What Are Stress Dreams? Why & How to Stop

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Have you ever woken up at 3 a.m., panicking and feeling anxious because someone was chasing you or you were tumbling through space? Chances are, you have experienced a stress dream.

Also known as anxiety dreams, stress dreams are a common phenomenon that almost everyone experiences at one point in their lives. These dreams tend to be vivid, intense, and disturbing.

stress dreams

Besides interfering with your sleep, they can cause lingering anxiety throughout the day and make you nervous about going to bed in the evening.

But what causes stress dreams, and how can you manage them?

This article will explore various aspects of stress dreams, including their causes and how to cope with them. Let’s uncover the mystery of stress dreams together.

What Is a Stress Dream

Stress dreams occur when you enter the REM stage of sleep. At this point, your brain activity increases, and your visions become more vivid and intense, particularly if you’ve had periods of stress or anxiety.

Most people usually confuse stress dreams with nightmares. However, they vary based on the nature of their context or subject matter.

Generally, nightmares are more intense, with gruesome and scary content. On the other hand, stress dreams focus on ordinary, bothersome experiences in our waking life, like showing up late to class.

While stress dreams might not be frightening as nightmares, they can be disturbing, especially if they are recurring. And sometimes, they can wake you up in the middle of the night, leaving you anxious and overwhelmed.

Common Types of Stress Dreams and What They Might Mean

Sure! Stress dreams portray frustrating and unpleasant scenarios. But they can also help pinpoint the source of a dreamer’s stress and anxiety.
Common examples of stress dreams include:

  • Dream of Teeth Falling Out: Based on a 2018 study, dreams of teeth falling out relate to physiological stress. These dreams are common in individuals with bruxism (teeth grinding), which is linked to stress and anxiety. As for their interpretation, such dreams could represent personal loss or big life changes.
  • Dream of Being Chased: A study published in 2010 in European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience identifies falling, being chased, and death of loved ones as common themes in stress dreams and nightmares. Often, the dream of running from someone or something could relate to the feeling of helplessness, fear, and vulnerability.
  • Dream of Trying to Find Lost Things: Sometimes, you can dream of forgetting to wear your pants or losing your pen on the day of an important exam. Researchers believe this is our brain’s way of rehearsing the things that could go wrong during certain important events. This way, we can cope when things don’t work out the way we expected. Somehow, this dream prepares us to deal with stressful situations.

Besides these, other common themes in stress or anxiety dreams include car problems, death, infidelity, and being late.

Neuroscientist, Isabelle Arnulf, says it’s normal to experience stress or anxiety dreams. This is great news for those individuals who think their dreams of being naked in public are abnormal. The big question here is what triggers these dreams.

Why Do People Have Stress Dreams?

Why Do People Have Stress Dreams

During the day, our bodies and brains react to our experiences. But when we sleep at night, our brains stay active, constantly flushing our thoughts and emotions through our dreams.

As such, if you feel anxious or stressed about something in your waking life, it might manifest in your dreams.

Research shows that high-stress levels force the body to spend more time in the REM sleep stage, resulting in vivid and intense dreams.

And the worst part is? These dreams can increase your stress levels by preventing your body from recharging and keeping your mind focused on negative emotions or experiences.

Additionally, stress and anxiety during the day can increase the production of cortisol, a stress regulation hormone, which fragments sleep quality and could trigger exceptionally intense visions.

Although stress is the main culprit behind these dreams, some factors may make them more likely to occur, including:

1. Stressful Events

People often deal with stressors in their life. On some occasions, these stressors might manifest in your dreams. Below, we’ve highlighted common causes of stressful situations that can give rise to stressful dreams.

  • Substance abuse
  • Work-related issues
  • Academic pressures
  • Death of close friends and family members
  • Significant life changes
  • Financial challenges
  • Health problems
  • Relationship issues

Stress dreams could also stem from stressful events. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, people reported having disturbing dreams about separation, failure, death, sickness, etc.

2. Cognitive Preparation

As said earlier, stress dreams might occur to help you deal with stressful situations. One possible explanation for this is threat simulation theory. This is where your brain prepares for all things that might go wrong to help you cope with life difficulties.

Research also shows that a certain amount of stress can help you accomplish certain tasks. Therefore, your anxious dream may not be a bad thing after all. It might provide you cognitive advantage over a current situation and improve your emotion regulation process.

3. Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders make people respond to certain situations or things with extreme fear. In severe cases, the anxiety can creep into their subconscious mind, leading to dreams with disturbing or frustrating content.

While not everyone with this mental condition will have stress dreams, research shows that anxiety disorders can play a major role in nighttime distress. In fact, a 2014 study suggests that people with generalized anxiety disorder experience bad dreams than those who don’t have it.

These dreams might also increase the dreamer’s anxiety and depression levels during the day, reducing his (or her) quality of life.

4. Sleep Reactivity

Sleep reactivity is the susceptibility of an individual to sleep disturbances caused by stress. Studies show that a family history of insomnia, genetics, and environmental stressors influences how our sleep system responds to stress.

People with highly reactive sleep systems experience poor sleep quality when stressed. This happens because stressful experiences in waking life dominate their dream’s content, forcing them to wake up at night.

In addition to sleep disruptions, heightened sleep reactivity increases the risk of insomnia disorder, anxiety, and depression.

How To Stop Stress Dreams

How To Stop Stress Dreams

While there’s no effective way to stop stress dreams, there are a few ways you can manage them and get a better night’s sleep. Let’s look at a few.

1. Create A Buffer Zone

The key to having a healthy, good night’s sleep is setting aside time to wind down or creating a buffer zone.

From the time we wake up, our brains and bodies go a mile a minute. A buffer zone creates enough time for your brain and body to slow down and transition from daily life stresses to a peaceful night of sleep. The period allows your sleep system to take over and mitigate late-night stress and anxiety.

It’s a rule of thumb to wind-down about an hour before bed. During this window, take a shower, prepare your bedroom for sleep, and engage in relaxing activities, like yoga and deep breathing. It also helps to cut off phone or TV time at least one hour before heading to bed.

2. Schedule Worry Time

It’s no secret worrying can be helpful sometimes. But when it becomes difficult to control, it can cause stress and persistent anxiety, which can seep into your dreams.

To prevent this practice, constructive worry. This involves setting aside time to think about your fears, worries, and concerns so you head to bed with a clear mind.

The best way to do constructive worry is to identify a convenient time before bedtime and write down all your anxieties – probably 15 to 30 minutes before bedtime.

Next, find a comfortable location without distractions. Get a blank piece of paper and divide it into two columns. On the left, jolt at the worries and thoughts that keep you awake at night. On the right, write down some solutions to your concerns.

3. Embrace Curiosity

If you experience stress dreams, don’t ignore them. Instead, get a dream journal and note down all the details about the vision you can remember.

Next, try to identify and decipher the hidden messages and symbols in the dream. By doing so, you can keep track of your dreams. You might also see patterns and notice things in your waking life that might trigger certain stress dreams.

Additionally, this method helps you reflect on your subconscious thoughts and emotions and can improve your creativity and problem-solving skills.

4. Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

If you wish to enjoy a peaceful, good night’s sleep, consider improving your sleeping habits/sleep hygiene.

Remember your behaviors during the day and before going to bed can affect how you sleep at night. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to boost your sleep quality, including:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Ensure you sleep and wake up at the same time every day. A consistent bedtime helps to reinforce your internal clock, which makes it possible to fall asleep and wake up refreshed and ready for the day.
  • Switch off electronic devices before going to bed: Laptops, TVs, and mobile phones emit blue light, which reduced the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. They also increase cortisol, a stress-regulating hormone. Low levels of melatonin make it difficult to fall asleep. And even if you fall asleep, the high cortisol levels might induce stress dreams, which might wake you up at night. Another thing, don’t keep your phone near your bed because the notifications and buzzing can interrupt your sleep.
  • Make your sleeping space work for you: Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool. Also, get a comfy pair of pajamas, a mattress and linen sheets. The more comfortable you are, the more likely you will fall asleep faster and stay asleep.
  • Limit caffeine intake: Caffeine remains in the blood for 3 to 9.5 hours. If you’re pregnant, its effects can last up to 15 hours. The caffeine in your coffee, soda, or guarana can block the effects of adenosine, a hormone responsible for deep sleep. It could also increase or decrease other hormones that affect sleep, like melatonin, dopamine, and serotonin. Caffeine also increases anxiety levels in sensitive individuals. Therefore, limit your coffee intake to the morning hours.
  • Avoid napping during the day: Although it might seem relaxing, napping during the day can make it hard to fall asleep at night. If you have to sleep in the afternoon, rest for only 20 or 30 mins.

5. Exercise Regularly

30 minutes of exercise every day can improve your sleep quality significantly. What’s even better, exercises boost your health by reducing risks of diseases like obesity and diabetes.

The best exercises for better sleep include:

  • Aerobic exercises–Swimming, biking, walking, or jogging
  • Cardio workouts–Promote more restful sleep
  • Resistance training – Sit-ups and weight lifting can help to build muscle and improve sleep quality. They also reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Breathing exercises – Deep breathing lowers blood pressure and relaxes your body before you can go to bed.

While exercises might help you relax and sleep well, avoid exercising for 1 or 2 hours before sleeping. Otherwise, they can increase your body temperature and energy levels, making it hard to fall asleep.

If you want to do an activity before bedtime, consider doing yoga or stretching.

Final Thoughts

In small amounts, stress can motivate and help you learn. It can also improve your behavioral and cognitive performance while pushing you toward optimal alertness.

However, long periods of stress can prove detrimental to your physical and mental health. For instance, they can seep into your subconscious mind, giving rise to disturbing and frustrating dreams.

Even worse, these dreams can increase stress, leading to anxiety and depression.

Luckily, this comprehensive guide highlights a few ways you can manage your stressful dreams, including journaling and exercising.

That’s all for today! If you have any questions, leave us a message below.

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