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Anxiety Dreams: What You Need To Know

February 20, 2023

9 min.

This article discusses what anxiety dreams are, what may cause them, and offers some tips about how to alleviate the burden of these overwhelming sleep disturbances.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

Anxiety dreams can be upsetting and distressing, causing sleep disturbances and issues with mental health and wellness. Learn more here.

This article will discuss what anxiety dreams are, what may cause them, and offer some tips about how to alleviate the burden of these overwhelming sleep disturbances.

What are anxiety dreams?

Everyone loves a good night’s sleep. Waking up the next day feeling fully rested and recharged helps give us the confidence we need to take on the day ahead with full force. 

We intuitively know that sleep is vital for our overall well-being. In fact, according to the University of Michigan School of Public Health, “sleep is essential to every process in the body, affecting our physical and mental functioning the next day, our ability to fight diseases and develop immunity, and our metabolism and chronic disease risk.” 

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Unfortunately, for many people, the quality of their sleep and their ability to function the next day are complicated by anxiety dreams, which are sometimes called stress dreams

An anxiety dream is an informal term used to describe bad dreams that trigger discomfort and unease. The clinical term for a bad dream is a “dysphoric dream.” 

You may be asking yourself what the difference is between a nightmare and an anxiety dream. The answer is that nightmares are a type of anxiety dream in which the terror elicited from the dream is more intense than general anxiety, and can often cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. There are a wide array of common anxiety dreams that people experience: 

  • Being naked in public
  • Losing teeth
  • Forgetting an important event 
  • Being late
  • Falling
  • Drowning
  • Being chased
  • Fire
  • Natural disasters 
  • Being unprepared 

What is the meaning of anxiety dreams?

There have been various proposed theories over the years to explain the meaning of our dreams and why we have them. Many people are familiar with dream dictionaries and dream interpretation, usually employed in collaboration with a psychoanalyst. 

These techniques draw their legitimacy from the work of the famous psychologists Dr. Carl Jung and Dr. Sigmund Freud, who proposed that our dreams are a place where our deepest desires, fears, and insecurities can express themselves most freely, without the constraints of the conscious mind. 

A person is shown sleeping, and looks deep in thought, potentially experiencing an anxiety dream.

When considering this theory, it is easy to understand how attempting to interpret our dreams could give us better insight into our mental and emotional well-being. Let us imagine a situation in which a person keeps having an anxiety dream in which they are trying to run away from a threatening situation, but they remain stuck in place, unable to move their legs. Through collaboration with a psychologist or psychoanalyst, it can be possible to explore the meaning of this recurring dream and attempt to identify what in the person's daily life is causing them to have such disturbing anxiety dreams. 

Maybe they feel like they want to make a change in their life but do not feel like they can do so. Maybe they have found themselves in a situation they would like to get out of, like an unrewarding job or unhealthy relationship, but they are fearful of the consequences if they decide to finally leave and pursue another path. 

Collaborating with a therapist specializing in analyzing and interpreting dreams can help you gain a unique perspective on the significance of your dreams.

Other theories about anxiety dreams

It should be mentioned that the legitimacy of Freud’s interpretation of the meanings of dreams and the tradition of dream interpretation that has evolved from his work and the work of other theorists has been brought into question over the years. 

For example, G. William Domhoff, a researcher and professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, points out that “the brain's goal is always to construct a reasonable image of the world based on the material it's receiving. If you're in a situation where it's not receiving any information from the outside, then it starts to invent… dreaming is just a form of thinking with some subtle changes. It is because the brain is trying to construct a reasonable picture of the world with the information it has." 

In this theory, the purpose of our dreams is not to illuminate our deepest desires or fears as Freud proposed, but is simply a cognitive process that occurs in the absence of sensory stimuli, a mental “fill in the blank” that happens while we sleep. 

That being said, despite the controversy surrounding the work of Freud and his colleagues, many clinicians and dream researchers still find that exploring and analyzing a person’s dreams can be an invaluable tool to better understand a person's emotional and mental well-being. For example, over the past several years, the "threat simulation theory" of dreams has gained legitimacy and represents a middle ground between the purely cognitive theory highlighted by Domhoff, and the highly subjective theories of Freud and the psychoanalysts. 

Threat simulation theory proposes that our anxiety dreams are due to an evolutionary defense mechanism in which dreaming allows us to practice experiencing and confronting our fears within the safety of our minds. 

In the example used above about the recurring dream in which someone is fleeing a threatening situation but finds themselves unable to move, threat simulation theory proposes that this dream is the mind working through the fear, distress, and the uncertainty of a future confrontation so that when it comes time to address the issue in real life, the mind has had a chance to practice and work through the experience ahead of time.

Despite the various theories that attempt to explain the function of dreaming, it is undisputed that recurrent anxiety dreams can contribute to poor mental health.

For individuals who are experiencing high levels of stress in their lives, it is not uncommon for that stress to manifest during the nighttime hours through an increase in the frequency and severity of dysphoric dreams. Simply put, an increase in daytime stress often leads to a rise in unsettling anxiety dreams. 

Regular dreams vs. stress dreams 

Although we often do not recall our dreams upon waking, we actually dream every night. Our dreams primarily happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of our sleep cycle, which begins approximately ninety minutes after we fall asleep. We will come in and out of REM sleep throughout the night in ninety-minute intervals, and the longer we stay asleep, the more complex and prolonged the REM cycle becomes, and in turn, the more complex and vivid dreams we may have. 

This is most evident during the last several hours of our night of REM sleep and is why we are sometimes able to recall our dreams upon waking. 

During the REM cycle, a specialized set of neurons in our brain activate our visual cortex, causing us to visualize experiences while we are asleep. This is the reason why the sensory experience of dreaming is akin to watching a movie. Interestingly, this neural circuitry also acts to paralyze the body during dreaming, so that we do not jump out of bed and run out the front door during a stress dream about being chased. 

So what is the purpose of our dreams, if they serve any purpose at all? Sometimes our dreams are so strange and far-fetched that it is hard to imagine that they could mean anything.

Dheeraj Roy, a postdoctoral fellow at the McGovern Institute, explains that “during sleep, newly formed memories are gradually stabilized into a more permanent form of long-term storage in the brain.” Our dreams can then be seen as a processing center for our lived experiences via brain activity. Roy explains that dreams are made up of experiences, thoughts, emotions, places, and people that we have already encountered in our daily lives. Our dreams seem to be so strange because of the reorganization of these experiences into something new in our minds. 

Sometimes when we wake up in the morning, we can recall our dreams, including those which contained disturbing images and frightening revelations. Having anxiety dreams or any other type of bad dream (a distressing dream about the future, night terrors, or even pandemic dreams) is a common experience for many. 

About 80% of people report having had dreams where they are being attacked or chased. 

That being said, if your dreams become a persistent source of distress and begin to affect your ability to function daily, it may be time to consider seeking professional help.

Mental health and anxiety dreams 

According to the Harvard Medical School, dysphoric dreams can be caused by stress, anxiety, irregular sleep, medications, and a wide variety of mental health disorders. The most common mental health disorder associated with nightmares and anxiety dreams is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those with PTSD can suffer from nightmares that often involve events similar to the initial trauma they experienced. Anxiety dreams and nightmares have also been associated with acute stress disorder (ASD), a similar trauma-related associated mental health diagnosis to PTSD.

Anxiety dreams are also associated with insomnia, depression, panic and anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder

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The relationship between our dream life and our mental health can be seen as “bidirectional”, meaning that having anxiety or suffering from other mental health issues during the day can negatively affect our sleep and impact our dreams. 

Meanwhile, recurrent stress dreams can exacerbate a person's challenges while living with mental health issues. The best thing you can do for yourself if you are suffering from anxiety dreams regularly is to ask for help from a licensed mental health professional. 

The anxiety dreams you are experiencing may be a symptom of a more serious mental health issue. That being said, there are a few steps you can take on your own to help promote healthy sleep habits to avoid experiencing anxiety dreams. 

How to prevent anxiety dreams  

Create a buffer zone

Intentionally transition from your daytime activities to your sleep time. Take a shower or bath before winding down for the night, and try to engage in self-care activities 30-60 minutes before getting into bed.

Constructively worry

Use a journal to write down the worries and anxious thoughts that are on your mind before you go to bed. Try to find some solutions that you think might help tackle these issues, and write them down as well. Ideally, addressing your worries constructively and pragmatically before sleep will help alleviate the possibility that your mind will continue to dwell on your anxious thoughts throughout the night.

Dream journal

keep a record of when you have anxiety dreams, and what they are about. This may help you identify triggers that are causing you to struggle during your sleep hours. 

Practice good sleep hygiene

Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool. Avoid screen time for at least one hour before bedtime, and try to create a calming nighttime routine. 

How Charlie Health can help

Anxiety dreams can leave a person feeling uneasy and disoriented throughout the day. Having persistent anxiety dreams may be a sign that there is something you need to address in your day-to-day life that is affecting your emotional and mental well-being. The best way to get answers to your questions related to your anxiety dreams or any issues you might be having surrounding your mental health is to reach out to one of Charlie Health’s licensed therapists. Not only can they attempt to help you identify what may be causing your recurrent anxiety dreams, but they can also work with you to develop a plan of action to alleviate the likelihood of continuing to regularly experience them.

As this article highlights, there are several different reasons why a person may experience anxiety dreams, from something as innocent as a stressful situation at work or school to a more serious mental health diagnosis. With that in mind, it is best to not go forward alone in your journey toward addressing the source and meaning of your anxiety dreams. Consider reaching out today to Charlie Health to get guidance toward better sleep and mental health. Click the link here to get started. 

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