Anxiety dreams(A guide)


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Page last updated: 18/10/2022

Anxiety dreams

Anxiety dreams are unpleasant dreams characterized with feelings of distress, uneasiness, dread and apprehension when the dreamer wakes.

At times anxiety dreams are more disturbing than a nightmare. Anxiety dreams could be a result of childhood trauma or any unresolved conflict in adulthood.

Thus, such conflicts cause anxiety in a dreamer and serves as a means of resetting a person’s ego.

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Different types of dreams have different qualities.

Anxiety dreams, punishment dreams, and night mares occur in REM (Rapid eye movement) stage of sleep whereas, nightmares occur in NREM (Non- Rapid eye movement) stage.

Fisher says that the distressing dreams in REM sleep mostly have feelings of weight on chest and feelings of helplessness. 

The author of The Nightmare, Ruth Bers Shapiro says that it’s the profoundly disturbing content that distinguishes between anxiety dream and a night mare.

We all have experienced anxiety dreams. You are in a deep sleep and suddenly you feel like you are sinking in water.

Then you are falling down a staircase. All at once you reach to clouds.

Our anxieties haunt us in our dreams in strange ways and sleep no longer remains a time for relaxation.

Actually, there are some common dreams that are caused by anxiety with each having their distinctive meaning. 

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We are told that eight hours sleep a night is essential to feel rested.

But if you remain stressed by your dreams at night, you hardly feel relaxed by the sleep.

If you usually toss and turn, wake up running short of breath, wake up crying, or drenched in sweat then you are not taking a good sleep. 

Anxiety dreams not just represent underlying anxieties. 

Dreams are a way of processing information from the day or current happenings in our life. 

According to Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist, dreams also process our thoughts and feelings by attaching them to stories.

They can be directly related to daily events in our lives.

However, dreams represent a real emotion whether or not they represent an actual event. 

Anxiety dreams are similar to night mares but they increase your level of stress.

Anxiety dreams occur in REM sleep in which our memory becomes vivid and unclear. 

Anxiety dreams are more common and reported by most of people, clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Nadorff.

He said more than half of all dreams during REM sleep involve negative emotions.

Dr. Nardoff added that dreams may feel similar but they are definitely different, but they are dealing with same underlying psychological issue.

Moreover, dreams are not commonly related to traumatic events as generally people think.

He says only one third of people have bad dreams in context of a history of trauma.  

Dreams generally indicate fears and anxieties but mean something personal to dreamer. 

Klapow tells Bustle, that focuses the emotions in the dream and then compare it with the emotions you are facing in your life.

There is a lot to learn from our dreams like we could identify sub conscious issues and work on it to get away of anxiety dreams and bring restful sleep. 

Graphic artist Renee Griffin noted the pattern of her bad dreams.

She said, “Most of what I recall from my dreams involves frustration, physical weakness, failing people I care about, the inability to complete something or be heard”.

She further added mine dreams do not focus on real life worries but they are usually crazy increasing level of stress and frustration. 

People with anxiety have high tendency of developing sleep disorders like insomnia, which is linked to bad dreams according to sleep physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School Dr. Ina Djonlagic.

We can say that bad dreams and anxiety dreams can turn into serious medical disorders.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggested that 7 hours sleep per night is best for adults.

But some people need different amount of rest and their body tells how much sleep it needs. Dr. Djonlagic said, “It’s a spectrum,” and there are people who feel rested even after less sleep also; there are people who need more sleep to feel rested. 

Anxiety dreams(A guide)

Common Themes of Dreams

Anxiety dreams generally have themes of incomplete tasks. For instance, they may include an exam that has not been taken or a suitcase that has not been packed.

Another common theme involves that loss of a family member or loved one.

Sigmund Freud described that these dreams are categorized into two:

  • Those involving sorrow paired with death 
  • Those in which there is no grief.

Some themes may involve embarrassment. Freud says, dreams of falling down, being chased or caught are also common in anxiety dreams.

Such dreams usually occur at the start of sleep during pictorial consciousness; during this period dreams have little structure and plot.

In other words, dreams communicate our unconscious preoccupation.

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 Causes of Anxiety Dreams 

There are different types of anxieties, all of which are very closely linked to each other. Resulting in one causing the other.

For example, dream anxiety might be a reason why one wake ups anxious in the morning.

If you want to wake up and start your day calm, find out the best alarm clocks for anxiety.

However, the causes of dream anxiety alone are mentioned below.

  1. Childhood trauma 

Dreams mostly arise from child hood trauma. The ego of child is developing in this age.

Children have anxiety dreams because at this age child’s ego cannot integrate daily experiences.

Shapiro described that growing ego is affected by trauma and conflict the child is experiencing.

This arise as an important factor because ego defense mechanisms like repression and intellectualization played a key role in avoiding anxiety provoking dreams and nightmares. 

  1. Conflict in child’s life

Conflicts in one’s life and approaching towards developmental stages also cause anxiety dreams.

As, the child experience conflict during the stage of toilet training. 

For instance toilet training precipitates conflict between the wish to soil and fear of loss of parental love.

If the child is subjected to disturbing experiences during this time, they may leave him helpless and unprotected thus, increasing his worry and anxiety.

This anxiety could lead to anxiety dreams in a child.

It is not surprising that we live in anxious times. A 50 % increase in number of people with depression and anxiety has been observed from 1990 and 2013 stated by WHO.

Only in US, 6.8 million people are affected by general anxiety disorder. 

So does the rise in our awareness and reporting of anxiety make us more likely to have anxious dreams?

Isabelle Arnulf, a neuroscientist and president of the French Society for Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine says, “It is normal to have anxious dreams”.

Nicky Lidbetter, the chief executive of the charity Anxiety UK says, we have a proportion of people who say that their dreams bother them.

Various researches have shown that people experiencing trauma are likely to have trauma-related anxiety dreams.

Mark Blagrove, a professor of psychology at Swansea University has measured “nightmare distress” in his sleep labs.

He observed that anxiety not only cause dreams to be negative but it also gives even a strong negative reaction which further makes you anxious. 

Do Anxiety Dreams Have a Function?

Arnulf who experience anxiety dreams before important meetings thinks that they have a function.

In 2014, she led a study of students taking the Sorbonne medicine exam. It is a very competitive exam and almost 10 % of those tested are admitted.

She along with her team asked the examinees to complete a survey asking how they slept the night before exam.

The students have experienced every imaginable examination related dream.

For instance, some couldn’t find exam center, some were late, and many dreamed marking the wrong option and some dreamed the examination hall catches fire; some raised their hand for paper but was given slice of bread.

Many examinees experienced transport disasters like train didn’t turn up, operators went on strike, and train has some functional fault. 

An interesting anxiety dream of student reported by Arnulf’s was from a female student who dreamed that she was revising but forget the details about structure of neuron and spinal cord.

She awoke in mid night and began revising the structure of neuron.

She actually realized that she didn’t know the answer so; she started revising that particular topic. 

Threat simulation theory of dreaming explains Arnulf’s findings that people rehearse frightening situations in their dreams and this rehearsal equip them to face similar situations in waking life.

For example, you dream of facing a loin and in the morning you happen to meet one, then according to theory you will be better prepared for the encounter.

Latest version of theory is “social threat simulation theory”, which states that our dreams prepare us to deal with social stress. 

Blagrove from the Swansea sleep lab, says that anxiety dreams have a function and no function at all for us.

According to him, there is no adaptive function of dreams.

We have anxiety dreams on the basis of what things are going on in our mind during the day.

So they stay in our mind even when we sleep. It’s just the brain does not shut down completely. 

Blagrove further added that our ability to recall dreams has no function.

If remembering dreams was important then we would remember more about them; not just vivid memory.

We have almost 2 hours of REM sleep at night and we remember only a small fraction of our dreams. 

When someone experiences near-drowning in a dream, he say “little to no idea what the purpose of dream is”.

But it may indicate that do not take most cherished things in life for granted and spare time to experience all what you love.

Effects of Anxiety Dreams


Anxiety dreams serve an important function. When the ego is over worked, the only way it can reset is when one wakes up.

Anxiety dreams continue until it forces the dreamer to wake up and let the ego refocus.

Anxiety dreams also alerts the dreamer about a psychologically dangerous situation.


General anxiety is a negative effect of anxiety dreams.

Individuals experiencing distress in their dreams have general anxiety more than those who were experiencing real life events that could be equally as stressful. 

Treatment of Anxiety Dreams

Barry Krakow developed three steps to alleviate any anxiety dream or nightmare.

These steps include: 

  • Imagery rehearsal therapy
  • Recording the dreams
  • Changing the dreams

This treatment is used for people experiencing vivid dreams, especially anxiety dreams, negative dreams or nightmares due to trauma.

The therapy is done by mental health professional, involves changing the ending to a nightmare you remember when you’re awake until it no longer becomes threatening.

Image rehearsal therapy requires an individual to visualize a bad dream and write it down and then alter it in ways to makes it less negative and less threatening.

This should be practiced several times a day.

With continuous practice the person would be able to cognitively replace bad, anxious dreams with new, positive ones. 

This therapy is designed to reduce a person’s frequency of vivid dreams.

Once a person has been taught the first step he/she can continue using the second and third steps to overcome any new anxiety dreams that might develop. 

If none of this makes you feel better about anxious dreams and you want to explore the meaning behind them you might consider workshops that utilize psychodrama and psychotherapeutic techniques. 

As Doctorandus Herma Reeskamp suggested these workshops to be helpful for patients with anxiety dreams or haunting nightmares. 

Take professional help form therapist if anxiety dreams disrupt you. 

Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.

What we recommend for curbing Anxiety

Below are some of the services and products we recommend for anxiety

Online Therapy

  • Online therapy is another thing we should all try. We highly recommend Online therapy with a provider who not only provides therapy but a complete mental health toolbox to help your wellness.

Anxiety Weighted Blankets

  • Anxiety Weighted Blankets are by far the number 1 thing every person who suffers from anxiety should at least try. Anxiety Blankets may improve your sleep, allow you to fall asleep faster and you can even carry them around when chilling at home.

Light Therapy

  • Amber light therapy from Amber lights could increase the melatonin production in your body and help you sleep better at night.  An Amber light lamp helps reduce the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep and increases overall sleep quality.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Why do we dream?

Some researchers believe that dreams serves a function other do not.

Some believe dreams facilitate consolidation of dreams.

Everyone dreams?

No. Very few number of people recall few dreams if any.

How long do dreams last?

It is unclear yet.

However, dreams occur during REM sleep which lasts for 45 minutes to two hours. 

What are most dreams about? 

Various types of dreams cannot be confined to this formula but most dreams occur about daily worries and stressors. 

What are common sleep disorders?

Some common sleep disorders include:

– Anxiety dreams

– REM behavior disorder

– Dreams of depression

– Recurrent nightmares

How do I control my anxiety dreams?

Consider these three steps to deal with your anxiety dreams i.e 

Imagery rehearsal therapy

Recording the dreams

Changing the dreams

Please ask any questions or write your opinion about the article in the comments section below.