The subconscious mind is a pretty powerful thing, especially when it comes to dreams. More specifically, if you have anxiety-induced dreams, you might not know that they can also cause anxiety when you're awake. The good news is there are definitely tools available to help you if your dreams are causing waking anxiety. The first step is understanding how your conscious and subconscious mind influence one another.
"Typical anxiety dreams — a tornado, a tidal wave, earthquake, drowning — are very frightening experiences. In the dream, we believe the experience to be real and therefore the body reacts the same; the heart beat rises, we sweat, we get a pit in our stomach, we think we are going to die," Certified Dream Analyst Lauri Loewenberg tells Bustle. "Just like a real-life frightening experience, we carry the memory of the frightening dream experience with us afterward."
A 2018 study published in Scientific Reports found that peace of mind during waking hours has a direct connection to positive dreams while anxiety during waking hours is related to negative dreams. So if you are anxiety prone to begin with, the stress and anxiety in your dreams fuels your existing stress and anxiety even though that stress and anxiety is what triggered the dream in the first place. It's a vicious cycle, and one that's difficult — but not impossible — to break.
I've had anxiety dreams as long as I remember. When I was 4 years old, I began regularly having a dream that I was being chased by a giant ball of rolling darkness. While I no longer have this dream, the feeling of dread has never fully left me, which means I might have to engage in a little subconscious exploration myself. However, before doing a deep dive into dream anxiety, Loewenberg says it's important to know that even though they are connected to real-life issues, dreams are metaphorical.
"A rule of thumb to follow is: Never look at your dreams as literal. If you do, you will miss the message," she explains. "What is literal in a dream though is the emotion you experience because the emotion in the dream is connected to that same emotion you are having about something in your real life. If your dream is full of frustration, ask yourself what is frustrating you the most right now in real life. If your dream is sad, ask yourself what makes you sad right now in your real life."
She calls dreams "our built-in helpers," and says there is no reason to be afraid of a dream, even if it's causing you anxiety. Dreams are your mind's way of helping you address difficult issues, and they provide valuable opportunities to get to know yourself better.
If you're not sure where to start, there are things you can do before going to sleep to reduce your chances of riding the anxiety dream wave through the night and into the next day. Loewenberg recommends journaling before bed, specifically about things that bothered you or caused you stress during your day. After you've done that, she suggests asking yourself:
- How much of my mind and time is occupied by this?
- How much does this issue that is stressing me out matter?
- Will it matter a week from now? A month from now? A year from now?
- Is there anything I can do to correct the issue that is stressing me out?
"Sometimes we gave way too much energy and importance to things that simply don't matter," Loewenberg says. "Actively taking steps to correct what is troubling you takes a lot of the stress away because working on it gives you a sense of control."
In addition to journaling before bed, you can also keep a dream journal to record your dreams upon waking. "Keeping a dream journal along with a day journal will help you identify what happens during the day that causes the anxiety dreams at night," Loewenberg says.
She adds that when you record your anxiety dreams, you have the power to change the endings. "Remember, your dreams are a creation of your own mind so you have every right to recreate them any way you like."
Here's how that works: "If you dream you are drowning and can't get your head to the surface to take a breath, you could have Chris Hemsworth arrive in a speedboat, pull you out of the water, and take you to the shore of Maui where you join a party already in progress thrown by the Kardashians." If that's not your jam, replace Hemsworth and the Kardashians with things or people that give you all the positive feels.
"Create a positive and empowering outcome for every anxiety dream you have. By doing this you are basically reprogramming your subconscious to see the opportunity in struggles rather than the doom," Loewenberg says. This simple exercise allows you to take control of your dreams instead of letting them control you.
Finally, make sure you have a regular relaxation and clean sleeping routine. You can also practice meditation before bed and upon waking. If you're still feeling waking anxiety after trying all of these things, it might be time to talk to your doctor or a therapist about options for managing your stress and anxiety. Sometimes we need assistance to get through challenges, and the sooner you ask for help, the sooner you can start feeling better.
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