Anxiety Dreams: How To Sleep Better

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Many books have been written on the topic of interpreting dreams. It’s nice when you can lay your head down on the pillow and drift off to dreamland within minutes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way or that well for everyone.

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Have you ever gone through a period of time that no matter what you try, you just can’t get to sleep? Counting sheep, reading a book, listening to music, nothing seems to relax you enough to help you drift off. Maybe you have a spouse that starts snoring as soon as their head hits the pillow and it makes you feel resentful. You may be so anxious you can’t sleep or you’re having trouble sleeping because you’re anxious. Stress and anxiety can literally keep you up all night.

Science and research have attempted to explain various things about our sleep routines and habits. To date, even the best researchers don’t fully understand how dreams work. Many people try to interpret their own dreams, and that too is only somewhat successful.

According to the National Institutes of Health, over 40 million Americans have long-term, serious sleep disorders. Another 20 million people say they have sleep problems at least occasionally.

What Do Anxiety Dreams Mean?

Sometimes people have anxiety dreams because they have a lot of stress during their waking hours. Our bodies can harbor stress which can have physiological symptoms. After having an anxiety dream, it’s common for someone to wake up in a cold sweat. You may or may not even remember an anxiety dream. Nevertheless, it’s important to address your stress levels.

Everyone lives with some degree of stress, but we shouldn’t allow it to take over our lives. If stress is keeping you up at night, it’s something you should work towards improving. If you’re feeling extreme emotional, physical, or mental tension, you’re showing symptoms of stress.

What kinds of things cause stress? As much as you may love your children, they’re not always easy to deal with and they can cause you a great deal of stress. Difficulty at work, moving to another location, life transitions, or the death of a loved one are additional reasons that stress may be encroaching on your life. All of these things can cause anxious dreams.

The quality of your rest affects your moods and attitudes during your waking hours. Severe anxiety can cause you to be hyper-aroused much of the time. Not being able to sleep will likely upset your natural biorhythms, making it even more difficult to fall asleep. The more stressed that you are, the more frequently you may have anxiety dreams and the more often you may wake up remembering at least part of them.

When you know that you have a stressful event coming up like a big job interview, marriage ceremony, or public performance, it’s common to have anxiety dreams the night beforehand.

There is ongoing research into dreams, and more is needed to gather facts about them.  What we do know is that there are ways to control our stress levels. The better we manage our stress, the more it will decrease the potential for anxiety dreams, and we can get better quality sleep and more of it.

What they’ve found to date is that sleep disturbances often accompany patients with anxiety disorders on some level. They haven’t been able to formulate a clear picture of the relationship between sleep and specific anxiety disorders. What makes research complex in this area is that anxiety is a symptom of a number of mental health disorders, so it’s hard to assess it of its own volition.

Things You Can Do to Get Better Sleep

An anxiety disorder affects your ability to function during the day and at night. If you’ve regularly been having trouble getting to sleep, it helps to take a few steps to wind down as your regular bedtime gets closer. If you can get to sleep quickly and have restful sleep, you’ll be less likely to have anxiety dreams.

About one hour before your normal bedtime, find an engaging, relaxing activity that you enjoy. Put on some music, read, meditate, or take a hot bath.

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Some people find that rather than fighting the urge to worry or be upset, that it helps to plan time for it into your schedule. You know that you’re going to worry and fret anyway. Maybe two hours before bedtime, you allow yourself to worry and be upset and limit your worry time to one hour. Journaling is a good exercise that you can do as a release for negative energy. When your worry time is over, it’s over. Then engage in a relaxing activity for another hour to help calm down your body and your mind.

Turn your bedroom into a quiet zone to help alleviate anxiety dreams. Remove all materials from your bedroom that distract you—your work schedule, video games, crafting materials. Use your bedroom only for sleeping, having sex, and other enjoyable activities. Make it a point to limit the amount of time that you spend in your bed worrying about things you can’t control and allowing your anxiety to build. Train your body that your bed is a worry-free zone. If you’re still anxious in your bed, go lie in another bedroom and worry.

Relaxation Techniques to Help Prevent Anxious Dreams

When you’re not able to relax your body on its own, there are some good relaxation techniques to help coax your mind and body out of an anxious state which may reduce the problem of having anxious dreams.

There are some good programs, books, videos, and electronic apps on things like breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation movements that you can use as an anti-anxiety regime. Some of the relaxation apps are free of charge. One of the nice things about relaxation techniques is that the more often you do them, the easier they are to do. When you become comfortable with them, it’s easy enough to work in a quick 10-minute session here and there throughout your day. This is a good way to keep your stress levels down so that you’re at a lower point of stress as you near your bedtime.

Even when you’re working hard to prevent anxious dreams, they can still creep up on you unexpectedly. What do you do when one of those pesky anxiety dreams jolts you out of bed in the middle of the night? All of a sudden, you’re partially awake, somewhere between slumber and sleepiness. You’re lying in bed worrying over the events of the day, and you’re not sure whether your thoughts are real or part of anxious dreams.

Try to avoid staring at your clock or mobile phone. Continually reminding yourself about what time it is will only increase your anxiety. If you’ve found a helpful relaxation strategy that you’ve been using before bedtime, put it to work again.

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If that doesn’t work, try getting out of bed. Anxiety dreams can get the best of you. Getting up and getting moving can help to alleviate some of your frustration. There’s little value in lying awake trying to interpret anxiety dreams. When you get up, find something to do that’s uninteresting or boring. If you find yourself drifting off again, it’s time to wander back to your bed.

There’s no way to measure anxiety dreams, so we can’t know what meaning they might have in our lives. The best defense against dealing with anxiety dreams is to manage your stress levels throughout the day and night as much as you can.

Your Sleep Structure Is Unaffected by Anxiety Dreams

Everyone’s brain goes through fairly predictable sleep patterns. There are different stages of sleep, each with a different degree of deep sleep. Anxiety dreams don’t necessarily change the amount of time that you spend in various sleep stages or the number of times that you wake up. What anxious dreams can do is make it more difficult for you to fall asleep and to stay asleep.

If you’ve tried several kinds of relaxation techniques to quiet your mind and your emotions and nothing is working, it might be time to seek professional help. It’s also possible that you might have a sleep disorder called sleep apnea. If you suspect this, it’s wise to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician who may refer you to a sleep disorder clinic.

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Some people find that therapy or online counseling has been quite effective in helping them reduce their anxiety so they can sleep better at night and reduce the potential for anxiety dreams. Many counselors use a kind of talk therapy called cognitive-behavior therapy to help their clients lower their anxiety levels and through identifying and modifying their behaviors. Cognitive-behavior therapy makes a nice complement to relaxation techniques and some therapists use techniques like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, and other things in combination as part of their overall treatment plans. The important thing is to try something to help yourself sleep at night. It just might work.


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