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.
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.