There are some days when my anxiety is so extreme that I can’t wait to fall asleep and just escape. Unfortunately, this rarely happens because I have frequent anxiety dreams. There are a few in my regular rotation: Showing up at the airport late for a flight and without my passport and luggage, finding out I didn’t graduate from high school and have to go back for one semester (then forget to do my final assignments) and dealing with the death of a parent and not being able to pick out a casket. I very rarely experience the “sweet dreams” other people speak of, and I wake up feeling just as anxious as I did when I went to bed — or worse.
I’m not the only one who has anxiety dreams, and some are more common than others. SheKnows spoke with several mental health professionals to find out what’s happening in our heads when our anxiety spills over into our dreams (or more accurately, nightmares), and what some of the most common anxiety dreams actually mean.
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Why do we have anxiety dreams?
Our brains do some interesting things while we sleep, and we are designed to often forget the content of our dreams, Dr. Alex Dimitriu, who is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, tells SheKnows. So what actually happens in our heads while we sleep? According to Dimitriu, a lot: Memories get sorted and stored, we free up new space to learn, we problem solve and connect known facts to form “revelations” and our entire brain gets a power wash by the glymphatic system, to essentially clean up the busiest organ of the body.
“Any memory of a dream conveys what the brain was solving or working on during that time,” he explains. “Anxious dreams, in line with what we see in our sleep, may be associated with the brain trying to problem solve something that may be bothering us, either consciously or subconsciously.”
So if you’re anxious about an upcoming presentation, you’ll probably dream about giving it, right? Not exactly, Dimitriu says. Stress can manifest in many ways, and our dreams may not always line up exactly with what has been bothering us. Instead, we usually dream about some frustrating problem or situation, which may or may not be related to exactly what is happening in our waking lives, he notes.
And there is some good news: “Because the brain explores these ‘loose’ connections in our dream sleep, it is sometimes possible that it happens to stumble on some issue by chance, and goes to work solving it,” Dimitriu says. Though that’s certainly not the case every time, it’s nice knowing that at some point, it might happen. Now, let’s take a look at some of the most common anxiety dreams and why so many of us have them.
Dreaming that you are falling is one of the most common anxiety dreams, Dr. Arooj Najmussaqib, a clinical psychologist, tells SheKnows. Whether you’re falling from a building, the sky, in the dark, or in an unknown place, this dream suggests that you’re having negative feelings or a fear of something bad happening, she explains. This dream could also mean that you are nervous about a specific situation in real life, like a relationship ending, a presentation at the office, exams or an evaluation. According to Najmussaqib, this all stems from feeling a lack of control over a situation.
If you have a dream where you lose something, or have something stolen from you — especially if it’s a car — then Najmussaqib says that it could be a sign of a lack of motivation. In this case, she says the car is key as it can literally represent your drive, and the loss of this vehicle can be very stressful.
Whether you dream about hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires or some other natural disaster, Najmussaqib says that this anxiety dream usually means you are overwhelmed with something in your waking life. Unfortunately, these dreams don’t always offer additional clues, so you have to figure out what, exactly, is making you feel overwhelmed in order to address it. According to Najmussaqib, some possibilities include starting a new job, loss of job, death, divorce, or fear of a future decision you have to make.
Dr. Deidra A. Sorrell, a licensed professional counselor in Maryland and Washington, D.C. and owner of Synergy Wellness Therapeutic Services agrees and shared an example of a friend of hers who recently had a dream that he was in a tsunami. “Once the storm overtook the land, he was the only survivor in a large fishing boat,” she tells SheKnows. “This dream can be interpreted as my friend worrying about storms overtaking his life and having no one to support him in the aftermath. Even though his life was going fine, he was anxious about ‘the other shoe dropping.’”
As it turned out, her friend was in a relationship with a partner he had difficulty trusting. So Sorrell says that this dream was an indication that he was subconsciously worried about this partner betraying him, which would result in his loneliness.
Being naked in public
Finding yourself naked in a not-naked-appropriate situation is another common anxiety dream and sitcom staple. According to Najmussaqib, being naked in a dream means that you are being exposed in some capacity. It can also mean that you feel embarrassed about something, or that you feel like you cannot conceal anything about yourself — even your most ugly characteristics. This dream may depict shame and fear of getting exposed, she adds.
Some people’s anxiety dreams center on them being chased. The strange part, Najmussaqib notes, is that in some of these dreams, you can’t even see who is chasing you — you just feel the sensation of being pursued. According to Najmussaqib, these dreams usually mean that you are running away from something in your life, like a person, a decision or a location. “Whatever it is, until you stop running in waking life, you probably won’t stop running in your dreams either,” she says.
Missing your mode of transportation
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who has frequent dreams about missing a plane, bus or train. Najmussaqib says that this means that I’m actually afraid of missing a deadline in my life. “You are busy, and this is reflected in your dream world too,” she explains. “These anxiety dreams are probably warning you to not forget an important event or deadline in your near future.”
Sorrell shared an example of a friend who had recurring dreams of having to ride the subway to work, but always being late on the delayed trains. In her dreams, she was constantly running for the train but in slow motion. As a result, she would miss the train and be late for work. “The takeaway from this dream is feeling incapable or incompetent at work,” she explains. “My friend admitted to not being as prepared as she needed to be. My friend also felt a bit of the “imposter syndrome” that many professionals feel at certain times in their lives.” The good news is that this dream gave her friend the motivation to believe in herself and improve her preparation on the job.
Being driven in a car and not knowing where you are going
This dream speaks to feeling out of control in life, Sorrell explains. In therapy sessions, this dream can take on two interpretations. One interpretation is to identify the thing that is out of control in life, like a relationship, a job or finances. Another interpretation takes on a more spiritual meaning. Sorrell asks her clients who is driving the car to get more context for this dream. “Some of my more spiritual clients take comfort that God is driving the car,” she notes. “In those sessions, we focus on God’s will and where God might be taking them.” For many people, though, being driven somewhere mysterious echoes the anxiety they feel while they’re awake.
A version of this story was published July 2019.
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