Stress & Anxiety Dreams: What They Mean For You

Have you ever woken in the night with an overwhelming, palpable feeling of anxiety, worrying you have missed a flight, you’re being chased or you’re late for an important exam? Even though you’re awake, you take a few moments to consider the dream. Was it real?
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
stress dreams anxiety
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

Stress dreams, or anxiety dreams, are common and they may have an important purpose. While scientists disagree on the significance of anxiety or stress dreams, we’re sure of one thing: most people experience them.

What Are Stress Dreams?

Stress dreams are dreams during your REM cycle that create a feeling of anxiety and often will wake you in the middle of the night.

Unlike nightmares that wake you with a bolt of fear or terror, stress dreams wake you after progressively heightening your stress levels. They are linked to increases in cortisol and often a feeling of impending or heightening doom.

Some of the most common stress dreams are:

  • Someone is chasing you (said to mean you’re running away from a situation in real life such as confronting a family member about an issue, or not paying your bills)
  • Your teeth are falling out (some say this can represent you’re going through a big life change) 
  • Your death is imminent (some say this could reference a symbolic ending)

While the idea that stress dreams have meaning is contentious, it’s interesting to know you’re not the only one waking up stressed out.

Isabelle Arnulf, a neuroscientist and president of the French Society for Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine, told the Guardian, “it’s normal to have anxious dreams.” Yet many of her patients worry their stress-inducing dreams are abnormal. Knowing you’re normal is great news, but it doesn’t answer the questions as to why they happen.

Read more: Internationally known mindfulness expert Judson Brewer, MD Ph.D., explains how to tell the difference between stress and anxiety.

Waking Anxiety Doesn’t Mean You Have More Stress Dreams

It’s a reasonable assumption that people with increased anxiety during waking hours would be more likely to experience stress dreams, but that’s not proven to be the case.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Nadorff told Vice that anxiety doesn’t directly increase the frequency of our distressing dreams, but it does heighten their severity. This is partly due to the link between anxiety and sleep disorders, like insomnia. Sleep physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School Dr. Ina Djonlagic also told Vice that people with anxiety are more prone to insomnia, a condition directly linked to bad dreams.

Read more: Do you commonly wake up with morning anxiety? How do you approach that feeling? The two scenarios described in this article might offer support and clarity.

Why Do People With Anxiety Feel Like They Have More Stress Dreams?

A person with anxiety is more likely to wake in the night during or just after a stress dream, which is the only way we actually remember dreams. So even though anxiety-sufferers don’t actually have more stress dreams than other people, they are more likely to remember them due to their poor sleep quality. This is due to negative reinforcement.

According to Dr. Nadorff,  negative reinforcement happens when you’re in the midst of a stress dream and you know you need to wake up to quit the dream. This mechanism is unconscious. However, the more it happens, the more it becomes reinforced.

Since you’re only going to recall a dream when waking up in the middle of it, you tend to remember only the bad, stressful dreams. This is why people with anxiety are more likely to feel they have more stress dreams than other people.

Before you read on, explore our free library of meditation for anxiety. The guided practices help to calm the mind and focus on the present moment. Also, discover more than 1000 free sleep meditation practices help calm the mind and relax the body in preparation for sleep.

We’ve created a playlist with guided sleep meditations by popular teachers that help to let go of stress and anxieties before going to bed:

  1. Sleep Anxiety-Free Tarika Lovegarden 13:19
  2. Calming Anxiety And Stress Before Sleep Active Meditation 20:00
  3. Floating To Sleep Christian Thomas 22:58
  4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Sleep Dr. Lillian Nejad 15:01
  5. Kids Meditation: The Magic Blanket: Feel Safe, Loved & Ready To Sleep Chrissy Ortner 20:05

Stress Dreams May Help You Perform Better

Stress dreams aren’t a lot of fun to experience, but they may seem more bearable if we consider they serve a purpose.

A 2013 research led by neuroscientist Isabelle Arnulf collected information on students’ dreams the night before taking the medical school entrance exam and compared this data with the students’ grades on that exam. The findings are surprising:

  • Of the 719 respondents to the questionnaire (of 2324 total students), 60.4% dreamt of the exam during the night preceding it. 
  • Problems with the exam appeared in 78% of dreams and primarily involved being late and forgetting answers.
  • Reporting a dream about the exam on the pre-exam night was associated with better performance on the exam

Arnulf concluded that a stressful event in dreams is common. But most interestingly,

“That this episodic simulation provides a cognitive gain.”

In other words? Dreaming of a stressful situation teaches you something, helping you perform better at the task you dreamt about.

One explanation could be the ‘social threat simulation theory’ which is the idea that dreams prepare us for social stress. This theory states dreaming about threatening events has a biological function, making dreaming a useful, insightful teacher.

Stress Dream Might Also Have No Function At All

Despite compelling evidence supporting the function of stress dreams, many people believe these dreams have no function at all.

In contrast to much of Freud’s infamous sleep research, many scientists have adopted the activation-synthesis model theory. This theory states the brain produces patterns that the ‘comprehension or meaning-making’ part of the brain tries to make sense of while we’re asleep. After making sense of them, the stories we create are a mash-up of strange content because the brain’s activation patterns during sleep are not recognized by the waking brain. In other words? Dreams aren’t anything more than an array of strange stories and patterns.

Mark Blagrove, a professor of psychology at Swansea University and head of its sleep lab, agrees. When discussing how anxiety dreams related to our real lives, he told the Guardian: “We simply dream of these things happening because they’re on our mind during the day, so they stay on our mind when we sleep … It doesn’t do anything for us. It’s just that the brain doesn’t completely shut down.”

Read more: Does work-related stress keep you up at night? Discover how to de-stress at work and overturn common workplace stressors.

Stress Dreams Are Related To Trauma

We know those people with anxiety are not necessarily more likely to have more stress dreams, but this cannot be said for those who have experienced trauma. It is well documented in studies examining war veterans and other patients who have endured a traumatic experience that many go on to have trauma-related stress dreams.

Dr. Djonlagic of Harvard said: [There’s] “a correlation between sleep quality and how we process traumatic experiences which may help to explain why bad dreams, insomnia, and real-life anxiety can sometimes seem so hard to divorce.”

What To Do If You’re A Stressful Dreamer

Whether or not your stress dreams serve a purpose won’t make you feel better when you wake up with anxiety every evening. Instead, you may want to seek help. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize clinical treatment for stressful dreams exists. Here are two non-pharmaceutical treatments you could try.

Image Rehearsal Therapy

This treatment involves remembering your stress dream and re-writing it on paper in a way that makes it less overwhelming and stressful. Most therapists recommend doing this several times a day for five or ten minutes. Eventually, your dream will be altered to seem unthreatening and less stressful. 

However, some therapists don’t condone this treatment as they say your original stress dream contains meaningful information and altering it is ruining that information. Many people have had success with this therapy, though, and it’s known for being a great treatment for stressful dreamers.

Try Not To Wake Yourself Up

We know you only remember a stress dream if you wake up during it, so what about sleeping through it? Neurologist Arnult says the meaning of your dreams is irrelevant, the key is getting to the end of the dream. It’s a process. And if you get to the end and don’t wake up, you’re less likely to remember it anyway.

Focusing on good quality sleep and getting out of the habit of waking yourself in the night may be another goal for you.

Read more: Are you having trouble falling asleep? Discover ways to break the worry-sleep-cycle.

You Do Not Need To Feel Stressed During The Night

Stress or anxiety dreams are common, yet many people feel stifled by them. While the experts don’t agree on whether stress dreams have a function, we do know there’s a good treatment option out there for you. If you’re sick of feeling stressed out during the night, seek help and you’ll be well on your way to sleeping deeper and more restfully.

Read more: Set the foundations for restorative sleep and explore important guidelines for a healthy evening routine.

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