You’re back in high school and didn't study for a big test. You’re trying to run away from someone but your legs won’t move. Your teeth crumble. A snake appears. You’re naked and you shouldn’t be.
Stress dreams don’t all look the same, but one thing they all have in common is that they are legitimately stressful. Though the way we experience stress psychologically and physiologically might not be as intense in a dream state as it can be in a wakeful state, it’s real. What happens to your body when you have a stress dream is very similar to when you have a stressful experience IRL. According to Leora Trub, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Pace's Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released — which makes your heart beat faster, causes a heightening of the senses, raises your blood pressure, quickens your breathing, slows your digestion, and makes you sweat — whether the stressful scenario is real or not.
A 2013 study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine concluded that people who live with general anxiety disorder (over 3% of the population) are more likely to have anxious or stressful dreams. But in general, more than half of all dreams are negative or stressful, even if they don’t have lasting effects.
According to Trub, stress dreams are a message from the subconscious mind to the conscious mind, asking for some attention. “There are all kinds of ways our bodies convey we need assistance,” Trub says. “For some people it’s panic attacks, but for others it's stress dreams.” If the stress dreams are recurrent, “there is typically something in your waking life that you have been ignoring,” she says. Usually, people who have stress dreams have stress in their waking life. “They compound each other — our brain and mind are in a relationship,” she says. As a clinician, Trub says she believes dreams provide valuable data for you to look at in your waking life.
As for what to do about stress dreams, Trub says the first thing is to “avoid giving power to them.”
Stress dreams take place in the REM sleep cycle, when your body is still, and you are supposed to be at your most restful state. According to neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., it's physiologically jarring to wake from a dream in which you had visualized problems or memories that induced anxiety. Stress isn't just in the dream; it's what's for breakfast, too.
"We know that during a stress dream there are a number of changes in the brain, specifically the HPA axis (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis)," Hafeez says. "This system triggers real stress responses, so the dream you are waking up from can cause physical sensations that could take just moments to get over, or could have repercussions throughout the day in terms of anxiety and nervousness depending on the dream," she adds. When you experience recurring stress dreams, you have to factor lack of sleep into the equation, which Hafeez says increases the anxious response, making it harder to get over.
As for what to do about stress dreams, Trub says the first thing is to “avoid giving power to them” by obsessing over them analytically, as the initial goal is to calm yourself down right when you wake up. “If a psychological and physiological response is happening, you’re experiencing stress. And the feeling you have when you wake up and try to understand the circumstances of the dream is pure adrenaline," she says. “Before studying the dream, I encourage patients to regulate the physiological system and use techniques like mindfulness to make the dream’s power subside.” Then, once you feel calm, you can explore the dream in a productive way that isn’t fueled by a hormonal reaction. This order ensures that you’re not encouraging a stressful state.
If you’ve ruled out that your stress dreams are a result of sleep disturbances like sleep apnea, or physical disturbances like noise, and confronting your stress dreams isn’t reducing the intensity or frequency of the dreams, it's not a bad idea to seek outside help. “It can be a therapist, but it can also be a friend or family member. Talking to an objective collaborator about what you might not be thinking about or paying attention to is really helpful,” Trub says. “Often, discussion can unpack even the craziest dream and once you find that symbolic root of stress, the dream stops being relevant and they subside.”
Leora Trub, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Pace's Dyson College of Arts and Sciences.
Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., neuropsychologist practicing in New York City.