Stress Dreams: Why Do We Have Them ― and How to Stop?

Learning to control stress is your best defense against these anxiety-ridden dreams

Tired woman turning off bedside alarm clock

Contributors: Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM and Alexa Kane, PsyD.

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There are a lot of areas of sleep that science and medicine can understand and explain. But dreams are an entirely different territory, as the question ‘why we dream’ remains largely unanswered.

Vivid and frequent dreaming is often left open to interpretation through things like dream dictionaries and discussing with friends. Did that dream about your ex-boss really mean you have pent-up guilt and anxiety about your last job? Frequently having stress or anxiety-ridden dreams is usually a red flag for real life stress and the role it’s playing on your body. If you’re constantly waking up panicking in a cold sweat over a dream, it’s time to get your thoughts and stress in order.

Stress: we all have it, but it doesn’t have to control us

Stress is an emotional, physical or mental tension that results from something that’s outside of us.

Some of the bigger stressors or stressful life events include moving to a new place, changing roles at school or work, relationship issues or losing a family member. Stress can cause sleep difficulties, including insomnia, by making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. This impacts the quality of rest. Stress can also cause hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness.

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Being stressed is associated with poor sleep in general, and may trigger more frequent dreams. So it’s not uncommon to experience a distressing dream prior to a big event like a job interview, taking an exam or an important appointment.

And although there’s limited research about controlling the content of dreams, anxiety dreams can generally be a result of increased stress during our day-to-day lives. Daily stress can also increase the frequency of these dreams.

The good news? You have a great deal of control over your stress. If you learn to better manage stress in your life, you’ll likely decrease anxiety-ridden dreams and improve your sleep.

Here are four simple strategies to help your mind and body relax before turning in for the night:

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  • Spend time winding down before bed: This can be thought of as a “buffer zone,” which is a period of time to allow the activating processes in the brain to wind down and allow your sleep system to take over. It’s generally a good rule of thumb to start about an hour before bedtime. During this time, engage in relaxing activities that you enjoy like reading or listening to music.
  • Schedule “worry time”: If you’re finding it difficult to control your worrying prior to bedtime, scheduling a specific time when you’re allowed to worry may help. Find a time that’s convenient for you and write down your concerns. Limit the time to a specific amount and stick to it by planning something to do afterward. For example, you can plan 15 minutes in the evening, before your favorite TV show.
  • Think of your bedroom as a place just for sleep, sex and pleasant activities: Try to limit the time you spend in bed worrying or being anxious. If you find yourself lying awake in bed stressed out, leave the bedroom and spend time in another room until you feel sleepy.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: There are other ways to relax while getting ready for bed, such as breathing exercises, guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation movements. (You can even check out free apps that help guide you through these exercises.) These techniques can be some of the most critical aspects of stress management and you can use them close to bedtime or throughout your day.

When you wake up panicking at 3 a.m.

We’ve all been there – a nightmare or stress dream causes you to wake up. The next thing you know you’re lying there overthinking your finances and everything you have to do the next day.

When this happens, what can you do to get back to sleep?

  • Stop watching the clock: Counting the minutes will only heighten your distress. Turn your alarm clock around and don’t pick up your phone.
  • Try to relax your body: Use a relaxation strategy that helped prior to bed to relax your body and mind.
  • Get out of bed: If you can’t fall back to sleep after a stressful dream, then try getting out of bed to help decrease the frustration. Don’t spend time in bed hopelessly trying to get back to sleep or interpreting your dream. (If your dream caused you anxiety, you may find yourself attempting to interpret it. But this can further increase the worry. This process will result in your brain associating your bed with stress and not sleeping well.)  Once you leave your bed, find an activity that is uninteresting or boring. When you start to get drowsy, go back to bed.

Since dreams obviously aren’t measurable, there’s no real answer to what meaning they hold in our day-to-day life. But we do know that we generally have control over daily stress, which can trigger weird or anxiety-clad dreams. Learning to control the crazy and manage your stress is your best defense to help you sleep peacefully.

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