Anxiety Dreams & How They Affect Me

Anxiety dreams are quite common, both among those with diagnosed anxiety and those without. You’ll know you’ve had an anxiety dream when you wake up and feel a bit rough – it’s a bit like a hangover really. Whilst many of us are familiar with the feeling, anxiety dreams can be unnerving and unsettle your day, as well as leading to further anxiety.

I’ve recently started getting more anxiety dreams, which I’ve talked about quite a bit over on my Instagram, so to ease my mind I thought I’d do a bit of research into them and also share my experiences with you, in case they offer some reassurance or can help you in some way.

Illustration of woman sleeping with space hair flowing behnd her

What is an anxiety dream?

In simple terms, anxiety dreams are “bad dreams” or nightmares that cause overwhelming feelings of panic whilst in, and after, the dream. They are most often associated with feelings of anxiety when you wake up, and the dreams themselves often focus on themes such as being, unprepared for something or somehow out of control. Anxiety dreams are similar to nightmares but differ in their physical response – instead of lurching you awake in a cold sweat, anxiety dreams sort of prod you into consciousness by heightening your stress levels.

Bad dreams, which include anxiety dreams, are more common than most people know. On average, more than half of all dreams that occur during REM sleep (deep sleep) involve some form of negative emotion.

What causes anxiety dreams?

There doesn’t appear to be a concrete cause for anxiety dreams, but you may be more likely to experience them when going through a stressful period in your life. This could be anything from a break-up, starting a new job or even moving house. However, anxiety dreams are known to occur randomly and sporadically as well.

You may think that anxiety dreams would occur more often in those with anxiety, but this is not the case. Having anxiety doesn’t directly increase the frequency of our distressing dreams, but it does heighten their severity.

For me, it doesn’t seem like there is a cause for my anxiety dreams. I’ve found I am getting them more frequently at the moment, despite probably being in the best place mentally that I have been in for a while. I also find that I’ll have anxiety dreams around similar themes for a period of time, and then all of a sudden the theme will change for no reason and the cycle repeats.

For example, I have had anxiety dreams about losing my memory and not recognising my family, going back to my old job with my old colleagues but not knowing what I do and most recently, being stabbed in front of my Mum (dramatic, right?)

Does everyone have anxiety dreams?

Often, people who struggle with anxiety dreams will suffer from an anxiety condition already, but it is not uncommon for people not suffering from anxiety in everyday life to also have unpredictable anxiety dreams and there is nothing to prove that anxiety causes these unsettling dreams. However, people with anxiety are more prone to sleep disorders like insomnia, which is linked to bad dreams, so this could be why those with anxiety experience distressing dreams more regularly.

For me, I actually seem to have more anxiety dreams when I feel calm in everyday life (thanks, brain). Recently, for example, I had an anxiety dream for the first time in months despite the fact I’d just had a lovely weekend at home with my family. Similarly, if I’m having an anxious day, I often don’t remember my dreams which is really unusual for me.

How To Stop Anxiety Dreams

As you can imagine, there is no definitive way to stop anxiety dreams. But I’ve found some techniques that seem to ease the panic when I wake up or leave me feeling relaxed and mentally calm before I go to bed.

Before I go to bed

  • Wind down. try to give you mind and body a bit of a “buffer zone” between your evening activities and going to bed. It will allow you to distinguish better between being relaxed and feeling tired, which are very different things. generally, it is recommended that you put down any screens or stimulating activities about an hour before bed – Recently, I’ve been listening to sleep playlists and classical music for a while with the lights off to relax before trying to go to sleep.
  • Schedule “worry time”. It sounds bizarre but hear me out. If you’re finding it difficult to control your worrying before bed, or you find your mind racing as your trying to sleep, scheduling a specific time when you’re allowed to worry may help. Find a time in the evening that works for you and write down your concerns. Don’t dwell on your worries for too long – and plan a fun activity afterwards, like catching up on your favourite TV show.
  • Try relaxation techniques. It’s very cliche but a bit of deep breathing and stretches can work wonders. There are also loads of apps out there that have guided meditation and breathing exercises specifically for anxiety.

When I wake up alone and panicking at 3am

We’ve all been there – it’s the middle of the night and a nightmare causes you to wake up. The next thing you know you’re lying there overthinking everything you’ve said in the last 5 years and wondering where it all went wrong.

  • Stop watching the clock. Counting the minutes will only make things worse. Turn your clock around, try to avoid going on your phone and snug back down.
  • Get out of bed. If you can’t fall back to sleep, getting out of bed and having a change of scenery can help you to relax and feel tired again. Don’t spend time in bed hopelessly trying to get back to sleep, trying to interpret your dream or worry about getting up in the morning. Once you get up, find an activity that is uninteresting, monotonous or boring. This should help you feel drowsy enough to go back to sleep.

Do you suffer from anxiety dreams? Has any of this information helped? Let me know in the comments and find my other mental health posts here.

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  1. Cassie says

    I’ve suffered from night terrors my whole life… and once I developed anxiety, they got much worse. You have some great tips for dealing with them! Creating a bedtime routine really helps.

    My routine includes cutting caffeine out after dinner. It made a huge difference. It didn’t stop the dreams, but it’s easier to fall back asleep afterward. 😉

    • whatabigailsays says

      I’m sorry to hear that, but glad that you’ve found something that helps.
      Cutting caffeine is a great idea – I don’t drink tea or coffee so I don’t have to worry about it, but great advice for anyone else!

    • whatabigailsays says

      There can be a difference between nightmares and anxiety dreams – the difference is in the feeling when you wake up. Neither of them are very fun though! Glad you found it useful x

  2. Coralle says

    This is a very interesting post! I have anxiety and I’ve had my fair share of horrific dreams but I don’t know if there’s any correlation between when I’m going through a bad patch with my mental health and my anxious dreams. I assumed it was just random, but maybe there’s certainly more to it than we realise.

    Coralle x

  3. Ash says

    Im the opposite to you, I don’t really get anxiety dreams when everything is good, but when things are bad I get sleep paralysis! The worry time is a good idea, I never liked the idea of just dismissing worries and negative feelings

  4. Sophie Harriet says

    I sometimes have anxiety dreams, but luckily I don’t often remember them for long after I wake up. I find it helps to avoid dwelling on the dream when I wake up – I tell myself it’s just a dream and distract myself by getting on with my day. That helps stop the dream from making me anxious in real life!

  5. Meera says

    This is really interesting and something that I’ve never heard about before! I am currently suffering from sleep issues and some of the effects you mention sound a lot like what I’ve been experiencing. I might try some of your techniques and see if they help me! |Meera-Abroad

  6. Shana Seigler says

    My last anxiety dream was 2 weeks ago. I ended up having to take the day off of work. It literally caused me to wake up having a panic attack. I deal with anxiety and depression and have been recently placed back on meds. I’m just now getting to a month on the meds so hopefully I’m regulated.

  7. Melissa @ Always, Lissa says

    Oh yes, I definitely deal with anxiety dreams. I also have PTSD so sometimes I can’t tell one dream from another but all of those create anxiety so I guess they all fall under that category. Often times when I wake up from them I’ll watch a short show that I love. Something a little silly generally that won’t create more anxiety. For me Futurama generally does that. Or I’ll listen to some oldies that make me smile, things like that. I like this post. You’ve got a lot of great information here.

  8. Beka says

    This is so interesting! I’d never heard of anxiety dreams before now, and as someone who suffers from both anxiety & nightmares, I’ve never put the two together other than, “oh maybe I’m feeling stressed”. It’s so strange how you can have them even when you’re not particularly anxious in every day life, too? I loved this post – it’s very different than most mental health posts I read, and it’s refreshing to learn something new about myself, too ☺️

    Beka |

  9. Bumbles says

    I hate those dreams definitely don’t make you feel rested after. I love your idea to write down worries before planning something to look forward to.

  10. Gemma says

    I wasn’t aware that anxiety dreams were a thing and could affect people so badly – they don’t sound like fun, but I agree that winding down before bed is important. I do suffer with anxiety and find that meditating before I go to sleep encourages a restful night.

  11. secretPixie012 says

    I loved this & I can totally relate to it! I love that you touched on worry time and doing it before Going to bed at night because it really does help with the chaos in your mind. 3am is my bestfriend even If I’m having a really good sleep😅🥴

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