10 Common Dreams That Are Actually Caused By Anxiety

Including those awful dreams about falling.

by Brittany Bennett
Originally Published: 

Everyone knows the feeling. You're in the depths of a deep snooze when, all of a sudden, you feel like you're submerged in water. And now you're falling down a steep staircase. And now a snake is trailing you? All at once? Isn't sleep a time for relaxation?! At times, anxieties can haunt you in your dreams, and make themselves known in strange ways — and in fact, there are some common dreams that are caused by anxiety, which each have their own distinctive meanings.

Read more: What Do Dreams About Cats Mean? Here's What Experts Say

The recommended amount of sleep is eight hours in order to feel properly rested. But if you're stressing in your dreams, you're hardly getting any of that coveted rest — especially with the added anxiety and pressures of the pandemic. From doomscrolling to wondering when life will get back to “normal,” your daily worries could be manifesting themselves as stress dreams.

"Anxiety dreams are more than just anxiety related. Our dreams are a way for us to process information from the day, the week, the month, and the years. They are also a way to process thoughts and feelings that are front of mind by attaching them to stories," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. clinical psychologist and host of 'The Kurre and Klapow Show' tells Bustle. They can either be related directly to an event that's actually happening in our lives or be more symbolic. Whether or not it's reflecting an actual event, the dream is representing a real emotion.

Common dreams that you have can indicate general fears and anxieties, but mean something completely personal to the dreamer. "Focus on the emotion in the dream and ask yourself if that emotion in the dream is consistent with what is going on in your life," Klapow says. In the long run, you can learn something from your anxiety dreams — mainly, pinpointing the problem your subconscious dredges up so you can actually get restful sleep. Read ahead for a stress dream dictionary to help you decode your unpleasant night thoughts.


Being Chased

This is a nightmare. You're being chased and suddenly you forget how to run. Or your legs turn to slow-motion mush. Or you find a cool rock to duck behind to hide. Or, you're just being pursued by a monster or zombie. Either outcome of what your dream self chooses to do means you're stressing. "This is usually a reflection of feeling unsafe, or on a deeper level, that the challenges or anxieties in one’s life feel like they’re catching up to us. If we’re not dealing with our stressors or worries and attempt to avoid them, they can show up symbolized as our pursuer," Rev. Connie L. Habash, MA, LMFT and author of Awakening From Anxiety tells Bustle.

Take a step back upon awaking, and ask yourself what's been stressing you out to face it — responsibly and to your comfort — to help avoid this dream in the future.


Teeth Falling Out

According to a 2018 study, dreams of your teeth falling out are amongst the most commonly shared stress dreams people experience. But of course, no one dream has a single definition. Because teeth are presented on your face, it can be theorized that dreaming about them falling out has a lot to do with anxieties of how you’re perceived as well as a fear of rejection.

Habash tells Bustle, "When we dream of our teeth falling out, it’s another manifestation of worry or fear – usually based in the loss of control. When we have no teeth, we feel we can’t ‘bite’ into life. It’s a very powerless experience. Exploring ways that we can feel more empowered, whether through making decisions that we have been avoiding or creating a positive change, can help shift us from feeling out of control to having volition in our lives." Rest assured knowing that your teeth are still in your head. And if you're worried about their health, visit your dentist!


Appearing Naked In Public


Ah, yes, the dreaded forgot-my-pants-at-home-but-now-I'm-in-public debacle. This could mean that you have stress and anxiety surrounding perceived shortcomings. "This is often an out-picturing of the feeling of vulnerability, of being exposed," Habash shares with Bustle. She continues, "It helps to have a good friend or a therapist who can listen to you and compassionately support you as you express vulnerable emotions, so that you can feel safe in sharing vulnerability." There's no shame in sharing anxieties with those who you trust. Especially if you keep dreaming about being naked in public.



What an annoying dream. You're slowly, calmly drifting into a sleep when all of a sudden a staircase appears that's so steep you just have to fall down it, shoot awake and catch your breath all at once. Welcome to your next eight hours of sleep! According to the site Dream Dictionary, the average person will dream about falling to their demise "more than five times in their life," according to research. These types of dreams often are linked to feelings of losing control over a certain situation.

Those quick falling dreams in which you jerk yourself awake? Those have a name. It's called a "hypnagogic jerk" and it's a muscle spasm. It happens to most people, stressed or not, but, if you're "suffering from stress, depression, anxiety," you could experience these spasms turned stress dreams during REM sleep.


Being Underwater Or Facing A Large Wave

Is something changing in your life that's causing subconscious stress? The Dream Well explained on its site, "If we look at water in our dreams as a symbol of our emotions and feelings, part of our inner world, then tidal waves can be like our emotions welling up and getting a little out of control." If you're imagining yourself under the weight of a large wave or body of water this could mean that you're feeling under a lot of pressure. Maybe meditate before bed.


The World Ending

Dreaming about the doom of the world you live in is the opposite of a relaxing night's sleep. According to the site Dreams Cloud, "Dreaming of an apocalypse or that the world is coming to an end may represent dealing with a major transition or life changing event. Your life, as you currently know it, is coming to an end." Even though things aren't actually going to end, a major life change can feel like the final conclusion in a lot of ways leading to anxious dreams.


Forgetting Something Important


You're on stage, at a Broadway performance, and you totally forgot you were part of the show, and you now have no idea what your lines are or what stage directions mean. If you were ever in a high school musical, you've probably experienced this dream once or 10 times. But you don't have to be a performer to have anxiety dreams about forgetting something important. You could be dreaming about a "high pressure event," Habash tells Bustle. This could "indicate too much stress and pressure in your life." To avoid recurring anxiety dreams about planning a wedding or work event where everything goes wrong? You might "benefit from setting some boundaries or delegating" in your waking life, Habash suggests.


Being Late

If you take pride in showing up early for commitments, traffic delays are pretty much your mortal enemy. Dreaming about being late is just as stressful. Dream Stop said on its site, "It signifies the anxieties and pressures you have in real life. You may be afraid of missing an important opportunity. It can also mean there are big changes coming you should embrace rather than fear." Release yourself from the shackles of stress dreams and self-induced pressure and relax, confident in your ability to wake up on time and be prompt for events.


Driving Out Of Control

Sometimes you might dream that you're in a car you have no control over. You could be in a car that nobody is driving as it navigates a coastline. So much for sweet dreams, right? According to Dream Cloud, dreaming of being a passenger could mean, "you may be allowing someone else to control you or your life; or you may be feeling you have no control over your life; or you may not be taking responsibility for your actions." Grab the steering wheel of your own life and find roads you're more comfortable with!


People Are Laughing At You

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We all fear that point and laugh humiliation. And sometimes laughing in a dream can be a good thing. But surprisingly it can be a sign of anxiety dreams, too. Per Dream Stop, "Are you afraid of being ridiculed? Is there something you feel ashamed of? Hearing a group of people laughing can mean there are those who are waiting and wishing for you to fail." Your anxieties can have a lot to do with the people you surround yourself with and what you think they think of you.

Studies referenced:

Edwards, C. L., Ruby, P. M., Malinowski, J. E., Bennett, P. D., & Blagrove, M. T. (2013). Dreaming and insight. Frontiers in psychology, 4, 979. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00979

Rek, S., Sheaves, B., & Freeman, D. (2017). Nightmares in the general population: identifying potential causal factors. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 52(9), 1123–1133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-017-1408-7

Rozen, N., & Soffer-Dudek, N. (2018). Dreams of Teeth Falling Out: An Empirical Investigation of Physiological and Psychological Correlates. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1812. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01812

Sathe, H., Karia, S., Desousa, A., & Shah, N. (2015). Hypnic jerks possibly induced by escitalopram. Journal of neurosciences in rural practice, 6(3), 423–424. https://doi.org/10.4103/0976-3147.158797

Schredl, M., & Göritz, A. S. (2018). Nightmare Themes: An Online Study of Most Recent Nightmares and Childhood Nightmares. Journal of clinical sleep medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 14(3), 465–471. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.7002

Soffer-Dudek N. Arousal in Nocturnal Consciousness: How Dream- and Sleep-Experiences May Inform Us of Poor Sleep Quality, Stress, and Psychopathology. Front Psychol. 2017 May 10;8:733. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00733. PMID: 28539902; PMCID: PMC5423938.

Trajanovic NN, Shapiro CM, Milovanovic S. (2013) Sleep-laughing--hypnogely. Can J Neurol Sci. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23786736/

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Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of ‘The Kurre and Klapow Show'

Rev. Connie L. Habash, MA, LMFT and author of Awakening From Anxiety

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