Most people generally agree on the benefits of a good night’s sleep. After hard work, a good snooze gives you the chance to recharge your body so you wake up refreshed and ready for another day.
If you’re dealing with anxiety or other life challenges, quality sleep can help you feel more capable of facing stressful days. But when anxiety creeps into your dreams, sleep might not provide the restful escape you’re seeking.
Anxiety dreams can feel pretty unpleasant. Not only do they disrupt your sleep, they can also add to stress and anxiety in the morning. You might even worry they mean something bad is about to happen.
If you’re wondering what really causes your anxiety dreams and whether you can manage them to get better sleep, you’ve come to the right place.
An anxiety dream, in short, usually refers to any dream that causes stress or distress.
You might feel panicked or nervous during the dream, but these emotions might also linger after you wake up, and your general unease might persist throughout the day.
Although nightmares often inspire feelings of terror more intense than general anxiety, these also count as anxiety dreams, since anxiety during the day can make nightmares more likely.
Some general causes of nightmares and anxiety dreams include:
- fear or stress
- recent life changes, especially ones that provoke uncertainty or other distress
- traumatic events
- insomnia or disrupted sleep
- use of substances, including alcohol
But how, exactly, does anxiety trigger upsetting dreams?
As you might already know, your brain remains active while you sleep. It uses this time to carry out important tasks that help refresh your body and keep essential processes running at optimal levels.
For better or worse, part of this nightly brain activity sometimes involves patching memories and sensations into a semi-narrative. It follows, then, that if your recent thoughts and feelings cause stress and fear, your dreams will likely follow a similar pattern.
Not everyone living with anxiety will have bad dreams, but research does suggest anxiety can play a significant part in nighttime distress.
The study authors also found evidence to suggest bad dreams led to greater daytime feelings of anxiety and depression and lower quality of life.
In short, anxiety and nightmares can feed into each other, creating an unpleasant cycle.
Dreams often don’t make a lot of sense. Some of your dreams might seem very clear and coherent but have a few unrealistic elements. Maybe you’re naked at work, or you have wings, or you’re making out with a celebrity.
But just because you dream about these things doesn’t mean they’ll happen, and the same goes for anxiety dreams.
Maybe you keep dreaming about missing a final exam or your partner cheating. When you wake up, you might feel terrified of these possibilities becoming reality.
Usually, though, these dreams don’t signify anything deeper than perhaps some subconscious (or conscious) worries about these things happening.
If you spend a lot of time worrying about the possibility of your partner cheating, it’s understandable these worries might show up in your dreams, even when they appear in abstract ways.
Dream exploration is a vast field of study, and many theories about what dreams could mean exist. However, there’s no scientific research to support the idea that dreams can predict future events.
So, if you’ve noticed an uptick in anxious dreams, especially before an important event, your brain is probably just making you aware of the stress you’re facing.
Falling asleep after waking from a bad dream isn’t always easy, but there are a few things that might help you get some shut-eye.
Try something relaxing
A relaxing activity can help put your brain back into sleep mode. It doesn’t have to be dull or boring, exactly, but it shouldn’t wake you back up. Try:
- a warm drink
- quiet music
- a soothing podcast
- a favorite book, or one with slow pacing
- breathing or meditative exercises
Just keep your lights dim and try to avoid watching TV or scrolling through your phone, since that can wake you up even more.
ASMR videos do help many people with anxiety-related sleep issues relax, however, so that may be one exception to this rule to consider.
If time stretches on and you can’t seem to fall back asleep, don’t stay in bed. It’s easy to get frustrated and upset when you can’t get back to sleep, but this often just makes things worse.
So, get a drink of water, take a walk around the house, or try a warm bath. Wait to go back to bed until you start feeling sleepy again.
Whatever you do, don’t look at the clock
You wake up and immediately notice the time. Ten minutes later, you’re still awake. Ten more minutes pass, and before you know it, you’ve been lying awake for nearly an hour.
Now you’re less anxious about your dream and more stressed about all the sleep you’ve missed. The more time that goes by, the more frustrated you feel.
If you have anxiety dreams regularly, you’ve probably experienced this plenty of times. To avoid increasing your stress, check your clock or phone once when you wake up, if you need to, then don’t look at it again.
You’ll most likely have an easier time getting back to sleep if you don’t worry about what time it is or how long you’ve been awake.
While you can’t always avoid anxiety completely, you can do a lot to manage anxious thoughts.
Reducing daytime anxiety can benefit your health overall, but it can also help you get better sleep.
Start a calming bedtime routine
A routine of activities that help you wind down and relax before bed can help you get better sleep.
Turn off the TV and computer and set aside your phone about an hour before bed.
- listening to music
- taking a bath
Journaling just before bed can offer a way to express stressful or negative thoughts. The act of jotting them down can help you feel as if you’re physically casting them off.
Once you’re in bed, let your mind wander to positive thoughts instead, such as people or places you love, good things about your day, or the things you appreciate in life.
Avoid stressful or upsetting activities before bed
If the last thing you do before bed is go over your finances or read a distressing email from a loved one, you’ll probably keep thinking about these things when trying to get some rest.
It’s not possible to completely avoid all stressful tasks, of course. But if you know something inspires feelings of stress or anxiety, try to handle it earlier in the day.
Then, follow it with a hobby you enjoy or something else that makes you feel better, like time with your best friend or romantic partner. Doing something positive can help relieve the anxiety brought on by the unpleasant task and reset your mood.
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.
- brisk walking
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.
Talk about it
If you have an anxiety dream that keeps coming back, telling someone about it can help. Sharing things that frighten or disturb you with someone you trust can often reduce the impact of these feelings.
Loved ones can also help you talk through other sources of anxiety. Sharing a burden can lighten it, so sometimes just opening up about anxiety can help improve your symptoms, which may lead to better sleep.
Frequent, distressing anxiety dreams or nightmares can sometimes happen as part of an underlying sleep or medical condition, such as:
If your dreams disturb your rest and affect daily life, professional support can help. Start by talking to your primary care provider, who can rule out any medical conditions.
Talking to a therapist can also help you begin addressing anxiety while awake, stress, or any other mental health symptoms you’ve noticed.
It’s always wise to seek support if your symptoms begin affecting your work, relationships, or overall quality of life.
Anxiety dreams generally just mean you’re dealing with some stress, but they’re still no fun.
Try looking at them from a different perspective: They can actually have some benefit. They help you recognize stress in your life, for one.
However you look at them, taking steps to cope with anxiety can help these dreams disappear. If you have trouble managing stress alone, a therapist can help.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.