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Waking up after a good night’s sleep can leave you feeling rested and restored, ready to take on the day. However, when we are asleep, our brains remain active throughout the night, and some of our sleep contains vivid, structured thoughts known as dreams. We all dream every night, even though for the majority of us, when we wake up, we often don’t remember much about our dreams; as much as 95% of all dreams are quickly forgotten shortly after waking.
Our dreams occur during a stage of sleep that is called REM sleep. REM sleep occurs in short episodes across the night, each about 90 minutes apart. It is unusual for dreams to occur soon after falling asleep since the first cycle of REM sleep is usually around 90 minutes after falling asleep. They then occur at approximately 90-minute intervals during sleep and are most complex and prolonged in the later REM sleep episodes towards the end of the night. When we dream, each one typically lasts for between five to 20 minutes; our longer dreams are in the few hours before we wake up.
During REM sleep many of our muscles relax completely and this prevents us from acting out our dreams. If this system doesn’t work properly, then we may try to act out our dreams, especially if the dreams involve strong emotions. Many people have bad dreams or nightmares; although these can be recurring, people can subconsciously change the events or outcomes in these dreams to be less frightening.
When we are awake the front part of our brain controls how we make sense of the world. This shuts down during dreaming. Because of this, the dreaming brain puts together ideas that normally do not go together. About two thirds of dreams are mainly visual, with fewer that involve sounds, movement, taste or smell, and it has been said that when we are awake, we think in ideas, but when asleep we think in pictures.
Colour is only in about a third of all dreams. In studies where dreamers have been awakened and asked to select colours from a chart that match those in their dreams, soft pastel colours are the most frequently chosen. People who are under the age of 25 rarely report dreaming in black and white. People over the age of 55, however, report black and white dreams about 25% of the time. Researchers believe that this difference is a result of childhood exposure to black and white television. This idea is supported by an older study, which found that people in the 1940s rarely reported dreaming in colour.
What are stress dreams?
Sometimes, when we are feeling anxious during the day, our stress can penetrate into our dreams too. Far from being restful, we wake up still feeling tired and tense after what has probably been a disturbed night. Stress dreams are purely a symptom of anxiety or worry.
Stress dreams are unpleasant dreams that cause distress or frustration. They can be more off-putting than nightmares, which are generally frightening, but we often wake up relieved it was just a dream, whereas stress dreams are often fast-paced and go nowhere and can result in waking up panicked or nervous. These feelings of anguish tend to remain in the mind throughout the next day.
When we haven’t quite resolved issues or concerns during the daytime, our minds process these worries overnight and this results in stress dreams.
What are the different types of stress dreams?
While some dreams can be quite literal, stress dreams can generally be symbolic, so dreaming about your car breaking down doesn’t necessarily mean that you are stressed about your car. Since stress dreams arise from stressful situations in our waking lives, they will look a little different for everyone, although the themes can be common. Finding out what is causing your stress and anxiety is the key to interrupting your stress dreams.
Some of the most typical stress dreams and commonplace interpretations include:
Teeth falling out
This is one of the most common stress dreams, and one that has different interpretations. Some of the most common interpretations of this dream include being worried about your appearance, jealousy, your self-esteem is suffering, or powerlessness. Typically, these dreams stem from a fear or rejection, embarrassment or feeling unattractive. Dreaming that you are losing your teeth can also relate to communication. When you are missing your teeth, you will find it more difficult to talk. Therefore, your dream might be highlighting some difficulty communicating with someone or expressing yourself in some way. This sort of dream is caused by extreme stress or anxiety. It has also been tied to personal loss, whether that is the death of someone close to you or the loss of a job or home.
Perhaps one of the most unpleasant stress dreams you can have is one where you are drowning. The meaning of this dream is self-explanatory, when we say “we are drowning” it means we are stressed and overwhelmed by something.
Cars in our dreams can represent our drive, and the direction we are taking in life. If you dream of your car losing control you may feel that you are off track and need to get back on the road to keep going. If you lose control with someone you know driving the car, you might feel you need to get them back on track. The person driving will help you to understand who is controlling your direction. Other car problems, whether that be faulty brakes or an uncontrollable steering wheel, could be related to something in your life. If you’re losing control of something in your life, you tend to feel helpless and that feeling may emerge in your dreams in the form of car problems.
Can’t find a toilet
When you have a dream where you can’t find the toilet, this can relate to something in your waking life where you may be struggling to express your needs in a certain situation. You might feel that, as you are putting others first, you are lacking time for personal issues.
Running away from something or being chased in your dream suggests that you are running away from something that is causing you fear or anxiety in waking life. Your action of running in your sleep suggests that is how you would respond to pressure and cope with stress or fears day-to-day. Social anxiety disorder (SAD) has been associated with frequent dreams of being chased, as those with SAD often avoid social interactions. This can be a recurring dream until you find the issue and resolve it in your waking life.
Dreaming of being able to fly in your dream can be interpreted in many ways. A tough time flying in your dream suggests that someone or something is stopping you from moving to the next step in your life. If you are unable to fly it suggests that you might be struggling to meet the high goals you set for yourself. Similarly, being alone and struggling to fly implies that you are lacking confidence within yourself.
Back at school
Returning to school dreams are frequently related to job stress. School was our first job, and we learned responsibility. It makes sense that as adults our job stress would mimic our school days.
When falling in your dream and being overcome with fear, it signifies insecurity and anxiety about a situation. Falling dreams can jolt you awake and leave your heart racing. These dreams indicate that you may be hanging on too tightly to a particular situation in waking life. Dreams like this can also represent a loss of control. If you experience falling dreams frequently, take a look at your career, school work, or personal relationships. Are you holding a grudge against someone? Do you feel you are falling behind in school? Either of these situations could play out in your dreams as falling. You need to relax and let go of it. If you are happily free falling it suggests you are not afraid of changes and you are ready to embrace the beauty of it.
Dreaming of missing a bus, plane, or another mode of transport can feel so realistic that you wake up questioning whether or not it was real. This type of dream can be unsettling. However, it is typically related to feelings of time pressure in your real life. Take a look at the various aspects of your life and try to pinpoint where you may be feeling the most pressure. Dreaming that you are late represents your worry and anxiety about taking a different direction in your waking life. You may not be 100% confident about making a change. Your unconscious is telling you that it is never too late to do the things you want in life.
Snake dreams have long been discussed in the public realm by ancient dream experts and more modern psychoanalysts such as Carl Jung. The most agreed-upon meaning centres around oppression and paralysis, linked to the feeling of being constricted. More positive meanings include the feeling of change on the horizon; this is generally linked to the idea from certain cultures that snake venom is transformative.
Hair falling out
Dreams about your hair falling out often centre around feelings of loss. This can be metaphorical, for example the loss of youth, or something more physical, perhaps you have recently bought an expensive item and have anxiety about losing it? These dreams can also signify a sense of anxiety so it is worth considering ways to reflect on what may be causing that.
Dreams of feeling unprepared for an exam are commonly linked to young adults or children who are under stress but adults can dream them too. They can feel so real that we wake up convinced that we just failed an important test. Test dreams are a reflection of the individual’s lack of confidence and inability to advance to the next stage in life. This can be anything from a big presentation to putting yourself out there to get a promotion.
Being naked in public
If you frequently dream of being naked in public, it could be related to feelings of inferiority, embarrassment, or anxiety over how others perceive you. If you are not the naked person in the dream but you see a nude person and are sickened by it, the dream may mean you are worried about exposing that person over a particular issue.
Dream meanings are presented in a metaphoric fashion, and the interpretations of the most common dreams are not black and white. Remember when you are trying to figure out the meaning of your dreams that it is your unconscious trying to tell you something. Stress dreams are not fun, but they can offer a wake-up call about the parts of your regular life that need more attention.
What causes stress dreams?
Our dreams are often linked to real-life events from the past. Generally, these are events or thoughts from a day or two before the dream. The most common emotion experienced in dreams is anxiety, and negative emotions, in general, are much more common than positive ones in dreams.
Research suggests that stress could lead to an increase in REM sleep due to a problem regulating the stress hormone corticosterone. Some of the most common potential causes of stress impacting your dreams could include, but are not limited to:
- Pressures of work.
- Exam stress.
- Money worries.
- Disrupted sleep schedule.
- Major life changes or events, such as weddings or divorce or redundancy or loss / bereavement.
- Past or present trauma.
- Use of substances, such as alcohol.
- Living with certain mental health conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder.
For some people, they do not realise that circumstances are causing them stress during their waking hours as they are functioning as normal and not noticing any adverse effects; however, the stress manifests at night during their dreams.
Are stress dreams common?
Stress dreams are particularly common when we are feeling anxious, stressed, or under pressure during our day-to-day life. Since we are living in anxious times, with COVID, cost of living crisis, foreign wars etc., it is no surprise that there has been a surge in strange and stressful dreams.
Who is more at risk of having stress dreams?
Research has found that women overall and people with generalised anxiety disorder tend to have significantly more stress dreams, including dreams of trauma, according to a 2021 study involving 20,013 adults. People who feel frustrated because their psychological needs are not being met, likewise tend to have more stress dream themes.
However, it is likely that anyone experiencing stress and anxiety in their waking life will experience stress dreams in their sleeping life, although many of these people may not remember the content of their dreams; they just wake feeling tired rather than refreshed.
Why are stress dreams experienced?
Science isn’t entirely clear about why exactly we dream. Experts in the fields of neuroscience and psychology continue to conduct experiments to discover what is happening in the brain during sleep, but even with ongoing research, it may be impossible to conclusively prove any theory for why we dream.
The link between stress and sleep is clear – stress leads to poor sleep and poor sleep can cause stress. It makes sense that stress / poor sleep would cause stress dreams. Some experts believe dreams play a role in emotional regulation and that the dream’s narratives serve as a form of offline processing of our daytime dramas.
If you have a recurring stressor in your waking life, it is likely to show up in your dreams more frequently and often in the same way. Take stress dreams as a sign you should give yourself some time off to recoup, take something off your plate, or practise healthy ways of dealing with stress.
Can stress dreams be prevented?
There is no way to stop stress dreams entirely as we can’t control where our minds go at night when we are dreaming, but we can manage our stress and anxiety. Since we tend to dream about what we repress, it is no use trying to ignore your stress altogether. Set aside a specific time to reflect before going to bed. It can be helpful to note down what it is that is stressing you out at night, to help get it out of your head before you go to bed.
It can be really helpful to use the awareness of your stress dreams to find an answer to whatever it is that is causing you stress and anxiety in your waking life. You can quite literally ask your dream, “What do you represent?” or “What do I need to do?”
Anything that you can do to reduce the stress in your waking life should help to keep it from creeping into your dreams.
How can stress dreams be managed?
Of course, stress dreams can have a negative effect on the quality and quantity of sleep you get. Maybe you can’t fall back to sleep after having a stress dream, afraid of having the unpleasant dream continue. You also may have fragmented sleep if you awake from several upsetting dreams in a given night, which can leave you bleary-eyed and tired the next day. Losing quality sleep on a regular basis can have negative effects on mental function, mood, weight and glucose tolerance, blood pressure, and other aspects of your health. So prioritising good sleep quality is really important and it can also help make your dreams a little less stressful.
Healthy sleep tips include:
- Wind down each night – Exercising during the day can help you sleep better at night. In the evening, try to allow your mind and body to calmly relax before bed such as with light stretching, deep breathing, or other relaxation techniques.
- De-stress and relax your mind – Doing a sporting activity two or three times a week will help to release any tension that you could be carrying home. Reading a good book is another option that can help you unwind and de-stress, but for obvious reasons avoid horror stories, thrillers and anything else that will stimulate your imagination and could lead to bad dreams.
- Avoid large meals late in the evening – Eating a big meal before bed, you may experience indigestion or heartburn and this may contribute to stressful dreams. You should allow 2–3 hours between the last main meal of the day and going to bed. A small bedtime snack is fine. Having meals at the same times each day will help keep your body clock stable.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime – Caffeine is a drug that acts as a stimulant, both mentally and physically. It is found in many drinks and foods that are common in our everyday life. These include tea, coffee, chocolate and cola drinks. It can make it harder to go to sleep and can make you sleep more lightly and wake up more often during the night. Although alcohol will make you feel sleepy and may help you fall asleep at night, it actually disrupts your sleep later. Drinking alcohol is associated with more frequent awakenings, night sweats, distressing dreams and headaches and is much less restful. It is best to avoid alcohol for at least 4 hours before bedtime.
- Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including at the weekend – When you have a consistent sleep schedule, your body naturally adjusts and begins to feel tired at just the right time each day. This cuts down the amount of time you will spend waiting to fall asleep. Establishing sleep habits is a great way to make yourself feel more energetic, alert and productive which help you deal with waking stressors. It might take a week or more for your mind and body to adapt to your new sleep cycle, but the results, from mental clarity to physical energy, are more than worth it.
- Create a calming sleep environment – It is possible to eliminate many minor sleep problems by creating a comfortable sleep environment, establishing a calming pre-sleep routine and limiting light exposure in the evening. Ensure that your bedroom is at the right temperature; the ideal sleep temperature is 15–19°C. The more comfortable your bed and bedroom are, the more likely you are to enjoy a peaceful sleep.
- Avoid napping – Napping after 3 p.m. can be disruptive to your sleep. Also, nap duration is an important consideration. Napping for more than 30 minutes can lead to deep sleep that creates feelings of confusion and grogginess after waking that may last for hours. Shorter naps, on the other hand, make you feel refreshed without the cognitive impairment.
- Practise mindfulness – Mindfulness can quiet the brain and allow for deeper sleep. Mindfulness meditation prepares your mind for drifting off to sleep, and it can also improve sleep quality.
Can stress dreams be treated?
If none of the above sleep hygiene tips are helping to relieve your stress dreams, medical treatment will depend upon what may be causing the stress dreams. A GP may recommend psychological treatment such as counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). However, in most cases treatment will usually involve trying to manage the stress or anxiety better. Anyone having problems will frequent stress dreams that are interfering with their day-to-day lives should speak to their GP.
Dreams are our unconscious thoughts playing out, so in order to get to the bottom of what may be causing your stress dreams, it is important to take a look at your life and figure out what may be causing you stress. How can you resolve the issue? Who can help you? When a negative or upsetting situation or behaviour is resolved or corrected, the dream connected to it nearly always stops.