Have you even woken up flushed and sweaty from a steamy sex dream, but can’t quite place your fantasy Fabio? That is, until you’re slapped with the sobering reality: it was your boss. Your slightly pigeon-toed boss, whose unruly nose hair is in dire need of a prune. The dream leaves you feeling embarrassed and disturbed, wondering what the hell it all means.

That’s the tricky part about getting down and dirty in dreams. While you may love the steamy sex scenes and, in some cases, the sheet-twisting sensations those visions can provide, you might also wake up confused, guilty or totally freaked out. Do these unconscious fantasies mean you’re secretly attracted to your best friend? That you still harbour feelings for your ex-boyfriend? That you’re yearning to hook up with a swarthy stranger?

These highly charged nocturnal sessions happen because of normal physiological changes. During the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycle, your central nervous system fires up and your body goes through the same physical reactions that occur when you’re turned on in real life. “In REM, breathing and blood flow naturally increase, including blood flow to the genitals,” explains dream researcher Dr Kelly Bulkeley. “So it’s not really surprising that these physiological changes often express themselves as an erotic dream.” Your menstrual cycle can also influence the likelihood of having an unconscious frisky frolic: a Journal of Sex Research study found that women have more sex dreams during ovulation, probably because libido is higher then (driven by the biological urge to procreate).

X-rated explanations

Want a little help? We asked experts to decipher three common erotic dream themes

His cheating heart
Unfaithfulness is a common dream scenario for couples, says Dr Bulkeley, and that’s no surprise: getting close to someone means being vulnerable. Dreams that include threats, like your boyfriend fooling around, are like fire drills, he says. “Your dreaming mind might imagine the worst-case scenario – cheating – to prepare you for if it happened,” says Dr Bulkeley. These dreams may reflect your lack of confidence and trust, notes Dr Drew Ramsey, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, US. Or, having a dream about a partner’s infidelity can mean you feel like you’re not getting his attention, says Dr Gillian Holloway, author of The Complete Dream Book of Love and Relationships. If so, talk with him about how you two can stay more connected. If you’re having dream flings, this can also signal you’re not getting what you need from your partner, according to psychologist and dream analysis expert Michael Lennox. And that’s another reason to have a little chat.

Blast from the past
It’s not unusual for exes to creep into sex dreams, but having an erotic dream starring an old crush doesn’t usually mean you still harbour feelings. More likely, it’s your brain reusing a familiar face. “Research shows there’s a repetition dimension to dreaming, which is why we still have anxiety dreams about not studying for a uni exam years later,” says Dr Bulkeley. “Our past experiences shape who we are, and though the man in the dream may not be in your life now, he’s still part of who you are.” Exes who appear in dreams often symbolise your current partner, says Dr Holloway. “Kissing an ex might mean you want your current partner to find you desirable too,” she adds.

Taboo sex
Whether it’s a romp with a stranger, sex with another woman or a porn-worthy orgy, Dr Bulkeley says these dreams may reflect your inner desires, albeit in some cases an extreme version of a lusty longing. There’s a male/female divide on this type of dream: in Dr Zadra’s research, men were twice as likely as women to dream about multiple partners, while the female unconscious favoured getting busy with a celeb.

Either way, there’s no holding back racy thoughts in dreams. That’s because they’re judgment-free zones in which our subconscious can let loose and we can live out a fantasy, even if we’d never act on it in real life. So lie back and enjoy.

Dr Antonio Zadra, a professor of psychology at the Université de Montréal in Canada, analysed more than 3500 dreams and discovered that at least eight per cent of them contained some sort of sexual activity. His findings suggest that our raunchy dreams could have a straightforward psychological explanation: that they simply reflect what we’re thinking about when we’re awake. So if you dream about sex at night, it’s because it was on your mind that day. And if you’ve ever thought you’ve had an orgasm while asleep, you may have – four per cent of our dreams actually result in one. (Interestingly, men’s dreams are more selfish; they rarely dream about their partners’ orgasms, whereas women often do. Tsk.)

However, not all sex dreams are about sex, says Dr Bulkeley. They can be a symbol for emotions. “Dreams sometimes use the drama of a sexual relationship to express emotional truths and reveal conflicts,” he says. “I spoke with a woman who wanted to become a writer, but her husband was totally opposed to it. One night she dreamed she was having an affair with a male writer. The dream wasn’t about sex – her goals were causing conflict in her relationship.” That said, he adds, “the worst thing to do is to treat a dream like it’s a Magic 8 Ball.” If you dream you or your partner cheated, for example, it isn’t necessarily a red flag that your relationship is in hot water. Instead, think of dreams as cues to do some exploring about yourself or your relationship.

Crack the dream code

While the meanings behind common symbols are subjective, here’s a look at what they can signify:

A passionate lip-lock can be a symbol of approval and acceptance.

Nudity often represents being vulnerable and may symbolise exposing parts of yourself that you would rather keep hidden.

Not surprisingly, it’s all about romance. If you’re attached, a dream of love means you’re happy with your relationship. If you’re single, it means you’re open to finding love.

Finding someone attractive can mean you’re craving the feeling or experience that person represents to you, like having the hots for your barista.