Stress dreams can ruin your entire night and leave your stomach churning. If you wake up anxious regularly, you might be wondering if you can control stress dreams, or banish them from your head. After all, who needs to relive the horrors of high school exams night after night after night?
The kind of stress dream you're having affects how you might be able to deal with them. "There are two types of stress dreams," Neil Stanley Ph.D., a sleep research expert, tells Bustle. "One is a recurring dream that has the same narrative structure every night, and revolves around a particular event that would be stressful for you in real life." This, he says, is the kind of anxiety dream that has a clear meaning. Some researchers believe this is a positive aspect of nightmares and stressful dreams, in that they may be teaching us how to cope with scary events if they happen in the real world.
The other sort of stress dreams are those that you remember simply because you're under pressure in your waking life. "We can only remember our dreams if we wake during them," Stanley says. "We usually have four to five dreams a night, but may only remember one or two of them." You may remember more dreams when you're anxious because that can cause sleep disturbances, making you wake up. A meta-analysis published in International Journal of Dream Research in 2020 found that studies show anxiety tends to increase dream recall, likely as a result of frequent nocturnal wake-ups.
If you're dealing with dreams that you wake up during, but don't feel particularly stressful of themselves, it's likely that better sleep will make them go away. "Anything that improves our sleep will reduce the number of dreams remembered," Stanley says. To banish these kinds of dreams, focus on improving your sleep hygiene. Get rid of screens before bed, try meditation, and maintain the same bedtime and alarm clock time every day; people tend to feel more rested when they stick to regular sleep schedules. Steps like these can reduce your nighttime waking, and help those dreams fade away.
The other kind of stress dream is harder to change. Stanley advocates looking at what you're marathoning on Netflix, what activities are taking up focus in your life, to see if they may trigger any dream experiences. "Dreams are made up of anything you know, experience, or imagine," he says. "Events in your life, or what you read and watch can be incorporated into your dream." Try to examine the repetitive structure of your dreams What sorts of issues do they feature, and how does the arc of the dream tend to go? He recommends staying away from books, films, and TV that might feature the same elements — so if, like me, you tend to dream about being trapped in airports when you're stressed out, maybe don't watch travel reality shows when you're already anxious.
Lower stress levels overall can also help to combat both kinds of dreams, as they're a symptom of anxiety, not a problem in and of themselves. A base level of worry about the pandemic is probably not something you can avoid right now, but activities like exercise, meditation, singing, or watching cat videos might help you keep your worries manageable. And if you're still experiencing restless nights, it may be a good idea to talk to a sleep specialist or therapist about ways to manage your stress in your waking hours.
Dr. Neil Stanley
Rimsh, A., & Pietrowsky, R. (2020). Dreams in anxiety disorders and anxiety. International Journal of Dream Research, 13(1), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.11588/ijodr.2020.1.60789