We’ve all experienced them at some point in our lives: those horrible dreams that either jolt us awake in a cold sweat or leave us reaching for the alarm clock feeling shaken and on edge. We’re not talking about dreams filled with ghosts and ghouls, but rather the ones that turn the everyday hiccup into a traumatic trial. You’re at the train station in the nick of time but just can’t seem to find the right platform until it’s too late. The top executives at your new job are waiting expectantly for a presentation you had no idea you had to give. It’s time to pack for an important trip, but every time you put something into your bag another item disappears.
We call these anxiety dreams. Though everybody has them, they can be more common for people with an anxiety disorder. The good news is that there are methods out there that can help to reduce and even prevent anxiety dreams. Join ManageMinds as we explore what anxiety dreams are and how you can stop them in their tracks.
What is the purpose of dreams?
Dreams are a phenomenon that has foxed scientists for many years. Some attribute them deep meaning, insisting that they hold the key to our deepest desires and truest selves. Others, however, claim that they have little significance and are simply the byproduct of our brain sorting through information collected during the day.
Nowadays it is widely accepted that dreams do serve an important function. While they don’t necessarily offer a window into our souls, dreams are the brain’s way of processing emotions and memories. Depending on what’s happening in your life, some may be throwaway snapshots of trivial thoughts, whereas others can provide a useful insight into your state of mind. Indeed, research suggests that emotions have a huge influence on the nature of our dreams. A 2008 study by Hartmann and Brezler that compared the dreams of US citizens before and after 9/11, found that “dream image is an emotionally guided construction or creation, not a replay of waking experience.”
If a dream feels particularly intense or memorable, then, it may shed light on an unconscious preoccupation that is impacting a person’s emotional wellbeing.
Threat simulation theory (TST)
Another purpose of dreams was proposed by Antii Revonsuo (2000). Threat simulation theory is the idea that during sleep, our brains recreate threatening events to better prepare us to cope with them in real life. It is thought to be an evolutionary function, dating back to our biological ancestors, who faced threats to their survival and to that of the species. Studies show that this process is more likely to affect individuals who have been exposed to trauma or situations they perceive as threatening.
What are anxiety dreams?
Anxiety dreams are exactly what they sound like—dreams that involve distressing situations that leave us feeling anxious upon waking. There’s a bit of a debate around whether anxiety dreams are nightmares. Some psychologists have a rule that only dreams that are so intense they cause us to wake up can be classified as nightmares. This is not always the case with anxiety dreams, even if they are very unpleasant to experience. We consider it useful to view anxiety dreams as a specific type of nightmare.
However you want to categorise them, anxiety dreams can have an impact on us even when we are awake. People often find that the emotions stirred up by such dreams can linger when you wake up, be it for a few minutes or a few hours. As a result, they can end up dictating the tone of your entire day.
Common anxiety dreams
Although everyone’s dreams are unique, there are some common tropes that characterise anxiety dreams. Some of the most frequently reported themes of anxiety dreams involve:
- Being chased
- Being late or getting lost
- Being tested on something you do not know
- Natural disasters
- Your teeth falling out
- Finding yourself naked in public
- Failing an exam
- Loss of control
- Attempting to take care of something/someone that is rapidly deteriorating
- The sense that your death is imminent
Are anxiety dreams a symptom of anxiety?
Having anxiety dreams doesn’t necessarily mean you have anxiety. Most people will experience them at some point. Sometimes it’s obvious why they’re happening—you might be going through a pivotal stage in your life or feeling stressed about a particular situation or event. At other times, there may be no apparent reason for them, which can be worrying if they are frequent.
If you find yourself facing recurring anxiety dreams, it may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. Keep in mind that such conditions are very common, and just because you are experiencing a period of anxiety, does not mean that you will feel that way forever. Plus, while stress is sometimes inescapable, there are techniques you can try to reduce the intensity of anxiety dreams or prevent them altogether.
Tips to prevent anxiety dreams
It’s very hard to say how much control we can exert over what we dream about. When it comes to reducing anxiety dreams, the best results come from focusing on two areas we can influence: quality of sleep and mental wellbeing. Fortunately, these features are deeply intertwined. As you improve one, the other should follow suit.
Poor sleeping patterns can actually increase the likelihood of anxiety dreams. It’s really important, then, that you work to improve your sleep hygiene. This refers to a process of bettering both the quantity and quality of your sleep.
One of the best ways to encourage a good night’s sleep is to establish a bedtime routine. This means creating habits that signal to your brain that it is time to wind down. Starting around an hour before you plan to sleep, get yourself into relaxation mode.
Here’s an example of how you might go about this:
- Put away screens
- Dim the lights
- Do some gentle stretches
- Have a cup of herbal tea
- Take a warm bath
- Read a book
- Lights out and sleep
If you make this kind of routine a habit, you should find that it becomes easier and easier to drift off to sleep, because your brain will respond to the cues you’ve put in place. If you're still struggling, you might want to try sleep treatments like CBT-I and MBT-I.
Don’t worry, this isn’t where we tell you that you must stick to a strict diet of chicken and kale if you never want to experience an anxiety dream again. That being said, we do encourage everyone to aim for a healthy, balanced diet as much as possible.
There are, however, substances that you should consider reducing or cutting out for a while if you’re going through an anxious period. The main culprits here are alcohol and caffeine. Both contribute to poor sleep, cause dehydration and heighten feelings of anxiety. If you do consume them, try to limit caffeine to the morning and increase the amount of water you drink.
Another important lifestyle factor that contributes to restful sleep is movement. Even light exercise like walking can work wonders for your mind and body. If you can do it outside to get some fresh air at the same time, even better! Just remember not to exercise right before bed, as this can actually disrupt your sleep.
It might feel a little hokey, but practising mindfulness can really change the way you think about and approach life. It’s a great way to manage stress. Anxiety itself is usually tied to how we perceive the world, so making an effort to improve this can make a huge difference to mental wellbeing. Activities that promote mindfulness include meditation, journaling and repeating affirmations (empowering statements) to yourself.
You can also insert some mindfulness into your bedtime routine. Try focusing on positive thoughts before you put your head down. A great way to achieve this is by listing the best parts of your day, no matter how minor, and considering the things you are grateful for. This can help to banish any negative thoughts that may fuel anxiety dreams during the night.
Get it out
Some people keep dream journals, and this hobby can be particularly useful when it comes to anxiety dreams. If you start writing them down, you may notice patterns or particular themes that link to specific issues in your life that could be causing the dreams in the first place. Armed with this knowledge, you can take steps to solve the problem at its root.
Another technique you can try with anxiety dreams that have been written down is reframing them in a more positive light. For example, let’s say you dream about missing a train when you’re already late for an important appointment. Rewrite the scenario with a happy ending. Maybe you step outside the station and your friend is there to pick you up. If you think about this new scenario throughout the day, you can take the sting out of the anxiety dream and maybe even train yourself to replace it.
If writing isn’t your thing, consider talking about your dreams to a close friend. Sometimes discussing the narratives at a conscious level can reveal the unconscious anxieties that are driving them. Again, this gives you the knowledge to tackle the issue head on.
See them as a good thing
This might be hard to accept when you’re still reeling from one, but anxiety dreams aren’t 100% a negative thing. Remember the threat simulation theory we mentioned? You could argue that anxiety dreams are your brain preparing you to cope with the worst outcome. Even better, they might be effective at achieving it!
A study by Arnulf Et Al. (2014) measured the performance of French students taking a tough medical exam in relation to negative dreams some of the students reported having about the event. The results showed that those who dreamt of having problems in the exam actually achieved higher scores than those who did not. Arnulf concluded that “the negative anticipation of a stressful event in dreams is common and (...) this episodic simulation provides a cognitive gain.”
Further help for anxiety dreams
We hope you find the above tips useful for preventing anxiety dreams. Of course, if the dreams are a symptom of an anxiety disorder, the best thing you can do is seek treatment for the condition itself. Studies show that cognitive behavioural therapy in particular can significantly reduce negative dreams in adults with anxiety.
Our mindset when we’re awake has an impact on what our brains do during sleep, and vice versa. It’s therefore really important not to ignore the problem of recurring anxiety dreams. If you’re interested in accessing therapy for your anxiety, ManageMinds can help. With us, you can complete professional and productive therapy sessions from the comfort of your own home. Get in touch today to find out more.
Not sure if talking to someone will work for you? Check out 3 reasons you should start therapy.
Explore More Articles
ManageMinds now offers a range of self-help courses. Find out everything from what's included to prices in this article.
DBT is often used to help people who experience intense emotions achieve balance and control. Read this article to learn more about this talking therapy.