreams about drowning in water speak to your emotions. “These can be current emotions or past emotions,” she says.
DeBord has a similar take. Because the simple fact of existing as “a conscious being experiencing emotions can [make you] feel like you’re immersed in them,” he explains, “water is a great metaphorical symbol for emotions.” Emotions are fluid; they come in waves that ebb and flow and will readily fill whatever vessel is available to them, just as water likes to do. “If your emotions are overwhelming, then a dream can show it as drowning,” DeBord continues. “Or if you are drowning in your emotions in a figurative sense, then a dream can show it in the literal sense.”
That said, it’s also possible that the water could symbolize any element in your life that’s weighing you down — or maybe more exactly, the feelings that freighted thing brings up for you. You may, for example, feel yourself to be drowning in work, but the thing that’s actually pulling you under is the stress. Swap out emotions for whatever element of your life feels like it’s weighing you down, and you may begin to understand the drowning dream.
If you dream about drowning in blood …
This scenario may sound gratuitously ominous, but according to DeBord, it’s actually fairly common. To interpret a dream about drowning in blood, “extreme pain or personal wounding would be the first place I would go,” DeBord says. “Blood can be a symbol that expresses the idea that a person is wounded.” Whether that wound is physical or emotional, it may read as blood in a dream if it translates to immense hurt. If we’re talking “some pain,” DeBord advises, “it can be shown as blood dripping from a wound; if it’s a lot of pain, it’s a big wound and a lot of blood; if it is an overwhelming amount of pain, now the dream can actually show them as drowning in blood.”
Fourkiller looks to the past for an explanation. “Okay, bear with me. Let’s talk about the medieval humors,” she begins. “I am not suggesting this is something we should use a lot because it gets really weird, but blood corresponds to air, which corresponds to thinking — as in overthinking. To me, drowning in blood and this image in general correspond with drowning in painful, anxious thoughts, also painful mental activity in general.”
If you dream about drowning in a viscous yellow fluid …
“I’ll stop with the humors after this,” Fourkiller jokingly reassures us before noting that “drowning in a viscous yellow fluid to me suggests phlegm. Phlegm is of the body, though its element traditionally corresponds with water, which equals feelings, etc., etc. Phlegm is produced because of sickness and inflammation — I am not a scientist — which suggests to me that dreaming of it is a preoccupation with sickness. Or perhaps it’s a fun little suggestion to take better care of yourself and your body because you do not want to be dreaming about phlegm all the time!”
Staying on the subject of sickness, DeBord’s analysis suggests that more people started dreaming about drowning in a thick yellow fluid during the coronavirus pandemic. “A dream can take what’s happening with the body and turn it into symbolic imagery,” he says. So in this case, perhaps dreams about drowning in chartreuse goop links back to your congested chest or difficulty breathing. “If you’re sick and your lungs are full of mucus, there is a strong dynamic that’s going on because you’re realizing that there’s really something wrong with your body at that time, so the dream shows it as drowning in yellow fluid.” Further, DeBord explains, “You’re more likely to remember the dream because it shocks you.”
If you dream that you’re trying to save something, or someone, from drowning …
A dream in which you find yourself fighting to save someone or something from drowning may be calling attention to what you’re fighting to preserve in your waking life. DeBord pointed to another example: a young man’s dream about trying to save a baby from drowning, struggling to hold it overhead as water rose around him. “He’s a young man now and he’s taken on all the adult responsibilities: work, family, home, and he feels like he’s drowning in it,” DeBord recalled. “He feels like there’s a part of himself that is becoming old and grizzled before his time. Life is wearing him down.” Looking at the dream through that lens, DeBord concluded that “the baby symbolized a part of himself that enjoys being alive just because it is alive, and he needs that part of himself in order to be able to continue on through his life as a happy and healthy person. If the baby drowns, meaning that part of himself submerges, then he’s lost something that’s essential about himself, that gives him enjoyment and zest for life.”
So if you dream about trying to save someone, or something, from going under, pause to consider what parts of yourself have been drowned out recently, and whether or not you need to revive them.
Fourkiller suggests taking this particular dream as a chance to reflect on your priorities: “Are you putting too much responsibility for others onto yourself? What’s the state of your relationships with others and with yourself? Remember, not everything will be buoyant. Sometimes, if something is sinking, it will drag you down with it. This doesn’t mean to eschew connection but simply that letting go is a part of life. And sometimes it is for the best.”
If you dream that you’re not trying to save them …
In that case, DeBord says, you should try to crack the symbolic code for whatever it is you’re watching go under. He offered an example: Someone once came to him with a dream about watching a horse drown in a pond. The dreamer felt rattled at not having done anything to help the horse, even though he understood that the horse needed saving. “Why did the dream choose a horse?” DeBord wondered. After speaking with him, DeBord determined he was navigating an especially long task list at work — something this person thought he should be able to handle, because he considered himself a “workhorse,” DeBord explained. The dream was “bringing his attention to his workload, and ultimately, to [the fact that] he needs to ask for help when he needs it … rather than just plowing through [his work] and feeling himself drown in it.”
Ultimately, a dream in which you make no effort to save the drowning thing or person might be your subconscious nudging you to act in order to salvage your own well-being.
If your dream involves a life vest or a boat …
In that case, it could be that there’s a threat of overwhelm on the horizon, but “your capacity to handle it is better,” DeBord explains. If dream-you has a life vest or a boat at the ready, it may represent “your ability to handle this thing that’s a threat to you,” whereas if you felt less prepared for the storm, then your dream might depict you as drowning.
If you’re drowning in a tsunami or hurricane …
Weather in dreams often seems to function as metaphors for emotions. “Dreams pick up on what we experience in our lives, and also just what we experience vicariously,” DeBord explains. “Maybe you’ve never been in a hurricane or a tsunami, but you’ve seen them on the news and you’ve heard about what they do and the dynamics of them. Your dreaming mind picks up on this and stores it away.” As such, tsunamis and tidal waves and hurricanes are apparently very common dream symbols: “The tsunami is something that is overwhelming and it can’t be stopped,” DeBord says. “It rolls in, it destroys the shoreline, and it changes the lives of people who lived there drastically and permanently. So that’s the kind of personal dynamic that could be expressed in the symbolism of a tsunami” — an inevitable and fundamental change. If you feel equipped to handle it, dream-you might ride atop the wave or get out of the storm’s path; if you don’t, dream-you may drown in it instead.
The takeaway: Whatever the nature of your drowning dream, Fourkiller urges you to begin the process of interpretation by asking yourself a series of questions: “First, is there anything I feel like I’m drowning in? If not, what am I repressing here? Is there something I’m hiding from myself?” If you’re drawing a blank, Fourkiller suggests that you “meditate on it for a bit and then put it aside.” She adds that you should “heed the warning not to overwhelm yourself and only begin tracking it again if the dream comes back. If it does, then a little rumination might be in order.”
Fourkiller also recommends recounting your dream, whether out loud or through the written word. “I always suggest writing down your dreams, even if it’s just in the Notes app, or discussing them with other people,” she says. “I like to hear about my friends’ dreams. I also like to psychoanalyze them. Whoever said no one cares about your dreams didn’t count me!”
- J.M. DeBord, author of The Dream Interpretation Dictionary: Symbols, Signs, and Meanings and moderator of Reddit’s dreams forum.
- Autumn Fourkiller, writer and mystic behind the newsletter Dream Interpretation for Dummies.
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