Those Nightmares May Be Stress Dreams—Here’s How To Cope

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As if your waking hours weren’t stressful enough as of late, what with economic uncertainty and distressing news at all hours, you may well also be experiencing extra-vivid dreams and nightmares these days. Sometimes, these vivid dreams are easy to write off. (How likely is it that you’ll actually make a fool of yourself in front of Harry Styles?) But other times, you may wake up wondering “Wow, where the hell did that come from?” or even wishing to yourself, "Why don't I dream?" Well, in a sickly comforting kind of way, you may be happy to know that a number of common stress dreams are haunting the REM time of many.

Experts In This Article

What are these common stress dreams, why are you getting them, and what do they mean? All are valid questions you may well be wondering. Fortunately for us, a few sleep experts—and even a dream analyst—are here to help unpack the meaning of stress dreams, and share what you can do to stop them from replaying.

What are stress dreams?

Stress dreams are vivid, intense dreams influenced by the stress and/or anxiety we feel in waking life, according to board-certified physician and psychiatrist specializing in sleep science, Meeta Singh, MD, who is an advisor for the mattress company Purple. “They may involve scenarios that are related to the stressor, such as being chased, falling, or failing an important task, and they can occur during any stage of sleep, but they are most common during rapid eye movement [REM] sleep, which is the stage of sleep when most dreaming occurs,” she says. “During REM sleep, the brain is highly active, processing emotions and memories, which can lead to the experience of stress dreams.”

Although stress dreams can happen to anyone at any time, most often, people experience them while under extreme pressure—such as while planning a wedding, going through a divorce, navigating a layoff, preparing for a move, etc.—says clinical psychologist Michael Breus, PhD (aka The Sleep Doctor).

What causes stress dreams?

Sleep is thought to be the ultimate restorative retreat at the end of a long day, however, if you’re undergoing extreme stress, that doesn’t mean that sleep will mask it. Instead, stress affects dreams. “Your brain is a machine that takes in an incredible amount of data every second,” says licensed therapist and OLLY vitamins brand ambassador Kier Gaines, who is passionate about the intersection of sleep and mental health. “Though our eyes are closed and our bodies are still, the mind machine continues to do its processing thing,” he says. “When our brains are active during sleep, the images and feelings that we experience can be an extension of the psychological stress and anxiety that we experience on a day-to-day basis.”

7 common stress dreams—and what they mean

While everyone stresses over different things, there are a few common stress dreams that could be hinting toward a larger subconscious concern you’re facing. Below, Dr. Singh and Lauri Loewenberg, dream analyst and author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life, shed light on seven common stress dreams so you can, well, stop stressing and start getting a better night’s rest.

1. Bugs

“Bugs have been really common in dreams—bug infestations, being bitten by a bug, bugs coming out of different orifices of the body,” says Loewenberg. “It reflects the fear of catching the virus. We tend to refer to viruses as a bug.”

She adds that we may also dream of insects when something or someone is really “bugging” us, bringing out our more irritable side, wherein many things are bugging us that may not have before.

What to do about it? 

Lean toward positivity. “In order to keep yourself from bugging out, start counting blessings,” says Loewenberg. “You are safe, you have food, you have Netflix. Yes, it’s annoying how your partner spreads his peanut butter but… you have a partner, and you have peanut butter.”

2. Being unprepared

According to Dr. Singh, dreaming about being unprepared for an important event is a lot more common than you may think. Whether it’s a speech, a presentation, saying your vows, or anything in between, Dr. Singh says that dreaming of freezing in the moment “may reflect a fear of being caught off guard or unprepared for a challenge.”

What to do about it?

If you have a big presentation, test, or event coming up that you want to nail, do what you can to get your mind right beforehand. If it’s a public speaking event—such as giving a toast for your best friend at her wedding or delivering a speech—consider rehearsing your words ahead of time. You can do so in a mirror or in front of loved ones to get live feedback. If you have a test coming up, study. It’s as simple as that. To ensure your studying pays off, though, think about what resonates most with you. Do you fare better when you write down notes, or when you simply read them? Act accordingly.

3. Tidal wave

Tidal waves are about being swept away by our high-climbing responsibilities, Loewenberg says. While some of us are indeed granted the gift of time, others are juggling more tasks than ever, making these tidal waves a common feature of stress dreams for the overloaded worker in the modern world.

What to do about it? 

Try to delegate some responsibilities and, in turn, simplify your life. One way to do so is to get your groceries delivered, for example, instead of having to scour the supermarket yourself. Another is to delegate tasks that you really don’t need to be in charge of. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! And try to keep laughter present in your life, because lightness can help make the crushing and crashing world a little bit less difficult to take day by day.

4. Failing an exam

Similar to the stress dream of being unprepared, dreaming about failing an exam, a job interview, a driving test, or anything in between can be a sign that you have a deep-rooted fear of failure or inadequacy, Dr. Singh says.

What to do about it?

Everyone fails sometimes—it’s how you respond to failure that counts, though. Remember that, up until this point, you’ve overcome every “failure” you’ve ever been faced with, and you’re absolutely capable of overcoming whatever gets thrown your way next. That said, if you’re looking for a way to prevent this common stress dream from recurring, you can journal about it. Think about the things you fear most in the world—are they tangible objects or is the idea of not living up to a certain expectation? Whatever it may be, processing it through writing can help make it more digestible, and thus more easily overcome.

5. Fire

We typically dream of fire when we’re getting hotheaded about something or are dealing with an urgent situation that needs to be extinguished. It can also be a warning that we’re on the verge of burnout, says Loewenberg.

What to do about it? 

Redirect your worries, and claim fresh-start energy with something enjoyable. “This is a good time to find distractions: Find a new show to [watch], a great book to get lost in, new recipes to try,” says Loewenberg.

6. Being chased

Dreaming that you’re being chased can be absolutely terrifying. It’s also totally normal. “Dreaming about being chased by someone or something, such as a monster or animal, may reflect a fear of being pursued or threatened,” Dr. Singh says. And not just physically either. Dreaming about being chased could be a sign that you feel threatened in your friendships or relationship, in the sense that your boundaries are being encroached upon.

What to do about it?

If you keep having stress dreams about being chased, sit down with your thoughts and consider any ways that you may feel threatened. Perhaps you feel like your partner’s new friend has ill intentions, or maybe you’re tired of your parents ignoring their own faults, not to mention your boundaries. In both cases, it’s normal to feel on guard. If you do, try to process it on your own in a journal or during a meditation, or open up to the idea of having a hard conversation to put your worry to rest once and for all.

7. Tornadoes

In dreams, weather is usually connected to your emotions, and tornadoes represent the chaos of worries that are spinning out of control, says Loewenberg. So if you’re watching a tornado in your dream, it’s likely emblematic of the veritable storm of emotions and concerns plaguing your day-to-day life, making even pleasurable tasks, like making your bread starter, feel unbearable.

What to do about it? 

Channel your concerns head on. Keep a worry journal beside your bed, so you can purge thoughts from your mind. Then, hopefully, you can enjoy some sweet, sweet dreams.

Frequently asked questions about stress dreams

What are stress dreams trying to tell you?

So many different stress dreams exist that it’s impossible to blatantly say what they’re trying to tell you. That said, according to integrative medicine physician and OLLY ambassador Taz Bhatia, MD, who helps women navigate stress, stress dreams, overall, are a sign that you’re holding onto something that you’re still processing, even if you’re not consciously thinking about it.

That said, if you have recurring stress dreams but the subject matter doesn’t quite fit—for example, you keep dreaming about failing an exam but you’re no longer in school—dig deep to uncover what you may actually be worried about failing at in life.

How do you get rid of stress dreams?

A big reason why you may have stress dreams is because you’re not getting quality sleep. So, if you’re looking for how to control your dreams—and, in the future, how to have good dreams—you may want to rethink your bedtime routine.

“If you experience stressful dreams, consider first implementing healthy sleep strategies, like making sure you are getting enough sleep, keeping your sleep times consistent, avoiding heavy meals before bed, and relaxing and unwinding before bedtime,” says sleep researcher and ŌURA sleep advisor Rebecca Robbins, PhD, who is the co-author of Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are Too Tired to Ask.

To unwind for bedtime, Gaines suggests mindfulness exercises, breathwork, yoga, stretching, and night walks. “[Focus on] efforts that help neutralize the brain’s fixation on stressful impending events and thoughts,” he says.

Additionally, Dr. Bhatia says to tune in to your body—and what you put in it. “Often alcohol, sugar, and fatty foods can make stress dreams worse, while supplements that help reduce stress or help you relax can keep stress dreams at bay,” she says. Some supplements you might want to consider for boosting your sleep include melatonin and magnesium, both of which promote feelings of calmness.

If you like supplements that taste like candy, you can’t beat the OLLY Sleep Gummies ($9), which feature melatonin. Meanwhile, if you prefer winding down with a tasty drink, the Moon Juice Magnesi-om Dietary Supplement ($42), which is sold in berry and lemon flavors, is delicious and fast-acting.

“If those strategies do not reduce these stressful dreams, it may be time to speak to your healthcare provider,” Dr. Robbins says.

Are stress dreams bad?

Occasional stress dreams aren’t bad—they’re just trying to help you process what you’re subconsciously thinking about. “However, if stress dreams occur frequently or are causing disruptions to sleep or daily life, it may be helpful to identify and address the underlying stressor,” Dr. Singh says.

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