There is an undeniable link between emotions and dreams, and the relationship goes both ways. Evidence suggests sleeping and dreaming can help us resolve stressful emotions so we feel better when we wake up. Similarly, stressful emotions affect the way we dream. How exactly do dreams change when you're stressed, and why?
There is still no definitive, conclusive answer to what causes dreams, and science has proposed numerous theories to explain dreaming. Some believe dreams are a form of memory processing, while others say they're an extension of our thoughts during the hours we're awake. Still others say dreaming is our mind's attempt to work through challenging or negative thoughts in order to achieve psychological balance, and some research suggests dreams are the brain's efforts to prepare us for threats and obstacles.
While the exact relationship is still mysterious, there's one thing many of us will agree on: there is indeed some connection, and it's perhaps most evident when you're stressed out. With any of the aforementioned theories, stress will play a pivotal role. While the details will change based on who you talk to and the science is still very murky, various research has encountered a few interesting correlations. Here's what we've noticed about the relationship between stress and dreams thus far.
1. You Might Dream Less If You're Stressed
You've probably noticed that in times of increased stress, you sleep less. You lay away at night thinking of the worst possible things that could happen to you — how fun! For this reason, it's not uncommon for stress to make it harder to fall asleep. Because of this, you might dream less frequently.
However, once you do fall asleep, there's the chance that because your mind is so tired, you'll hit the REM stage faster and finally experience dreams. And when you do, there's a good chance they'll be more intense and vivid.
Stress might mean fewer dreams, but ones that feel more real.
2. Your Dreams May Be More Random
What's your mind like when you're stressed? Frantic. Racing. Jumping from one thought to the next to the next. It makes sense, then, that our dreams might look the same. People who suffer from stress might experience more random, less cohesive dreams that widely range in topic. This could go along with the theory that our dreams are an extension of our reality.
3. Stress-Affected Dreams May Affect Your Focus
Your brain wants to make sense of your thoughts, which is why you dream; and your brain wants to make sense of your dreams, too. Just like how scattered, stressful thinking can lead to scattered dreams, these dreams can in turn lead to more scattered thinking the next day, because your brain is trying to so hard remember and manage what you dreamt. On the other hand, a peaceful night's sleep could mean easy-going dreams and a smoother next day.
4. You Might Experience Specific Stress-Related Dreams
It's important to remember that very often, dreams shouldn't be taken literally. For instance, dreaming that someone died does not mean that person (or anyone else) is about to die. However, there are times where there could be a slight correlation between your stress and what you dream about. Common stress dreams include missing a plane, a tidal wave, falling, being chased, your teeth falling out, and being naked in public.
5. Stressful Dreams Might Still Be Good For You
Dreaming is good for us — science mostly agrees on this. While stress isn't, dreams affected by stress could still help us emotionally. It supports a healthy memory, helps you retain information, fight depression, and it means we're getting that deep, quality REM sleep.
6. You Might Have More Recurrent Dreams
You may have recognized some of the previously mentioned stress dreams in yourself; and if you experience them regularly, you're not alone. Stress can lead to recurrent dreams, pointing to unresolved problems or stressors in your life. Once again, it's important not to take dreams literally. Do you often dream of failing a test? You're in luck, because research has found this to be correlated with higher test scores. Negative dreams might very well signify a desire to succeed, so don't let the doom and gloom of your subconscious rain on your parade. What happens in real life could very well be the opposite.