On average, you have around five dreams every night. Ranging from pleasant or sensible to nasty or utter nonsense, your dreams give you a glimpse into the subconscious mind. Nearly all peaceful dreams let you sleep through the night, while stressful dreams wake you up mid-beauty sleep.
Have you been waking up in a panic every night?
Understanding your dreams is the first step to sleeping soundly. Read on to learn all about stress dreams, what they mean, and how you can get rid of them!
What Are Stress Dreams?
Whether you realize it or not, you dream every single night. Don’t believe it? This is because you usually don’t remember dreaming at all!
When you sleep, your body runs through cycles of non-REM and REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement, and it refers to the time our brains are most active during a sleep cycle. You go into REM sleep after periods of light and deep sleep, typically about 90 minutes after you drift off. Each REM period increases in duration, meaning that you dream more as the night goes on. At this sleep stage, your heart rate and breathing increase, your eyes flicker under your eyelids, and your brain is at its most active.
Waking up during REM sleep leaves you disoriented and groggy. And since stress dreams, which happen during REM sleep, often wake you, you will feel disoriented for a few minutes after your dream.
Stress Dreams Vs. Nightmares
Although there is some overlap, stress dreams are different from nightmares. They tend to be fast-paced but go nowhere, like a hamster on a wheel.
Stress dreams cause you to feel frustration, unease, and apprehension, but not fear. They are more organized than nightmares and might repeat night after night. Nightmares are gruesome, life-threatening, and often linked to traumatic experiences.
Nightmares wake you will a jolt or sudden rush of fear and terror. Stress dreams, on the other hand, wake you with a feeling of impending doom. Your senses feel heightened and your body feels as if it’s on high alert.
What Does a Stress Dream Do?
Stress dreams aren’t anyone’s idea of fun, but they often result in a cognitive gain. Research from 2013 found that stress dreaming about an exam correlated with higher test results. This study suggests that stressful dreams teach you ways to handle the real-life equivalent of your dream.
Other researchers feel differently, and believe that dreams have no real-world function. They believe that dreams are the result of your brain categorizing and organizing all information collected throughout your day.
Why Am I Having Stressful Dreams?
Every person has around the same number of stress dreams each night. The apparent correlation between anxiety and stress dreams is actually a difference in memory.
Anxiety and stress both have a negative impact on sleep quality. When you are living under constant stress or mental tension, you’re more likely to wake up during or after a stress dream, and therefore more likely to remember the dream.
Every time you wake up to escape a stress dream, your body reinforces that action. This unconscious mechanism, known as negative reinforcement, makes it difficult for people with anxiety to stay asleep during a stress dream. Stress and anxiety may also increase the severity of stress dreams, making it harder for you to sleep through them.
So, anxiety has no effect on the number of stress dreams you have each night. The same cannot be said for those who have experienced trauma. Traumatic experiences have a strong link to trauma-related stress dreams.
Why Am I Having the Same Dream Repeatedly?
Recurring stress dreams point to a situation that isn’t resolving. Constant stressors in your life will materialize in the same type of stress dream.
If you’ve noticed a pattern in your dreams, or have the same dream, it’s worth investigating where the dream originates from. Focus on the feeling the dream carries - is it frustration? Worry? Fear? Urgency? That overarching feeling is a clue that points to the dream’s origin.
What Does a Stress Dream Mean?
Most dreams don’t make a lot of sense. Some follow a coherent, mundane storyline, while others ramble and roam from one edge of sense to another. You could dream you went shopping for bread and a pencil, or turned into a winged turtle that had to explore your school campus to talk to your celebrity crush about the melting toilet paper. There
Although we don’t have concrete evidence that different stress dreams are the result of specific emotions or scenarios, many people believe that every dream has some real-life consequence or meaning.
Ready to analyze your dreams?
Here are the 15 most common stress dreams and what they say about you:
If you dream about falling off a tall building, cliff, or even through water, and you can’t save yourself, this may indicate you’re in a situation that’s heading south. You might’ve been in this situation for years as it spiraled downwards and moved more and more out of your control.
This type of stress dream indicates a lack of security and control.
If all you can do while falling is scream, you’re dreaming about deep and unavoidable failure. Your mental health might be hitting rock bottom, an important relationship could be on the verge of ending, or you could be heading towards being fired at work.
2. Being Chased
Many nightmares involve running away from something terrifying and not being able to go fast enough. Often, you won't know or see what is chasing you; you just know you have to get away. A stress dream about something chasing you has less dread attached to it, but still leaves you feeling panicky and anxious.
This type of dream indicates you are avoiding something in your life.
What you’re running from is specific to your connotations and situations. For example, you dream about a bear chasing you. A person who has a healthy respect for bears will have a very different dream interpretation than someone attacked by bears as a child.
If you’ve been dreaming of running away, can you figure out what you’re avoiding in real life?
3. Losing Your Teeth
In dream interpretations, teeth are a symbol of power. If you dream about your teeth falling out, a dentist pulling them out, or having them crumble as you bite into something, it might point to a situation you feel powerless to change.
This type of dream indicates a problem you cannot figure out or solve.
This problem could be anything from the death of a loved one to the loss of your job. Anything that has caused you high psychological stress.
Find ways to alleviate or direct the intense emotions you feel. You cannot change the situation, but you can work to change your mindset surrounding it. Go for grief counseling and talk to people in similar situations. Letting yourself feel all your emotions gives your brain the chance to make sense of big changes in your life. This is essential to make peace with the situation.
4. Running Late
Whether it’s missing flights or walking into a meeting half an hour after it starts, running late is a common type of stress dream.
This type of dream indicates a feeling unprepared or overwhelmed by something in your life.
Dreams about rushing to meet a deadline draws a parallel with situations or people in your life that have demands you cannot meet. In dreams, work symbolizes your livelihood, finances, and greater purpose. If you aren’t reaching your work or personal goals, your dreams will overflow with late meetings, missing deadlines, and overdue tasks.
To combat feeling unprepared, look at how you can better manage your time and prioritize going to sleep early. Good time management breeds efficiency, which gives you more time to figure out an actionable plan to meet your goals.
5. Being Naked in Public
There are few people who can say they’ve never dreamed of being naked in public. As one of the most easily-explained stress dreams, this one leaves you feeling exposed and uneasy.
This type of dream indicates feelings of embarrassment, shame, or a fear of vulnerability.
When your dream self has no clothes on, it illustrates your emotional vulnerability. Dreaming of nakedness has a strong link to issues with private matters such as intimacy and trust.
If you’re a naturally closed-off person, emotional vulnerability is extremely foreign and anxiety-inducing. It can feel embarrassing to open yourself up and let someone see your "weak” side.
Remind yourself that intimacy is a good thing! You can’t build strong relationships if you hold people at arm’s length. Keep putting yourself just outside your comfort zone to experience the benefits of radical honesty and deep trust.
6. Losing Something Valuable
Valuable objects in your dreams symbolize values and ideals that are important to you. When you dream about losing something, like a wallet or piece of jewelry, you may be feeling as if you’re compromising on what matters to you.
This type of dream indicates you’ve lost sight of what’s actually important to you.
These stress dreams are common after losing a loved one or going through an emotion-heavy experience. Situations like those force you to see where you’ve been compromising on your values and deeply-held beliefs.
As an exercise, take the time to define and write down your values. Then, realize which of these you’ve been ignoring, avoiding, or compromising on. Once you know the source of this dream, you can work to refocus on what’s important. Take time off work if you want to dive deeper into how your stress has impacted your priorities.
7. Losing Control of a Vehicle
Dreams about driving can be adventurous and fun, or stressful and scary. If you’re dreaming about losing control of your car, it points to a feeling of powerlessness in your life.
This type of dream indicates a lack of control or sense of responsibility.
Is there a situation where you don’t feel you can take responsibility for yourself? Losing control of a dream-car illustrates that anxiety. You’re worried that if you take control, everything will go wrong.
Analyze why you feel anxious about taking control. Are you unconfident in your abilities? Do you have too much else on your plate at the moment? Finding the root of your unease is the only way to resolve the power struggle in your dreams.
If someone else is driving the vehicle, this may indicate you don’t want to hand over control. The thought of someone else impacting your destiny terrifies you, and it feels like giving them control will derail you entirely. This may be a justified fear, so talk to people that you trust and get their opinions. Then, you can make the decision to either hand over control or make sure that that doesn’t happen.
8. Tidal Waves
In dreams, water often symbolizes your emotions. When you dream about water that towers over you, you may find it’s because your emotions are getting big, too.
This type of dream indicates feeling overwhelmed by unaddressed emotion.
You're overwhelmed by too many tasks and responsibilities, and they’re about to crash down and sweep you away. Your emotions cannot handle the pressure you’re under; you feel heavy and tired every day.
Managing dreams about tidal waves is closely linked to finding ways to make your life simpler. Ask for help when you need it, be honest when you aren’t coping, and learn to say no every once in a while.
9. The World Ending
Also called “Armageddon dreams”, dreams about the end of the world stem from physiological and/or emotional stress. If something in your life is putting too much pressure on your emotions, your subconscious mind conjures up images of the world ending.
This type of dream indicates a deep internal struggle.
Going through a tough situation uses up all your strength and focus. This leaves behind the feeling that you are fighting against the world, completely alone.
Turn to your loved ones and talk to them about how you’re feeling. Ask them for help and advice for making a tough decision or dealing with conflict. When you have help, the pressure will ease enough for you to sleep the night through.
10. House Burning Down
If you’re dreaming about your house burning down, your mind is overloaded with stress. You may dream about your childhood home instead of your current one!
This type of dream indicates you’re under extreme stress and feel overwhelmed.
In dreams, your house symbolizes your place of refuge. It represents your state of mind, everything you treasure, and your personality. Extreme stress can rob you of inner peace and take away your ability to feel safe and relaxed.
Essentially, your comfort is burning to the ground.
Try to find ways to offload big stressors and reduce the stress you’re under each day. Learning how to delegate is an important part of looking after yourself and preventing dreams of house fires!
11. Failing a Test
Dreams about school stem from real-life work stress, even more than dreams about your job do! If you’re dreaming about failing a test, your dreams visualize that stress using past playgrounds and classrooms.
This type of dream indicates an inadequacy or insecurity about your job.
If you dream about failing a test, some part of you is worrying that you aren’t performing well enough at your job. Working as a freelancer? Maybe you aren’t making enough money to cover your expenses. Haven’t received a promotion in a while? Your skillset may have turned stagnant over the years.
Think of areas in your job you feel unhappy with. This could be anything from a project you worked on to a conversation with your boss. Improving your quality of work and mending work relationships is the best way to have less school-based stress dreams.
12. Forgetting Something Important
Forgetfulness in dreams is more about the feeling you get once you realize you’ve forgotten something. The actual thing you forget doesn’t matter at all!
This type of dream indicates a high-pressure, high-stakes situation.
Whether you’re planning an enormous event or an important conversation, you’re feeling the pressure. Work on setting boundaries to keep the event or relationship from taking up too much of your energy and resources.
13. Trying and Failing to Do Something
This dream draws most of its inspiration from real-life issues. You can dream about trying and failing to do a task that’s either mundane or spectacular.
This type of dream indicates that something isn’t working the way you expected it to.
Is your toddler still refusing to eat carrots? Have you spoken to your boss repeatedly about a promotion with no results? Are your constant reminders about not leaving wet towels on the floor falling on deaf ears? Your subconscious mind latches onto that frustration.
Remember that you sometimes need to approach a situation differently if you want different results. If you’re dealing with a person, ask them how you can handle the situation to get the result you want. If that doesn’t work, find a self-help book aimed at your particular situation for some advice!
Those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder dream about tornadoes more frequently than the average person. If you have GAD, you often find yourself overthinking at night and struggling to stay asleep.
Tornado dreams are fast-paced and characterized by extreme stress.
This type of dream indicates a feeling of constant worry.
Find ways to minimize your anxiety. You can use meditation methods, physical movement, or medication to manage your worries.
You must also work to pinpoint the biggest source of worry in your life. Can you change the situation? Do you have behaviors that elevate that worry?
Next, find ways to ease your anxiety. Create a cozy bedroom sanctuary, go for counseling, or work on anxiety-management techniques to stay calm and cool throughout the day.
Remember how water in dreams links to your emotions? Dreams of drowning are very similar to panic attacks: there’s pressure on your chest and it’s difficult to breathe.
This type of dream indicates excessive worry and panic.
Dreaming of drowning is incredibly unpleasant, and often ends when you’ve died in your dream. Consider talking to a therapist or counselor to work through your worries and help you dream of swimming instead of drowning.
How to Prevent Stress Dreams
If you’re a stress dreamer that wants to sleep through the night instead of waking up in a panic, there are several treatment options you can explore.
Non-pharmaceutical treatment options focus on shifting your perspective on stressful situations and training yourself to remain asleep during a stress dream.
Image Rehearsal Therapy
To use this method, you try to remember your stress dream in extreme detail. You then write your dream down in a way that minimizes the stress, discomfort, or anxiety.
Doing this several times a day trains your brain to see your stress dream as something manageable and non-threatening.
Dr. Tracey Marks goes over this and other tips in this video.
Stay Asleep During a Stress Dream
Since you’ll only remember your dream if you wake up in the middle of it, staying asleep is the best way to “not have them”.
If you realize you’re dreaming about something stressful, let yourself remain in the dream. By getting to the end of your dream, you’ll stay asleep and forget the dream entirely!
Work to improve your quality of sleep to decrease your chances of waking up during the night and remembering unpleasant stress dreams.
Journaling Before Bed
It can be helpful to journal before heading off to dreamland.
Writing about your emotions and daily stressors gives your brain time to organize and compartmentalize different aspects of your life. Once organized, you can start finding ways to work through sources of stress.
With constructive steps in mind, you’ll find it easier to resolve stressful situations and therefore decrease your chances of having stress dreams.
Get yourself into a peaceful frame of mind before going to bed. Doing a guided sleep meditation is another great way to relax before bed so you can sleep the whole night through.
You can also use meditation to guide you back to sleep if you wake up during a stress dream.
Here's a good guided meditation to help you sleep. Try playing it on your phone when you lay down for bed.
Understanding Your Dreams Is the First Step to a Good Night’s Sleep
Although they can be unpleasant, stress dreams are powerful tools that you can use to analyze your emotions. Pay attention to each dream and you’ll find clues about what’s really going on in your head.
When you monitor your dreaming habits, you’ll be able to pinpoint the main stress points in your life. This tells you where to begin your journey to a more stress-free life (and stress-free sleep!)
Hopefully, you now know all about stress dreams, where they come from, and what they mean. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out our blog for more tips on staying mellow while you’re awake or dreaming.