Anxiety Dreams and the Causes Behind Them

Published December 14, 2020
A woman trying to sleep

Anxiety dreams are common because people often suppress their worries during the day, and the subconscious mind brings them back to the surface while you sleep. While normal, these dreams can feel distressing, and you're likely to wake from them with your heart pounding.

Recognizing Anxiety Dreams

Anxiety dreams may be about anything. They may seem weird and filled with dream symbols, or they might simply be like watching a movie or experiencing your daily life, only in a mildly anxiety-filled, dreamlike way. They sometimes come as recurring dreams that happen again and again, or they may be one and done type of dreams. They may be nightmares about things that scare you, such as spiders, snakes, or being chased, or they might leave you feeling mildly stressed without terrifying you. However, the common element that allows you to recognize a dream is driven by anxiety is this: you wake up feeling anxious or even terrified. Some emotions you could experience during and after you wake from anxiety dreams include:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Worry
  • Sadness
  • Terror
  • Confusion
  • Discomfort
  • Panic
  • Nervousness
  • Stress
Young woman crouched in terror while surrounded by spiders

Stress Dream Causes

It probably goes without saying that the main cause of anxiety dreams is anxiety. However, it's a little deeper than that. People have anxiety dreams all the time when they don't realize they're feeling anxious in their waking lives. That's because your ego often suppresses or represses things that make you uncomfortable. Therefore, you may have a lot of stress that you're not aware of or are ignoring. But your subconscious is aware of your suppressed stress, and it seeks to communicate these anxieties with your conscious mind via your dreams. That's because the only way to resolve your anxieties is to be aware of and work to resolve them. Unresolved repressed anxiety can cause some pretty messed up and stressful dreams. Common causes of repressed anxiety include:

  • Trauma or post-traumatic stress
  • Financial worries
  • Family or relationship issues
  • Concerns about health and wellness
  • Life changes
  • Substance use issues
  • Work or career-related stress
  • Secrets you're trying to keep from others
  • Stress related to school or education
  • Stressful world events
  • Eating a heavy meal before bed
  • Hormonal issues
  • Stimulant use (such as caffeine)
  • Physical illness or pain
  • An anxiety disorder
  • Mental health issues
  • Death of a loved one

Really, anything can be a stressor that makes itself known in dreams. However, as disturbing as these dreams may feel in the moment, they exist to make you aware of something that is damaging your mental, physical, emotional, and/or spiritual health. Stress dreams are like your psyche's "check engine" light. It's important you are aware of these things so you can deal with them appropriately; the longer you ignore something, the more insistent your dreams are likely to become, and the more damaging it may be to all aspects of your health and well being.

Young mother working from home

How to Stop Anxiety Dreams

In the long-term, the best way to stop anxiety dreams is to acknowledge and deal with what's making you anxious. However, while you're pursing some type of resolution for your anxieties, whether through setting up a financial plan that makes sense for you, seeing your doctor for a checkup, finally cleaning out those cluttered closets, or talking it out with a therapist, you still need sleep. So, you can help minimize the impact anxiety dreams have on your sleep and well being by taking the following steps.

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Having a bedtime routine and creating a comfortable environment that's conducive to good sleep are essential to sleeping deeply and minimizing anxiety dreams.

  • Make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable and supportive.
  • Keep the room temperature comfortable and make sure you have several light layers of covers.
  • Avoid eating for about two hours before going to bed.
  • Avoid backlit screens (such as smartphones, computers, televisions) for at least two hours before sleep.
  • Use your bedroom only for sex and sleep; perform other activities elsewhere in the house so your body and mind get the message the bedroom is for sleeping.
  • Avoid alcohol and other intoxicants before bedtime.
  • Minimize the use of stimulants such as caffeine and if you do use them, do so before about 2 PM.
  • Keep your room sufficiently dark for sleep.
  • Use soundproofing materials in your bedroom, such as sound reducing drapes.
  • Move electronics away from the head of your bed, including digital clocks (place them on a dresser where you can see them, but they aren't by your head).
Woman using cell phone in bed

Avoid Doing Stressful Things Before Bedtime

Watching scary movies, arguing with your spouse or kids, reading through your work emails, performing a strenuous workout, scrolling through social media feeds, eating a heavy meal, or watching the nightly news (among other things) can all cause stress that carries over into sleep and your dreams. Instead, a few hours before bedtime, engage in peaceful activities that calm and soothe your mind and body.

  • Meditate.
  • Try deep breathing activities.
  • Listen to soothing music (so no screamo or death-metal).
  • Do some gentle yoga or light stretching.
  • Take a warm (not hot) bath.
  • Drink a cup of soothing herbal tea. Chamomile is especially soothing before bedtime.
  • Have a quiet conversation with family or loved ones.
  • Write in a gratitude journal.
  • Enjoy a calm hobby.
  • Take a slow walk around the neighborhood.
  • Read an inspiring book.
Young woman sitting and meditating with candles in her living room at home

Use an Affirmation Before Falling Asleep

You can also speak, write, or think an affirmation before falling asleep each night such as, "I sleep peacefully and soundly. My dreams are gentle and peaceful. I awake feeling refreshed." Simple affirmations are a powerful way to improve the quality of sleep and dreams.

If You Do Wake From an Anxiety Dream, Don't Panic

While waking from an anxiety dream can be stressful, how you handle it after waking up often determines whether you get back to sleep or not. Try the following:

  • Write a sentence or two on a piece of paper you keep next to the bed about the dream so you can remember it in the morning and try to interpret it. You can also speak into a voice recorder.
  • Breathe deeply and visualize something peaceful.
  • If you can't get back to sleep within about 10 minutes, get up for a bit and engage in a peaceful pre-bedtime activity (such as those listed above) to quiet your mind.

Talk About Your Dream

Whether you tell someone else about your dream or write it in a dream journal, communicating the dream's contents once you're awake the next day is a good way to release and resolve anxiety dreams that stay with you. Then, take a few moments with a dream dictionary to try to interpret what the dream means; discovering why you've had the dream is a key component in making sure you don't have the same anxiety dream again.

If You Suspect You Have an Anxiety Disorder, Seek Help

Having any type of anxiety disorder can contribute to anxiety dreams. Fortunately, there's help for anxiety disorders ranging from therapies like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to medications. If you suspect you have an anxiety disorder, seek help from a qualified professional.

Take Additional Measures

You can also try any or all of the following to help you have better sleep and dreams:

  • Diffuse a soothing essential oil or use a calming pillow spray. Aromas conducive to good sleep and dreaming include lavender, clary sage, and chamomile.
  • Use feng shui arrangements in your bedroom to improve sleep quality and dreams.
  • Hang a dreamcatcher at the head of your bed.
  • Place an amethyst crystal next to your bed or between your mattress and box spring, which helps support better sleep and happier dreams.
  • Use a sound generator to create white noise.
Cozy airy bedroom with blue pillows and dreamcatchers

Anxiety Dreams Don't Have to Wreck Your Sleep

Regardless of why you have anxiety dreams, you don't have to allow them to ruin your sleep. Sleep is essential for good mental, emotional, and physical health. So, if you're someone who regularly has anxiety dreams and home remedies aren't working, then it's time to seek professional help.

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Anxiety Dreams and the Causes Behind Them