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Understanding what’s causing your stress dreams can help you avoid them — and sleep more soundly.

Waking up after a good night’s sleep can leave you feeling rested and restored, ready to take on the day. But sometimes, when you’re feeling anxious during the day, your stress can seep into your dreams too.

Maybe you dream that you’re being chased, or you’re super late to work and yet just can’t get there, no matter what. Maybe you even dream that you’re back in school and you have to take a test that you didn’t study for — and on top of it, you somehow forgot to put clothes on?

Whatever your stress dream is, it’s probably pretty unpleasant, and when you wake up in the morning, you’ll likely not wake up feeling all that well rested.

On top of potentially disrupting your sleep, stress dreams can cause lingering anxiety throughout the morning, leaving you feeling uneasy throughout the day. They may even make you nervous about getting to sleep later on that evening.

While the meaning of your dream could be up for interpretation, it is possible to figure out what’s causing your stress dreams — and there are some solutions you can try to help get back to sleeping soundly.

Stress dreams are distressing or anxiety-provoking dreams or nightmares that occur during your REM cycle, which is the stage of sleep when scientists think most dreaming occurs. They can be particularly vivid or recurrent.

While everyone’s dreams can be different, there are a few common types of stress dreams. Some examples are:

  • Teeth falling out. This dream is one of the most common ones associated with psychological stress, according to a 2018 study. It often occurs in people who grind their teeth at night, which is also a sign of stress. It could signify personal loss (e.g., a death, the loss of a job or relationship).
  • Being chased. This common stress dream could be associated with the feeling of being trapped or of a worry you feel you can’t escape from.
  • Missing an important event. This is another common stress dream and could represent a real-life fear of missing something in your real life, such as an exam, a flight, the first day of work, etc.
  • Being naked in public. This dream is often linked to feelings of inferiority or anxiety about how people perceive you. (And again, it’s very common!)

Other common stress dreams include being back at school, falling, car problems, tornadoes, drowning, and more.

“Stress dreams happen to everyone, and, while they can be troubling, they’re not unusual,” explains Dr. Cynthia Briggs, a licensed clinical mental health counselor from Maryland.

Well, as the name implies, psychological stress is often behind this kind of dream.

After all, stress dreams are particularly common when you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or under pressure during your day-to-day life.

“Our brains are deeply imaginative and creative, and stress dreams are one way our minds process worries overnight,” she continues. “They are the leftover odds and ends we haven’t quite resolved during the daytime.”

According to a 2019 study of mice, a day of mild stress could lead to an increase in REM sleep due to a problem regulating the stress hormone corticosterone. If this is true of humans, it could mean that stress changes our REM sleep cycle too.

Potential causes of stress impacting your dreams could include:

  • work pressure
  • disrupted sleep schedule
  • major life changes or events, such as divorce or loss
  • past or present trauma
  • use of substances, such as alcohol

Living with certain mental health conditions could play a role too. A 2014 study, for example, found that adults with generalized anxiety disorder had more bad dreams than participants who didn’t have anxiety.

While you may not be able to get rid of stress dreams altogether, it may be possible to help reduce the chances that you’ll have one.

The best way to do that? Finding ways for your mind to relax and your body to unwind can help you can get more restful sleep.

Here are four tips for doing that:

1. Create a buffer zone

Sleep psychologist Dan Ford suggests creating a buffer zone between the day and sleep. To do that, he proposes taking a shower or bath before bedtime and then engaging in 30 to 60 minutes of relaxing self-care activities, such as yoga, breathwork, or reading.

Cutting off screen time at least 1 hour before bed can also help.

2. Consider practicing constructive worry

“Constructive worry” is a practice Ford also recommends that can help you better manage your worries, fears, and anxieties.

To try this, sit down with a piece of paper divided into two columns before bed. On the left, write the worries most likely to keep you up at night. On the right, note a couple of steps (the smaller, the better) you can take to start to tackle that worry.

This can help you feel like you have found solutions for how to do something about your fears, which may help your mind relax before bed.

3. Embrace curiosity

“Get curious about your stress dreams,” suggests Briggs. “After you have [a stress dream], spend a few minutes journaling about the dream to see what you may uncover.”

This method can also help you track your dreams (e.g., how often they occur or which ones repeat). The more you know about your dreams, the more likely that you can spot certain patterns or triggers for them.

4. Up your sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene is important to your health so you might consider making the place where you sleep more calming.

By keeping your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool, you’re might be more likely to experience restful sleep.

You could even prepare your room before sleep. Consider dimming the lights an hour before bed and avoid bright lights or device screens during that time. You could also treat yourself to fresh, clean sheets and comfortable pajamas that may provide you with instant relief.

Given that stress dreams can be associated with anxieties in your everyday life, speaking with a doctor or therapist could be a helpful way for you to get assistance with working through your worries, managing your anxiety, and hopefully, lessening the frequency of your stress dreams.

If you find that these types of dreams are causing significant distress impacting your life, it may be time to consider additional professional support from a mental health professional.

If your stress dreams cause sleep issues, you may want to consider seeking out a sleep specialist.

“If things tip over to short-term insomnia (1 month of 3 or more nights of trouble falling, staying asleep, or waking early), or chronic insomnia then, you may consider talking to a sleep specialist,” says Ford.

You deserve to wake up feeling rejuvenated. So if stress dreams are causing you to wake up feeling any other way, it could be time to look into what’s causing your disrupted sleep.

Once you better understand what’s leading to your stress dreams, you can be better equipped to know what steps you can take to help improve your sleep. There are various ways you can help improve your sleep, including:

  • adjusting your bedtime routine
  • talking with a therapist
  • journaling about your dreams

And if you’re looking for more resources, consider these:

  • this binaural beats playlist for sleep
  • this TED talk on tips for better sleep
  • this 12-minute bedtime yoga practice
  • an sleep relaxation app, like Calm, which offers a variety of sleep meditations and relaxation exercises
  • Psych Central’s “Find a Therapist” search tool, which can help you find a mental health professional