We’ve probably all had that dream about showing up for a class decades after we’re out of school, unaware that there’s a test. Or the one about losing control of a car, or being chased by someone we desperately want to get away from. You might wake up with a start, heart racing, brow moist, wondering, What was that about?! Sometimes you can go back to sleep; at other times, the adrenaline makes it nearly impossible. In these cases, it’s likely that you’ve had a stress dream.
What are stress dreams, anyway?
Anxiety-related dreams, or stress dreams, are quite common. “Our brains take emotionally salient events from our waking lives and weave them into a dream narrative” that may reflect what we’re stressed or concerned about, says Antonio Zadra, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal and a senior researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine. “Dreams can be a fairly broad but accurate barometer of our waking levels of well-being.” And since we’re living in anxious times, it’s no surprise that there’s been a surge in strange dreams and nightmares. Women have been having more dreams featuring aggressive interactions with others, according to research, while people with a lot of COVID stress are more likely to have nightmares about confinement, helplessness, war, separation, failure, totalitarianism, sickness, death, and apocalypse. It doesn’t help that there is a war that is leading to sickness and death, not to mention climate change and major political and social upheaval.
As unpleasant as these dreams are, this makes perfect sense. “Given that we have more anxious, disturbing thoughts during times of stress, it’s hardly surprising that we have more anxiety dreams and even nightmares,” says Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., a dream researcher at Harvard Medical School. In fact, some experts believe dreams play a role in emotional regulation—that their narratives serve as a form of offline processing of our daytime dramas. In a survey of nearly 1,700 adults, researchers found that every fifth dream was connected to someone’s current or past professional life—and the emotional tone of the participants’ work-related dreams was related to their work-related stress level and emotions in waking life.
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It’s also logical that the themes or content of dreams are similar for many of us: During collective forms of stress or trauma—such as the pandemic, 9/11, natural disasters, and acts of war or violence—we all see the same images. “These are images we’re programmed to instinctively fear, so they appear easily in our dreams any time we are overwhelmingly frightened,” notes Barrett, author of the books Pandemic Dreams and Trauma and Dreams. Other common themes in bad dreams include being humiliated, threatened, or attacked by someone or something; getting lost, sick, or stuck in a bad situation; and being chased or involved in some kind of accident or disaster. Sometimes, however, stress dreams are more idiosyncratic.
Why women have stress dreams more often
Research has found that women overall and people with generalized anxiety disorder tend to have significantly more bad dreams, including dreams of trauma, according to a 2021 study involving 20,013 adults. People who feel frustrated because their psychological needs aren’t being met likewise tend to have more negative dream themes.
When she’s under stress, Suzan Ferreira, 59, often has dreams about trying to run from something with her legs feeling as though they’re grounded in cement. COVID has been especially hard for her because autoimmune issues make her more vulnerable to complications, so she has been living in what she calls “a bubble of self- preservation.” In the dreams, “the closer the menacing thing comes, the heavier my legs become, and when I try to scream, nothing comes out,” says Suzan, owner and creator of lifestyle/homesteading blog It’s My Sustainable Life, who lives in New Hampshire. She tends to wake herself and her husband up with her dream noises. “At that point, my heart is racing; I’m in a sweat, and in full panic mode,” she says.
Why stress dreams stick with you
There are physiological reasons we may remember bad dreams. For one thing, “one needs to wake up immediately from a dream for it to be recalled,” says Barrett, and stress and anxiety may make you sleep more lightly or awaken. A study in a September 2021 issue of Nature and Science of Sleep found that people on four continents, especially women, had greater dream recall during the pandemic than before.
We tend to have the most vivid, emotionally intense dreams during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep plays a key role in and contributes to the consolidation of emotional memory. “Dreams and REM sleep are important for emotional regulation,” notes Michael Nadorff, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University. “REM sleep is when memories get stored, so things that stand out during the day are likely to pop up in REM sleep.” Dreams during the last REM period before you wake up can be the most intense, Zadra says. “Those dreams may be especially vivid or emotionally salient or disturbing.”
What to know if you’re having stress dreams
Of course, stress dreams can do a number on the quality and quantity of sleep you get. Maybe you can’t fall back to sleep after having a distressing dream, afraid of having the bad dream continue. You also may have fragmented sleep if you awake from several upsetting dreams in a given night, which can leave you logy and foggy the next day.
Andrea Wilson Woods is familiar with this pattern. When her marriage was falling apart in 2014, she had recurring dreams about being stuck in a body of water similar to a muddy lake and being unable to move. “It felt like the water was going to swallow me up,” recalls Andrea, 49, a cancer- patient advocate in Birmingham, AL. More recently, as she dealt with the stress of starting a health tech company, she often dreamed of running out of time or being in the wrong place or with the wrong people. “The more stressed I become, the more I dream and the less rested I feel,” she says. Over time, these patterns can lead to delaying sleep, which can contribute to a greater sleep debt and affect people’s health over time, Nadorff says. Losing quality snooze time on a regular basis can have negative effects on mental function, mood, weight and glucose tolerance, blood pressure, and other aspects of health.
And not only can stress from your daytime life show up as anxiety dreams, but also anxiety dreams can leave you stressed the next day. “People used to think of it as just the other way around,” says Barry Krakow, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist in private practice in Savannah and the author of several books including Sound Sleep, Sound Mind. “It’s remarkable how strong an impact disturbing dreams can have on you during the day.” Think of this as a kind of “dream hangover,” in which the specific emotions from the nighttime drama linger. “When you’re dreaming, the same areas of the brain are activated that would be if you were nervous, anxious, or scared in your waking life,” explains Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles. “Physiologically speaking, it’s as if you were actually living through the experience: Your body is pumping out more adrenaline, and you are in fight-or-flight mode.” When you wake up, those hormones are still coursing through you.
That’s why if you have an upsetting dream about your partner cheating on you, for example, you might feel angry at them. If your boss was verbally abusive in a nightmare, you may feel on edge or be easily startled the next day. “This can affect the way you view and interact with others in your life because of the interactions you had with them in your dream,” says Zadra.
But stress dreams are not necessarily all negative—it’s possible that the emotions in your dreams could help prepare you for situations in real life. A 2019 study in Human Brain Mapping found that experiencing fear in dreams might be associated with more adaptive responses to threats. Researchers found that participants who reported a higher incidence of fear in their dreams showed reduced emotional arousal and activation of certain brain regions (the insula, amygdala, and midcingulate cortex) on functional MRI scans in response to fear-eliciting stimuli while awake. In other words, they dealt with the fear better, perhaps because they had practiced at night.
What your dreams could be telling you
It’s worthwhile to think about what’s happening in a bad dream and in your waking life, says Zadra, coauthor of When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science & Mystery of Sleep. Ask yourself: Who is in the dream? Where does it take place? How do you feel? Then try to “find parallels between these variables and what’s going on in your daily life,” he says. Dr. Krakow echoes that idea. “We now know dream interpretation is valid—dreams have messages, and sometimes you can get something interesting out of them, especially if you have a recurring dream,” Dr. Krakow says. “The message can be as simple as the emotion in the dream.” If you’re angry, scared, or embarrassed in a dream, maybe there’s something in your life that you’re angry, scared, or embarrassed about and you haven’t addressed it in a healthy way. “Perhaps the dream is warning you about something to avoid or watch out for,” Dr. Krakow adds.
Raymond recommends keeping a dream journal so you can write dreams down right away to dissect later. Below, a few things to consider:
What was the tone or atmosphere of the dream?
The exact content of the dream usually is less telling than the hue and tone, Raymond says. Does it feel familiar? The connections aren’t always obvious.
Is there something you’re blowing off?
Stress dreams “may stem from things you’re trivializing or not giving enough attention to,” Zadra says. “Anxiety dreams can be beneficial by alerting us to stresses that we have been repressing or just brushing aside,” says Barrett. “They may occasionally give us new perspectives on ways we might deal with our stressors.”
Did you wake up?
That’s “a wake-up call that [in your waking life] you are not dealing with something important,” Raymond says. You may not be aware of the issue, but your dreams are poking you in the ribs.
Are you denying your instincts?
In recent years, Diane Lam has dreamed of drowning, suffocating, or trying to scream with no sound coming out. “These dreams happened when I was going into a bad situation—taking a job I knew was not a fit, moving across the country for a toxic company, and signing a deal that ended up losing me money,” recalls Diane, 37, a consultant in Seattle. “I think my stress dreams are like the last zing of intuition telling me not to proceed. They were clear warnings of danger that I didn’t listen to.” She listens now!
Do you wish you were different?
Sometimes, says Raymond, “bad dreams are about parts of yourself you don’t like and are trying to push away, pretending it’s not you.”
If distressing dreams interfere with the quality of your sleep and your daytime functioning, you can take steps to try to decompress before turning in for the night—you can stretch, meditate, or engage in paced breathing. It’s always good to avoid devices with alerts and scary news pings right before bed as well. If bad dreams persist, a technique called imagery rehearsal therapy, which you can do with a therapist or on your own, may help. Basically, you select an upsetting dream, change the narrative or outcome in some way, then rehearse the new dream in your mind during the day. With regular practice, “people can stop having bad dreams within one to two weeks,” Nadorff says. Research even found that imagery rehearsal therapy decreased nightmare frequency and PTSD symptoms and improved sleep quality among women who’d been sexually assaulted. Improved sleep will leave you better able to cope with whatever you face during the day, which should have you sleeping even easier.
When bad dreams might signal a sleep disorder
It’s no secret that nightmares can be a symptom of post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But sometimes bad dreams can suggest other medical conditions that interfere with daily life and that can be relieved with treatment, says Zadra. Below, a few well-known sleep disorders with which a sleep specialist or therapist may be able to help:
- Nightmare disorder is characterized by repeated occurrences of deeply disturbing dreams or nightmares, usually involving threats to survival, safety, or integrity. These dreams typically wake the person up, are well remembered, cause daytime distress, and may cause someone to avoid sleep at night.
- With REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), people act out their dreams by punching or kicking, shouting, or cursing. Normally during REM sleep there’s a quieting of motor activity, including a high degree of muscle paralysis—people with RBD gradually lose that and have a higher risk of eventually developing certain neurological conditions, which is why it’s important to see a sleep disorder specialist.
- With trauma associated sleep disorder (TASD), someone may have vivid dreams of a past trauma, says Dr. Krakow. “These are reenactment types of dreams for which treatment by a sleep specialist often provides considerable benefit.”
- Obstructive sleep apnea—a potentially serious sleep disorder in which a person’s breathing repeatedly stops, then restarts— is also associated with nightmares and disturbing dreams. “Using a CPAP machine can improve sleep apnea and bad dreams,” Dr. Krakow says, as can other treatments.
Stacey Colino lives in Maryland, where she writes about health and psychology issues.