How to Deal With Stress Dreams
Updated February 14, 2020
Reviewer Aaron Horn
Sleep is one of the most important daily activities that contribute to maintaining your mental health. Too little sleep can cause fatigue, lethargy, poor cognition, and can induce or exacerbate a wide variety of mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, and more.
But what happens when issues like stress and anxiety are already affecting your sleep? If you've ever had a dream where you're standing in your underwear in front of your high school assembly, failed a class you forgot you were enrolled in, tried to escape a natural disaster, you're familiar with stress dreams. Stress dreams are a common way that the mind deals with stressful life events and situations, but when stressful dreams disrupt your sleep, they can lead to a vicious cycle of stress and sleeplessness.
What are Stress Dreams?
Stress dreams can refer to any sort of dream that contains stressful, anxiety-inducing events or feelings. While stress dreams vary widely from individual to individual as well as across different cultures and communities, stress dreams often manifest in a fear of falling, being chased, natural disasters, or unmet personal or professional responsibilities. Stress dreams can wake you up in a cold sweat, and their disturbing content can often make you anxious or upset.
Why Stress Dreams Happen
Stress dreams are a very common reaction to stressful situations. They can also be the result of stressful or traumatic incidents in the past, as your brain works to process events that have had a lasting mental and emotional impact, even if they happened a long time ago.
While most people look to sleep as a way to escape their problems at the end of the day and start over fresh in the morning, research suggests that sleep plays an important role in processing the events of the previous day, especially if they're emotionally charged. Dreams can sometimes be helpful, allowing the mind to reflect upon and process past events and future worries, and preparing dreamers for stressful circumstances that may occur.
While they might sometimes be a healthy way for the brain to cope with stress, stressful dreams can quickly become a problem, especially when they're more vivid than usual, recurring, or happening with increasing frequency. Stress dreams can disrupt sleep, resulting in increased anxiety and decreased cognitive function. And since stress dreams are often the result of preexisting stress and anxiety, it can result in a vicious cycle. For those suffering from persistent stress dreams, they can significantly impact everyday quality of life.
Common Stress Dreams
While stress dreams vary from person to person and culture to culture, there are a few common threads that link many stress dreams together, making them a universal phenomenon.
Naked in Public
Being naked in public is a common stress dream, often linked to social anxiety and fear of judgment and rejection in a social setting. Especially in cultures where nudity is taboo, dreaming of being naked in public can be a sign that you're stressed about the ways you're perceived by the people around you.
Forgetting a Class
Ever dreamed that you forgot you were enrolled in a class, only to find out on the last day when the final exam is due? Dreams surrounding school performance and failure are very common, and can reflect concerns about performance in school and life, as well as unmet obligations and hovering deadlines.
Failing an Exam
Similar to forgetting a class, failing an exam is another frequent stress dream. This can indicate that you feel overwhelmed and underprepared in your personal or professional life. These sorts of dreams can also reflect anxiety and lack of confidence in your performance at other tasks in the waking world.
Something Chasing You
If you've ever dreamt that someone is chasing you, and you can't escape them no matter how far or how fast you run, you've probably experienced a stress dream. Dreams about escaping pursuit can indicate that you're trying to outrun a problem in real life, and can be an indicator of anxiety.
While it might sound bizarre, dreaming of teeth rotting, falling out, or otherwise causing problems is surprisingly common. Some researchers theorize that these dreams are the result of grinding your teeth in your sleep, which the mind then recognizes and unconsciously incorporates into a dream. Dreams of bad teeth can also symbolically represent loss of control and failure.
Dreams about natural disasters like floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, and forest fires can reflect a pervasive fear about change and circumstances that are outside of our control. While these dreams are very common, the specifics of the disaster can vary from person to person and place to place.
Stress Dreams That Mirror Life Events
While some stress dreams can be vague or metaphorical, others can directly represent the things that are bothering us in real life. Dreams can reflect stressful situations at work or at home, arguments, betrayals, or other emotional upsets. Stress dreams can also force you to relive past traumas, even if they happened a long time ago.
How to Prevent Stress Dreams
While the occasional nightmare is probably unavoidable, some simple lifestyle changes can go a long way towards reducing stress generally, and unpleasant stressful dreams in particular.
Practice Sleep Hygiene
Getting a good night's sleep starts with proper sleep hygiene. Make sure to steer clear of the blue light emitted from phones and other screens for a few hours before bed. It's also a good idea to refrain from lounging in bed before you're ready to fall asleep. Treat your bed like a designated sleeping zone, and your mind will associate it with sleep rather than with scrolling through social media or binging TV.
If possible, try to stick to a set sleep schedule, going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day. While everyone's sleep needs are different, you should try to shoot for seven to nine hours of sleep a night for best results.
If you keep having recurring stress dreams, it's a good idea to consider what might be causing them in the waking world. If you can pinpoint the cause of your stress, you can take steps to mitigate the effect it has on your life. While some stress is unavoidable, acknowledging and addressing the specific problem is a good first step.
Minimize Drugs and Alcohol
When you're stressed out and trying to sleep, it can be tempting to try to relax with drugs or alcohol. And when you're running on too few hours of sleep after a night of stressful dreams, a heaping helping of caffeine can seem like the only thing that will get you through the day. While these coping mechanisms might seem temporarily effective, alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs actually have a negative effect on sleep, and can result in trouble falling asleep or waking up, unpleasant dreams, and other side effects.
Mindfulness can be a powerful technique to fight symptoms of stress and anxiety and help to reduce the occurrence of stressful dreams. Mindfulness helps to relax the mind and the body, focusing on simple actions and sensations that draw the awareness away from stressful thoughts and toward the senses. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to reduce the frequency and intensity of disturbing dreams.
How to Deal with Stress Dreams
Sometimes, no matter what you do, stressful dreams just won't go away. Particularly when you're dealing with a difficult life event like the loss of a loved one, divorce, or a stressful job, dreams can be a way for the mind to process and relive the stressful events of the day. While you can't always stop stress dreams from happening, you can prevent them from taking over your life.
Try to Relax
When you wake up from a stressful dream or nightmare, it's common for your heart to race, your muscles to tense up, and your mind to run wild with unpleasant thoughts. In order to get back to sleep, try to relax your body and mind. Unclench your muscles, take a few deep breaths, and try to guide your attention away from the stressful thoughts and feelings you experienced during the dream.
Keep a Dream Journal
Not sure what your dreams mean? Keeping a dream journal can be a great way to keep track of your dreaming and to look for patterns and associations in your unconscious thoughts. Dream journals can help you identify stressors in real life so that you can acknowledge and address them.
Reflect on Possible Stresses
If you're not sure why you're having recurring stress dreams or nightmares, it's a good idea to examine whether or not there are any possible stressors in your life. Stress dreams can sometimes feel like they come out of nowhere, but they're usually the result of events and activities going on in the waking world. If you're not sure why you're having persistent stressful dreams, seeking the help of a professional is a good next step.
When stressful dreams are having a profound negative impact on your life, it can feel as if you can't escape stress no matter where you turn. If you're not sure what to do about your stress dreams, it's always a good idea to seek the advice of a therapist or other mental health professional.
At BetterHelp, we offer a variety of online therapy services to help you deal with stressful situations. Whether you're looking for advice on managing stress and anxiety or just need someone to talk to, our online therapy could be a great fit to help you better manage your mental health. Get in touch with us to learn more!