Dreams that leave you feeling apprehensive and worried can result from ongoing stressors, or they can come up unexpectedly. With the right tools, you can cope.
Have you ever fallen peacefully asleep, just to wake up hours later in a sweat? The cause was an unpleasant dream that made you experience the type of distress that lingers for a while: an anxiety dream.
These dreams are often uncomfortable and distressing experiences, but you may be able to prevent them with the right strategies.
Anxiety dreams can be considered a type of stress dream, which can often feel intrusive and uncomfortable.
These dreams can be considered reactions to something that’s worrying you, says Arlene B. Englander, a licensed psychotherapist from North Palm Beach, Florida. “They’re a wake-up call to the fact that a situation in our lives is causing us emotional pain and we need to deal with it more effectively,” she says.
Anxiety and stress dreams aren’t the same thing, though. Not all stress dreams cause a sense of apprehension and wariness. By definition, all anxiety dreams do.
Anxiety dreams can also commonly happen to people with certain mental health conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Stress vs. anxiety
Events that make you feel you’re out of resources to respond adequately can often be defined as sources of stress. That doesn’t mean they are emotionally distressing.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is an emotional response that indicates persistent and abundant worry or fear. Anxiety dreams can lead you to experience these feelings.
For instance, a stress dream about a demanding project at work may not make you feel anxious. But an anxiety dream about that project could be accompanied by worry and dread.
Just as with anxiety, anxiety dreams can be about both real or perceived threats.
Dreaming that your partner was unfaithful might not be grounded in any facts, but it could still have you feeling worried or be a manifestation of a lack of trust in the relationship.
Common anxiety dreams
Anxiety dreams don’t always make much sense to you. They may have to do with lived experiences, or they may simply be storylines that cause a sense of anxiety.
Common anxiety dreams, according to Englander, include:
- participating in a play and forgetting your lines
- being nude in public
- unsuccessfully trying to escape from a dangerous pursuer
“These are often metaphoric for needing to perform and feeling unprepared, feeling embarrassed, or sensing danger,” she says.
“Yes, anxiety and stress can cause nightmares and anxiety dreams,” says Dr. Roberta Ballard, a clinical psychologist from Marietta, Georgia. “If you are under more stress than usual or there is a big change going on in your life, you might notice more themes of anxiety in your dreams.”
Nightmares, particularly when frequent, can also be signs of mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But not all anxiety dreams are considered nightmares. They may be “bad dreams,” but they’re not as intense.
Not all nightmares and anxiety dreams are caused by anxiety, either. For instance, a 2015 study of undergraduate students suggests what you eat may also affect your dream state.
But just because you have anxiety, it doesn’t mean you’ll have nightmares or anxiety dreams. You could have an anxiety disorder and rarely have nightmares.
Anxiety dreams and nightmares may be a part of how your brain aims to process and respond to situations that cause you fear and discomfort.
When it comes to nightmares, research in 2017 suggests adversity, particularly in childhood, may affect your ability to regulate your emotions and could contribute to these spontaneous and intense anxiety dreams.
More research is needed to understand the processes involved in dreaming and dream content.
Anxiety dreams can cause you to feel distressed for a long time after waking up.
Ballard says that in some cases, anxiety dreams may start to negatively affect your mental health, especially if you attach a lot of meaning to your dreams.
“If you focus on the content of a bad dream, worry about it, and fear that it means something significant in your real life, it’s more likely to have a negative effect on your mood or anxiety level,” she says.
Controlling the content of your dreams is rarely possible, unless you master lucid dreaming. But the following tips may help you reduce how often you have anxiety dreams.
1. Figuring out the source of your anxiety
Self-awareness and emotional regulation may help you process your emotional states when you’re awake. This could reduce the chance of anxiety coming up when you’re asleep.
Englander also says it’s important to acknowledge there’s a source of anxiety in your life. She explains that facing real-life challenges as effectively as you can may reduce the intensity and frequency of anxiety dreams.
2. Writing an alternative ending
Ballard says there’s a journaling exercise she asks her clients to do when they’re having anxiety dreams.
“I ask them to write an alternative ending to the bad dream,” she says. “This exercise tends to be really effective at taking the steam out of a bad dream. If it’s been a recurring dream, it stops or changes and becomes less scary.”
In fact, reframing negative or anxious thoughts with positive ones seems to decrease anxiety in general. A 2016 study suggests that focusing on positive mental images or positive affirmations instead of anxious thoughts could help people living with anxiety to worry less.
3. Using relaxation techniques
For those times when you’re feeling overwhelmed, relaxation methods may help reduce anxiety in the moment and prevent it from carrying on throughout the day.
If you’re waking up from an anxiety dream, you can try using one of these relaxation techniques:
- box breathing
- progressive muscle relaxation
- mindful meditation
For ongoing anxiety management, consider:
If anxiety dreams are negatively affecting your sleep quality or ability to function throughout your day, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
They will be able to help you explore the possible sources of your distress, as well as provide you with tools and coping skills.
We all have bad dreams now and then, but not all bad dreams cause emotional distress. When they do, some experts call these anxiety dreams.
Anxiety dreams can be caused by unresolved distress in your life and when you’re going through emotionally-charged experiences.
Some anxiety dreams — like persistent nightmares — may be signs of an underlying mental health condition like GAD or PTSD.
Figuring out what’s causing anxiety in your life, facing challenges, and practicing relaxation methods may all help lower your chances of having anxiety dreams in the future.