It happens all the time.
I’m eating and all of a sudden something doesn’t feel right. While I’m chewing, a tooth falls out. Sometimes, even a few teeth are gone. I run to the nearest mirror, and when I see my reflection, I’m horrified by the semi-toothless version of myself staring back at me. And then I wake up.
Every time I have this dream, my heart races and I have to run my tongue along the surfaces of my teeth, top and bottom, making sure they’re all there. Only after I confirm my teeth are intact can I fall back asleep.
I’m not the only one having these unpleasant dental dreams. In fact, it’s a relatively common dream theme and not just for teeth-obsessed Americans. For example, a 2008 study conducted in China found that 49.4% of participants had experienced a teeth-falling-out dream, and a 2003 Canadian study found that 18.8% had experienced one.
A quick Google search for “What does it mean if I dream that my teeth are falling out?” will direct you to countless different interpretations and explanations of this “dream symbol.” According to one website, my teeth dreams can mean I’m insecure, I’m lying to people, I’m experiencing financial difficulty — the list goes on. One article tells me the dream could mean that someone in my family is sick, and another one implies that I talk too much or gossip too much. Even Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, tried to nail down the meaning. In his 1900 book, The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud infers that teeth falling out can be a symbol for masturbation, sexual repression, or castration. It seems the dream could mean anything.
The problem with finding symbolism in dreams
Making sense of dreams and what they say about our psyche is rarely as clear-cut as Google makes it seem.
“I think the sort of ‘dream dictionary’ idea, that a particular piece of content in a dream is always going to mean the same thing for anyone dreaming, it is not at all the case,” says Deirdre Barrett, author of The Committee of Sleep and professor at Harvard University. “I don’t think there are any universal symbols.”
For this reason, Barrett doesn’t think there is any cut-and-dried meaning for the teeth-falling-out dream. She says, “The really useful, helpful dream interpretation — and the kind that holds up in empirical studies of psychotherapy — are all various approaches that get at the dreamers’ own metaphors and symbols.” The most accurate interpretation will be personalized based on what goes on in someone’s waking life and how it relates to the dream. If you can understand what a symbol uniquely means to somebody, it can help determine how that symbol relates to the dreamer’s daily life.
Barrett suggests starting out by asking yourself, “What are teeth?” or “What do teeth mean to me?” People will have their own unique answers.
“One person will start saying, ‘Teeth are what you bite with. You need your teeth to chew your food and to survive,’” Barrett says. “Someone else will say, ‘[Teeth are] one of the sexiest parts of the human body. Teeth are this beautiful indicator of health and sexiness.’” Of course, there are plenty of other things teeth could mean to you, and that’s why it’s important to ask yourself these questions.
Thinking about what teeth symbolize for you individually can help you connect the dots to begin creating associations between the importance of teeth in your waking life and what losing the teeth would mean in relation to that. So, if you look at teeth as something you use to bite and survive, the dream could mean you’re afraid of losing your ability to defend yourself. If you view teeth as a crucial part of your appearance, you might be afraid of losing your sex appeal.
In an outcome that’s less fun for a dream therapist and more fun for a dentist, the dream could mean that something is actually going on with your teeth or mouth. A 2018 study conducted by researchers in Israel sought out to determine psychological and physiological causes of teeth-falling-out dreams. Their findings suggested that the dream may not have much psychological significance, but it’s more likely to mean something physiologically.
“We found that other dreams — like that of feeling smothered/as if you are choking — were related to psychopathological symptoms such as anxiety, whereas teeth dream weren’t,” says co-author of the paper, Nirit Soffer-Dudek, senior lecturer at the Department of Psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and director of the Consciousness and Psychopathology laboratory. “Our main finding was that they were related to reporting that you often feel uncomfortable in your jaw or teeth after awakening, suggesting that these dreams are probably the result of teeth clenching during sleep.”
Furthermore, Barrett has a disconcerting anecdote from her experience as a dream expert. “I’ve seen teeth-falling-out dreams in someone who had no clinical symptoms, but four to six months later was actually beginning to have teeth loosen and fall out from some kind of tooth or gum disease,” she shared. “I think occasionally [dreams are] our body sensing something’s literally wrong before we’re realizing it consciously.”
“Saying something like: ‘Dreaming of X means that you are anxious’ — that’s pseudo-science.”
In my case, I believe my constant teeth dreams are due to the fact that I’ve had ongoing dental procedures for over a year (including infections, tooth extractions, and implants), which have taken a toll on my physical health, mental health, and bank account. Not a very exciting dream interpretation.
This physiological cause of the dream is likely why the symbol is found in dreams across the world and not unique to the people of just one country. Jaw clenching and teeth grinding aren’t limited to one culture. “Any experience which is physiological and thus shared by all humans can explain why experiences are universal,” states Soffer-Dudek.
If you dream that your teeth are falling out and feel pain or tension in your jaw upon waking, it’s possible that you’re clenching or grinding your teeth in your sleep, in which case you might want to see a dentist.
Does the dream indicate anxiety?
Both Barrett and Soffer-Dudek agree that this type of dream doesn’t mean anything in particular about mental health, and that it’s not a great idea to try to define or diagnose yourself with something based on a dream symbol.
“Saying something like, ‘Dreaming of X means that you are anxious’ — that’s pseudo-science,” says Soffer-Dudek. During their 2018 study mentioned above, she says, “We did try to find relationships with mental health [i.e., if you dream of teeth falling out, are you more likely to be anxious or depressed?]. Although we assumed that teeth-falling-out dreams would be related to decreased well-being or increased stress, we actually failed to find that. In our sample, there was no such relationship.”
If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, it’s best to speak to a mental health professional and leave the diagnosis up to them instead of a dream dictionary.