When you’re in the throes of adulting, some days can seem endless — and stressful. So when night finally rolls around and you’re ready for some sweet slumber, you hope to dream about happy, calming things that provide rest and respite (and enough energy to get through the next day). But instead of dreaming about vacations on the beach or even precious puppies, you’re being chased by monsters, sitting buck naked in a room full of laughing strangers, or suddenly back in school taking a test that you’re totally not prepared for. If sleep has become a total nightmare, it’s helpful to know what the most common stress dreams are, what they mean, and (yay), how you might be able to stop them.
What is a stress dream?
You’re in the middle of a work meeting — and all your teeth fall out. Or you dream that you’re falling from a cliff. If you’ve had a stress dream, you know it, and more often than not, it’s related to some serious stress you’re dealing with during daytime hours. “A stress dream is a dream that is often rooted in untreated or poorly managed stress and anxiety that occurs during the day,” Dr. Julia Kogan, PsyD, a health psychologist and stress and insomnia specialist tells Romper. “When people wake up from stress dreams, their sympathetic nervous system is often activated, resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating.”
But is a stress dream the same as a nightmare? Not really, says Sara Anderson, LPC, NCC, CAC II, CYT, a licensed professional counselor. “With nightmares, we usually awake with a jolt of fear; but with stress dreams, we awake with increasing anxiety and a heightened, progressive sensation of stress,” she explains. And while a nightmare might be a one-and-done deal, you can have stress dreams — over and over again — particularly if your mind is trying to work out something upsetting that has happened to you in the past, or even a current situation. Although this might make you wake up feeling anxious and unsure, stress dreams might actually your mind’s way of trying to help you, according to a PubMed study. Researchers found that stress dreams are a way to cope with unpleasant events, and aid in helping with emotional processing and regulation. “Dreaming is the period of time that our brain is actively washing itself of the events of the past several days,” adds Anderson. “The brain is shuffling around memories and filing most of them away. But when we are in a stressful experience and our brain isn’t quite sure what to do, it begins to process that experience based on earlier times we might have been overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed out.” That might explain why you wake up feeling anxious, stressed or scared after having a stress dream, because the emotions you experience in a stress dream can rollover into real life, too.
How to stop having stress dreams
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could just tell your brain, “Hey, let’s dream about good stuff tonight, okay?” But your brain doesn’t work that way, and just willing yourself into having a happy dream isn’t going to do it. Nope, if you want to stop having stress dreams, you’re going to need to do some deep digging into the source(s) of your stress and find a way to soothe or stop them. Fortunately, there are quite a few ways to reduce the frequency of stress dreams, according to Kogan, and the first one is to learn how to manage your stress and anxiety. “Because stress dreams are related to stress and mood management, managing stress during the day and processing difficult events and emotions is important in reducing the likelihood of processing at night when sleeping,” she says. “Those with anxiety disorders, especially PTSD, are more likely to be impacted by stress dreams.” It might mean speaking with your partner, a therapist, or a trusted family member, but addressing that there is an issue is a key first step.
Next, take a look around your bedroom to see if it’s conducive for sleep. Chances are, it probably isn’t. “Poor sleep hygiene can also contribute to recurring dreams,” adds Kogan. “Eating close to bedtime or too much before bed, engaging in upsetting content through media channels before bed, and using substances can negatively impact sleep and increase dream activity.” If you improve your sleep hygiene, chances are you’ll sleep more soundly, and without stress dreams, either.
You’ll also want to make sure that your room has just the right temperature for optimal sleep, Jeffrey McQueen, MBA, LCDC, Executive Director of Mental Health Association of Nassau County (MHANC) adds. ”If you allow yourself to create healthy sleeping habits then this could reduce the risk,” says McQueen. “Going to bed and waking up around the same time daily will reduce the stress you feel from constant changes in your day-to-day routine.” He also advises taking any prescribed medications at the same scheduled intervals each day to avoid potentially uncomfortable sleep patterns caused by fluctuations in medication times.
By far, though, the best thing to do to stop the stress dreams is to spend some time during the day to sit with yourself and understand what’s truly bothering you. “This may be done through processing your feelings in therapy, writing in a journal, having deep conversations with loved ones, etc.,” Heidi McBain, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, a licensed marriage and family therapist tells Romper. “The hope is that the more you deal with and face your stress and emotions head on during the day, the less the stress and heightened emotions will show up in your dreams at night.”
These are the most common stress dreams
Being late for class
You’re rushing to get to class on time, only to find that the room changed or that you walk in and there’s a pop quiz you’re not prepared for. “The most common types of stress dreams usually focus on being late for a class, or forgetting all the information for a test,” says Anderson. “We recall these events because they were the earliest and most profound times that we felt stress.” And because these stressful events serve as a marker in our lives, our brains naturally go back to these times as a way of weaving current feeling of overwhelm with past stressors.
Natural disasters (i.e. flooding/tidal waves/tornadoes)
Mother Nature has a seductive way of sneaking into your dreams and making them a natural disaster. So if you’re seeing tsunamis and other fear-provoking weather forecasts, you’re not alone. “Just as a tidal wave looms over your head and threatens to overtake you and sweep you away, something in real life is causing you to feel overwhelmed and is threatening to sweep you away from your normal routine or your normal peace of mind,” Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, a professional dream analyst tells Romper. “Flooding is similar in that it also involves water and water tends to represent emotions, but the nature of the rising water means it is connected to a real-life situation that is getting increasingly worse.”
Any type of conundrum with your car is a sign that something is bothering during daytime hours, Loewenberg says. “If your car won’t start, you may have lost your ‘drive’ or motivation in some area — or you’re just exhausted,” she says. But if your brakes aren’t working, well, that’s another issue entirely. “If your brakes don't work, you have got to slow down,” she adds. “Some area of your life is going too fast and your subconscious is warning you that you are headed for an emotional or energy crash if you don't get it under control.” So ask yourself if one of your relationships (with a friend, family member, coworker or your partner) is heading in the wrong direction. That way, you can figure out where you need to yield and put your emergency lights on while you take a much-needed pause.
Sure, seeing your casa crumbling in flames is frightening, but what this stress dream means is even scarier — for you. “This is a tell-tale sign that you are on the verge of really being burned out,” warns Loewenberg. “This is an urgent message from your subconscious that you need to find a way to relax or lighten your load before you become, basically, an empty shell of yourself.” As much as you might cringe at asking for help, you need to enlist the help of friends and family members to give you the time you need to rest and recharge, regardless of how old your kids are, because moms with kids of any and all ages are overwhelmed with responsibilities.
Interestingly enough, losing your teeth in a dream has nothing to do with cavities or that cleaning you keep postponing. No, stress dreams about losing teeth are actually about grief and loss, says Kogan. “This dream is often associated with grief related to the loss of a loved one or a relationship,” she says. “When people are grieving, they tend to avoid directly processing the grief due to the difficult emotions associated with it. Therefore, unprocessed grief is often processed in sleep and can come out as a recurring dream of losing teeth and feeling out of control.” And because these dreams typically occur during the REM portion of sleep, Kogan says, it’s thought that this dream is a way for the mind to process information and unresolved issues.
Even if you’re an excellent swimmer, you might experience stress dreams about drowning. Of all the scary dreams you might have, ones about drowning are pretty literal, since they signify feelings of drowning in real life. “Dreams related to drowning are often related to feeling overwhelmed with our daily responsibilities and tasks,” says Kogan. “This may also represent feeling stuck in our lives or powerless to change our life circumstances (like feeling powerless when drowning).” If you struggle to deal with stress, you might find that this is a more frequently occurring dream.
Falling and being chased
Have you ever noticed how many stress dreams involving falling from some insane height or being chased (or being chased and then subsequently falling?) “Falling and being chased have been found to be two of the most common recurring dreams,” says Kogan. “These dreams specifically often symbolize an unresolved issue or conflict, stress, anxiety, or depression.” If you can remember the dream, it might be likely that it occurred during the REM portion of sleep, which is believed to be responsible for emotional processing and memory. So if you find that you’re falling a lot or being chased in a dream, it might be your mind’s way of trying to work through unprocessed events, stress or other emotional distress.
At night when you’re too tired to think straight, the last thing you want is to have a stress dream that leaves you feeling scared or anxious. But if you think of stress dreams as your brain’s way of telling you that something isn’t right, you can become empowered to address those issues. Then, once you take the necessary steps to make changes in your life, you’l eventually have sweet dreams — and a happier life, too.
Scarpelli, S., Bartolacci, C., D’Atri, A., Gorgoni, M., De Gennaro, L. (2019) Mental Sleep Activity and Disturbing Dreams in the Lifespan, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31569467/
Dr. Julia Kogan, PsyD, a health psychologist and stress and insomnia specialist
Sara Anderson, LPC, NCC, CAC II, CYT, a licensed professional counselor
Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, a professional dream analyst
Jeffrey McQueen, MBA, LCDC, Executive Director of Mental Health Association of Nassau County (MHANC)
Heidi McBain, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, a licensed marriage and family therapist