There’s something contradictory about waking up from a bad dream. While a night of sleep is supposed to be rejuvenating, nightmares can leave us feeling taxed, or at least unnerved.

While there are many theories about dreams, professionals tend to agree that dreams are the residue of the day. So, if you’re living with stress or anxiety, your dreams may reflect that.

Have you ever had a dream where you’re naked in public or late for a test you never realized you had? These are common scenarios in dreams triggered by stress and anxiety.

The good news is that they’re entirely natural. That said, they’re not pleasant to experience. And while there is no way to fully stop them (nor, really, should you), there are ways to mitigate them and make sleep a little bit more peaceful.

Why are you having stress dreams?

“You’re having stress dreams because you’re stressed,” says Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, executive director of Innovation 360, and a clinical psychologist. “That’s it. Stress impacts us physically. There is great data on stress impacting our blood pressure, our medical conditions, and pain. [Our bodies and minds] are very connected. So one of the places anxiety impacts us is in our sleep.”

During sleep the unconscious mind stays active, processing the experiences of the day. Stress and anxiety are heightened states of arousal, and their triggers can loom in the unconscious mind.

5 common anxiety nightmares that might sound very familiar

While it’s difficult to generalize dreams, since no two people are alike, there are a reported number of stress dreams that seem to be consistent. That said, the analysis of each dream is subjective to each individual.

1. Forgetting something important

Forgetting important events in everyday life can cause major stress or anxiety, so naturally if you’re feeling anxious or stressed during the day, that can spill over into manifestations during dreamtime.

Forgetting about a test that you haven’t studied for, or a presentation you didn’t know you had to do at work, are common stress dream scenarios.

What could it mean?

"It's a sense of the fear of disappointment or of failure. When we have anxiety and stress it spills over into other areas of our lives. It's no surprised that it spills over into our sleep," says Gilliland of these dreams.

2. 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. It's this fear that we will forget something and be exposed," says Gilliland.

3. Trying to run, but not being able to get away

This feeling can also manifest as dreams about drowning, being buried alive, or chased.

What could it mean?

"As obvious as it seems, this dream is illustrative of feeling overwhelmed, like you're not going to make it, and feeling like a failure,” Gilliland explains.

4. Seeing your house on fire

For many people, Gilliland tells us, the house symbolizes who they are — their self.

What could it mean?

"A house on fire dream can mean different things, but in essence it is that you are imploding or burning,” notes Gilliland. “We literally say it — burning a candle at both ends, burning our battery life. Is it any wonder that as we go to sleep those feelings slip into dreams?"

5. Forgetting where you parked your car

While it’s important to remember to not go too deep into generalizing what dreams mean, Gilliland says that he has experienced this particular dream coming from uncertainty.

What could it mean?

"Whether you're feeling blah at work or in a relationship, you move to a city, or get a new job, it's about not feeling connected. Connection is one of those basic human elements," he says.

Is there a difference between stress and anxiety dreams?

Only in severity. Stress can be good for us. "But as it starts to build up we run the risk of it overflowing and becoming worry, fret, and anxiety. The difference is one of severity," Gilliland explains.

How to keeping stress dreams at bay

It’s unlikely that you’ll stop having stress dreams altogether. Stress is a part of life, and dreams are the sorting and processing of the day’s activities.

That said, there are ways that you can minimize your stress and anxiety, which might spill over into your dreams and impact your quality of sleep.

1. Acknowledge it

When you're in the midst of something stressful, acknowledge that it is happening. There’s nothing wrong with stress. Often pretending we don't see it is what makes it worse.

"Embrace the fact that you had a stressful week and remember that you aren't going to live like that," says Gilliland.

2. Check your vitals

Often lack of sleep and proper nutrition can make stress and anxiety worse. Alcohol and caffeine can increase feelings of stress, so consider both in moderation.

3. Develop a healthy evening routine

Working right up until bedtime is something many of us are in the habit of, but it’s one of the worst things we can do for stress. Taper off slowly, go for a walk, sit and read, or do a few minutes of deep breathing before you turn off the lights.

4. Keep a dream journal

This may help you understand your dreams, including how and why they’re occurring.

For example, did you have a dream that you forgot to prepare for a work presentation before a big project is really due? Think about what could be at the root of why you feel stress around that project or pressure for it to be successful.

Finally, it’s important to remember to not be afraid of dreams, even the ones that seem particularly frightening.

"Dreams are just another source of data," says Gilliland. "Look back at the week and reassess. It's just your mind chewing on things that happened during the day. That's all it is, and there's no reason to be afraid."


Meagan Drillinger is a travel and wellness writer. Her focus is on making the most out of experiential travel while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel Weekly, and Time Out New York, among others. Visit her blog or Instagram.