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The Anxiety Dreams So Many Of Us Are Having

What they are and how to prevent them.

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Tara Jacoby
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Two days before I was scheduled to make a presentation at a professional conference, I dreamed about failing physics. In real life science didn’t come easily, so I avoided taking physics. In my dream it was finals week, I hadn’t attended the class all semester and I searched in vain for someone to teach me the entire textbook in two days. I woke in a panic.           

It was no coincidence that it was two days before the conference and the dream’s dreaded exam date. Even though I was a college professor and frequent public speaker, my anxieties bubbled up into my REM sleep. Public speaking is the biggest fear in America, affecting 25 percent of us. Some surveys say we fear public speaking more than death.

Anxiety dreams bring life’s stresses into our awareness. They may be scary, but the good news is they can help us improve our ability to cope with fear during daytime hours.

What are anxiety dreams?

According to Healthline, anxiety dreams can be caused by fears,  life changes, traumatic events, insomnia, or use of substances like alcohol. We spend a third of our life sleeping, lots of time for dreams of all kinds. Also known as stress dreams, they can be alarming, but health professionals say they’re good for your overall mental health.  

“Bad dreams are a rehearsal for our brains that allow us to better manage anxiety-inducing situations in our normal lives,” says Michael Breus, aka the sleep doctor, a clinical psychologist and a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. He believes these dreams are “our emotional training ground and help us prepare to handle real adversity. It might not be pleasant in the moment, but there is at least some good that comes out of it.”

The most common anxiety dreams and their meanings           

You’re underwater, even drowning, feeling out of control. Your teeth fall out. You’re naked in public, exposed and vulnerable. You’re on a Broadway stage but you’ve forgotten your lines. Dreaming of making out with a celebrity or discovering your partner is cheating may never actually happen in real life, but these classic anxiety dreams wake you up in a panic.           

What do they mean? Something is making you feel out of control. You fear rejection. Or you’re anxious about an upcoming event.           

Pam Vassil, a communications professional, has repeating dreams where she is constantly running in search of her lost daughter in large spaces like a train station. “I wake up in a sweat from head to toe,” she says. “I can’t breathe.” She calms down by getting up, drinking water and reminding herself it’s just that old anxiety dream again. “You love a child more than anyone in your life,” says Pam. “As a single mother, I was always worried about her safety.”

How to cope with anxiety dreams           

They can be alarming, but you needn’t take them literally. You may wake up sweating, heart pumping, hyperventilating. Unpleasant feelings could persist throughout the day.

Try to get back to sleep, writes Crystal Raypole in Healthline. She recommends a relaxing warm drink, quiet music, a soothing podcast, a slow-paced book, breathing or meditation exercises.

This is not the time to try to analyze the dream. Don’t toss and turn for more than 20 minutes or look at the clock, which can increase anxiety. Your brain should associate bed with sleep and sex. Go into another room and do something relaxing. Get under the covers when you are sleepy again.

Can you prevent anxiety dreams?           

The Cleveland Clinic says “you have a great deal of control over your stress and can decrease anxiety-ridden dreams while improving your sleep.”

Calming routines before bedtime can help. I have a rule with my husband: no discussions of politics, world events, or financial worries after 9 p.m. Sleep experts endorse turning off technology and TV an hour or two before bedtime. Do quiet hobbies like knitting or jigsaw puzzles. Write down your worries or the next day’s to-do list, then close it up in your nightstand drawer. Take a warm bath. Do breathing exercises. “Research has shown that our levels of optimism and peace of mind, or pessimism and anxiety, have a direct effect on the subject matter and emotional content of our dreams,” says Breus. “The bottom line: Get happy before bed!”

Breus suggests talking to someone who elevates your mood, engaging in a spiritual practice, reading something funny, planning a vacation, or looking at old photos with positive memories. “If you enter sleep with a peaceful optimistic mind, your dreams will follow suit.”

When the next anxiety dream arrives, see if you can pinpoint what is giving you stress in real life. Talking about it with partners or friends can help. If dreams interfere with daily life, seek professional help.           

I used to think my anxiety dreams were unique to me, but when I relayed my physics dream to a group of colleagues, everyone piped up to narrate their own versions of similar dreams. These are accomplished, smart, self-confident women. It reassured me to know that I was in good company. No matter who we are, our dreams can illuminate our waking life stresses. Awake and alert, we can link the emotion haunting our dreams to what’s happening or about to happen. Our subconscious makes up these dreams in order to take more control or ownership of our lives.