What Are Stress Dreams
Sleep and its associated dreams and phenomena, is a vast subject matter and one that has been researched and studied extensively in scientific, medical, and spiritual contexts.
Finding definitive answers for all of our dream related queries can seem like a difficult task. However, learning to recognise the links between our stress levels, dreams and sleep quality can help us to tackle our sleep related troubles.
Having dreams that cause feelings of distress and anxiety are often very vivid or recurrent. The feelings they induce can last into your waking hours and the cycle of poor sleep, increased stress and anxiety and the recurrence of stress dreams continues.
When it comes to stress dreams vs nightmares, it can be hard to define the difference. Nightmares are generally described as dreams that provoke feelings of terror, fear or shock, whereas stress dreams tend to create feelings of frustration, worry and anxiety. Remembering your dreams, waking from them feeling distressed and suffering poor quality sleep, can be common with various causes of bad dreams.
If you are unsure whether you are experiencing stress dreams or something else, such as night terrors, sleep paralysis or sleep issues caused by medications, the day-to-day stresses of life, or conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder , it is worthwhile seeking advice from your GP.
Why Do People Experience Stress Dreams
Our brains and bodies psychologically react to what we experience in our awake lives. While we think of sleep as a time for recharging our body, our brain is actually very active during sleep. Things that are on our mind during our awake hours transcend and stay on our mind in our asleep hours. As a result, if you feel stressed about something, even if you dont realise you feel that way, this will affect your dreams.
When stress levels become so high that your dreams are invaded, you are in a chronic cycle of stress.
Sleep is supposed to be a time of mental and physical restoration. Yet, stress dreams make our stress levels higher by preventing us from recharging and keep our minds focused on worry.
Speaking to VICE writer Sarah Emerson, Dr Michael Nadorff says that anxiety dreams are very common, more than half of all dreams that occur during REM sleep involve some form of negative emotion he says. Its just that higher levels of anxiety cause sleep disruption and the mind naturally wants to end those negative dreams, so people with stress tend to end up waking up more often and then remember those bad dreams.
When youre experiencing a flood of stress dreams, it is best not to over-analyse those dreams, but to see them as a warning signal and spend some time getting to the root of whats causing your stress in waking life.
Anxiety Dreams Can Speak Volumes About Your Life And Surroundings Many Times The Only Way We Understand Whats Going On Is Through These Dreams
Dream interpretation is all fun and games until youre plagued with anxiety dreams.
These are not the same as nightmares, mind you. There is a bit of difference between the two. When you start to label anxiety dreams as nightmares, you miss the whole source of the disturbance. Interpreting anxiety dreams means understanding the different varieties as well.
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Are Nightmares Connected To Waking Activity
Nightmares can have a clear connection to things that happen while youre awake. Nightmares tied to anxiety and stress, especially PTSD, may involve flashbacks or imagery that is directly linked to traumatic events.
However, not all nightmares have an easily identified relationship to waking activity. Nightmares can have bizarre or bewildering content that is difficult to trace to any specific circumstances in a persons life.
What Do Nightmares Mean
Theres plenty of interest in understanding the meaning behind dreams and nightmares.
Some health professionals suggest certain nightmare scenarios are a metaphor for something going on in our lives. For example, a recurring nightmare could be indicative of a problem you still need to confront. Another example is that being chased by a monster in your dreams could imply youre running away from something emotionally in your life.
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Prioritize Your Mental And Emotional Health
Practice the actions or coping mechanisms that help you reduce stress and anxiety in your waking life. Taking charge of your emotional wellbeing in order to lower your stress levels is one way to indirectly but effectively get some relief from stress dreams, Dr. Torres-Mackie says. While research shows that decreasing your general stress levels might not completely eliminate bad dreams, lowered anxiety during the day can decrease the intensity and severity of stress dreams. These techniques might include meditating, journaling, listening to calming music, practicing yoga, exercising whatever it is that helps you protect your mental health, find clarity, and achieve a peaceful mindset.
Make certain that youre also practicing good sleep hygiene, Dr. Kerwin adds. Ensure you are not consuming caffeine in the late afternoon or evening, she says. Also, make sure your room is “quiet, comfortable, and cool.”
How Are Nightmares Different From Sleep Terrors
Sleep terrors, sometimes called night terrors, are another type of parasomnia in which a sleeper appears agitated and frightened during sleep. Nightmares and sleep terrors have several distinguishing characteristics:
- Nightmares happen during REM sleep while sleep terrors happen during non-REM sleep.
- Sleep terrors dont involve a full awakening instead, a person remains mostly asleep and difficult to awaken. If awakened, they likely will be disoriented. In contrast, when a person wakes up from a nightmare, they tend to be alert and aware of what was happening in their dream.
- The following day, a person with nightmares usually has a clear memory of the dream. People with sleep terrors very rarely have any awareness of the episode.
- Nightmares are more common in the second half of the night while sleep terrors happen more often in the first half.
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Anxiety Dreams And Stress: The Link
Anxiety dreams can be considered a type of stress dream, which can often feel intrusive and uncomfortable.
These dreams can be considered reactions to something thats worrying you, says Arlene B. Englander, a licensed psychotherapist from North Palm Beach, Florida. Theyre a wake-up call to the fact that a situation in our lives is causing us emotional pain and we need to deal with it more effectively, she says.
Anxiety and stress dreams arent the same thing, though. Not all stress dreams cause a sense of apprehension and wariness. By definition, all anxiety dreams do.
Anxiety dreams can also commonly happen to people with certain mental health conditions, like generalized anxiety disorder .
A 2013 study found that older adults living with GAD had significantly more bad dreams than those living without GAD. In the study, the frequency of bad dreams was also associated with co-occurring symptoms of depression, anxiety, worry, and a perception of poor quality of life.
Stress Dreams: Why They Happen
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Medically Reviewed by Jacquelyn C Johnson, Psy.D.
When youre going through a difficult and stressful time in your life, its certainly not uncommon to have trouble sleeping. That includes increased sleep latency, the inability to remain asleep, and or stress-induced nightmares.
Dealing with this insomnia does not mean you are bad at dealing with your emotions. It simply signifies the stressful time you are going through. You are not alone many who are facing difficulties in life will likely experience the same thing. The National Institutes of Health notes that 20 million people report having occasional sleeping problems. Stress and anxiety might be the root cause of the issue or contribute to making existing sleep problems worse.
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How To Stop Stress Dreams
One of the best ways to tackle stress dreams, is of course, to try and reduce your levels of stress. This may seem easier said than done, but there are many effective relaxation techniques out there. Take a look at the options below and keep trying until you find something that works for you.
Yoga, meditation, and the mindfulness movement
Its hard to commit to a practice of mindfulness hard to de-busy yourself and meditate. Its certainly easier not to.
But as strange as it may seem, slowing down and stopping for ten or twenty minutes can help you to get things back on track and can make you more productive at handling whats bothering you.
Try some bedtime yoga this is a brilliant method of unwinding, better for you than a big glass of red wine and much better for your health and sleep cycle.
If yoga isnt for you, there are plenty of ways to get on board with the mindfulness movement and to soothe yourself with a mindful activity. Try the Headspace meditation app on your phone or a mindful colouring book. Make sure you check out the how it works bit on the Headspace website which provides plenty of information on how meditation can aid stress management.
Cut out caffeine and alcohol
The first one should be obvious caffeine is not conducive to sleep, but you might not be aware that alcohol affects the quality of sleep you get.
Have an evening routine
Keep the room cool
Its no secret that exercise can help you destress and give you a boost of endorphins.
How Is Nightmare Disorder Treated
Infrequent nightmares dont normally need any treatment, but both psychotherapy and medications can help people who have nightmare disorder. By reducing nightmares, treatments can promote better sleep and overall health.
Treatment for nightmares should always be overseen by a health professional who can identify the most appropriate therapy based on a patients overall health and the underlying cause of their nightmares.
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Check Up On Your Mental Health
If none of the above-mentioned strategies works favorably after weeks of implementation and the nightmares continue to rob the quality sleep time and interfere with the normal routine, then cognitive behavioral therapy may be recommended by caregivers. In a few sessions, one can learn techniques that help turn things dramatically, and the individual feels strong. The anxiety gets resolved, and one can sleep peacefully. This way, the anxiety issues get settled, and checking on mental health thus seems to be a positive decision rather than a social stigma.
Being Naked In Public
Another common stress dream is showing up to a public place naked, or acting in a way that puts you at the center of attention, but in a bad way.
What could it mean?
This rings of feelings and fears of vulnerability, shame, and disappointing people. Its this fear that we will forget something and be exposed, says Gilliland.
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Make Time For Exercise
Exercise has plenty of benefits, including improved sleep.
Adding just 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity to your day may help you get better sleep right away maybe even that night.
However, try to get this exercise in at least an hour before you go to bed. Exercise leads to endorphin release and a higher body temperature, both of which can wake up your body instead of helping it prepare for sleep.
What Causes Anxiety Dreams
According to Claudia Luiz, Psychoanalyst and Author of The Making of a Psychoanalyst, anxiety dreams are generated as a result of unprocessed negative stimuli the brain is trying to process through the regulatory process of sleep. Dreams are your unconscious minds way of educating you on your thoughts. In other words: our dreams are often illustrations of our daytime experiences. Anxiety dreams can be caused by internal or external stressors. Internal stressors can be anything from angry emotions to impulses. External stressors can be anything from past trauma to a bad day at work, or maybe a global pandemic. Some other causes of anxiety dreams include excessive alcohol before bed, drinking caffeine past 2:00 PM, or not getting enough sleep. According to Loewenberg, frequent and recurring anxiety dreams are often a bi-product of varying anxiety disorders. That this doesnt necessarily mean that everyone with an anxiety disorder will have anxiety dreams, but its often more common. She states that those of us without an anxiety disorder can still get anxiety dreams, simply because from time to time we are faced with a difficult issue in life that causes some level of anxiety. When we are faced with difficult times, our dreams express what we may be going through.
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Stress Dreams May Help You Perform Better
Stress dreams arent a lot of fun to experience, but they may seem more bearable if we consider they serve a purpose.
A 2013 research led by neuroscientist Isabelle Arnulf collected information on students dreams the night before taking the medical school entrance exam and compared this data with the students grades on that exam. The findings are surprising:
- Of the 719 respondents to the questionnaire , 60.4% dreamt of the exam during the night preceding it.
- Problems with the exam appeared in 78% of dreams and primarily involved being late and forgetting answers.
- Reporting a dream about the exam on the pre-exam night was associated with better performance on the exam
Arnulf concluded that a stressful event in dreams is common. But most interestingly,
That this episodic simulation provides a cognitive gain.
In other words? Dreaming of a stressful situation teaches you something, helping you perform better at the task you dreamt about.
One explanation could be the social threat simulation theory which is the idea that dreams prepare us for social stress. This theory states dreaming about threatening events has a biological function, making dreaming a useful, insightful teacher.
What Causes Nightmares In Adults
Nightmares in adults are often spontaneous. But they can also be caused by a variety of factors and underlying disorders.
Some people have nightmares after having a late-night snack, which can increase metabolism and signal the brain to be more active. A number of medications also are known to contribute to nightmare frequency. Drugs that act on chemicals in the brain, such as antidepressants and narcotics, are often associated with nightmares. Non-psychological medications, including some blood pressure medications, can also cause nightmares in adults.
Withdrawal from medications and substances, including alcohol and tranquilizers, may trigger nightmares. If you notice a difference in your nightmare frequency after a change in medication, talk with your doctor.
Sleep deprivation may contribute to adult nightmares, which themselves often cause people to lose additional sleep. Though it’s possible, it has not been confirmed whether this cycle could lead to nightmare disorder.
There can be a number of psychological triggers that cause nightmares in adults. For example, anxiety and depression can cause adult nightmares. Post-traumatic stress disorder also commonly causes people to experience chronic, recurrent nightmares.
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Seek Out Things That Provide Comfort
Kids could benefit from objects that provide comfort such as a stuffed animal or special blanket. As an adult, you may not have a stuffed animal, but holding a pillow could offer solace. Individuals who sleep with a partner may also benefit from cuddling at night, as research shows that physical affection helps release hormones that can improve your mood and help you feel more relaxed.
Are Nightmares A Disorder
While bad dreams from time to time are normal, frequent episodes may be cause for concern. According to the Mayo Clinic, nightmare disorder is considered a parasomnia. A parasomnia is a type of sleep disorder that involves unusual or disturbing experiences.
Nightmare disorder is diagnosed when the patients bad dreams cause significant sleep deprivation. In this case, you will want to contact your physician, who will likely discuss your symptoms, perform an exam, and suggest you undergo an overnight sleep study.
- Stages of Sleep, University of Michigan Health, October 26, 2020
- Priyanka A. Abhang, Suresh C. Mehrotra, Technological Basics of EEG Recording and Operation of Apparatus, 2016
- Nightmare Disorder, Mayo Clinic, June 5, 2021
- Nightmares and the Brain, Harvard Medical School, 2015
- Cuddle and Hug Your Way to Better Health, Intermountain Healthcare, February 12, 2020.
- Richard J. Corelli MD, Nightmares, Stanford University
- Study Analyzes Content of Nightmares, Bad Dreams, Science Daily
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Causes Of Night Terrors And Nightmares
Common causes of night terrors and nightmares include:
- being very tired or unwell
- sudden noises at night or needing to pee during the night
- something that’s frightened you or made you stressed, anxious or worried
They can also be caused by:
- taking certain medicines, such as antidepressants
- mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder
- conditions that affect the brain, such as dementia
Night terrors are more common in people with family members who have had night terrors or who sleepwalk.
Stress Dreams Are Related To Trauma
We know those people with anxiety are not necessarily more likely to have more stress dreams, but this cannot be said for those who have experienced trauma. It is well documented in studies examining war veterans and other patients who have endured a traumatic experience that many go on to have trauma-related stress dreams.
Dr. Djonlagic of Harvard said: a correlation between sleep quality and how we process traumatic experiences which may help to explain why bad dreams, insomnia, and real-life anxiety can sometimes seem so hard to divorce.
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