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Alcohol and Mental Health

Stress Dreams: What They Are and How To Stop Them

July 12, 2023
16 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 12, 2023
16 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 12, 2023
16 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 12, 2023
16 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 12, 2023
16 min read

You’re being chased! No matter what you do, you just can’t seem to get away. Or you’re running late to work, but you just can’t seem to get there. Or you need to get to the airport, but your passport suddenly disappears into thin air. Dreams like these — stress dreams — are no fun, and they can cause lingering anxiety throughout the day. 

If you’ve ever had a stress dream, you know just how unpleasant they are. But what causes them, and how can we get rid of them? Let’s dive in.

What Are Stress Dreams?

Stress dreams are vivid, intense, distressing dreams caused by stress or anxiety. They usually occur during our REM (rapid eye movement) cycle, which is when we typically do most of our dreaming. 

Unlike nightmares that wake us up with a bolt of fear or terror, stress dreams wake us up after progressively heightening our level of stress. They’re linked to increases in cortisol — the stress hormone — and often a feeling of impending or heightening doom. In general, stress dreams are often more frustrating than they are frightening, particularly if they’re recurring. 

Everyone’s dreams can be different, but these are some of the more common ones:

  • Teeth falling out: This is one of the most common dreams associated with stress. It tends to occur in people who grind their teeth at night, which itself is a sign of stress. It can have different meanings signifying personal loss, such as death, loss of a job, or loss of relationship. 
  • Being chased: This is another common stress dream that could be associated with the feeling of being trapped or a worry that we can’t escape from.
  • Missing an important event: This could represent a real-life fear of missing something important, such as an exam, a flight, the first day of work, a celebration, etc. 
  • Being naked in public: This dream is also quite common, and it’s typically linked to feelings of inferiority or anxiety about how people perceive us, or a fear of being judged.

Other common stress dreams might focus on topics such as infidelity, being back at school, falling, being attacked, or death. 

What Causes Stress Dreams?

As the name implies, stress dreams are caused by psychological stress: they typically occur when we’re feeling anxious, stressed, or under extreme pressure. For instance, if we’re stressed about a deadline at work, we might dream that we forgot to finish the project or that we got fired for not finishing it in time. 

These factors make stress dreams more likely to occur: 

  • Stressful events: This is perhaps the most obvious. Being stressed about particular situations — such as work, school, relationships, health, or finances — can cause worries to seep into our dreams. For instance, maybe we were diagnosed with an illness, just lost a loved one, are going through a difficult break up, or are experiencing financial challenges. Any of these stressors might trigger a stress dream.

    Interestingly, even stressful world events can trigger stress dreams. For instance, one study found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, people slept more, but experienced lower quality sleep due to bad dreams and nightmares.
  • Our thoughts: Similarly, researchers have found that the thoughts we have before sleep tend to dominate the content of our dreams. In other words, if we’re obsessively worrying about something before we fall asleep, our chances of dreaming about it increase.
  • Anxiety disorders: Perhaps unsurprisingly, an anxiety disorder might increase our risk of having stress dreams. For instance, researchers have found that people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) tend to have more bad dreams than those without the condition. Sadly, these dreams are linked to increased anxiety during the day, creating a vicious cycle that worsens anxiety and sleep quality. 
  • Trauma: Studies indicate that war veterans and other people who have endured a traumatic experience or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can struggle with trauma-related stress dreams. For instance, being the victim of a sexual assault may contribute to having stress dreams. 
  • Sleep reactivity: Sleep reactivity is the degree to which stress disrupts our sleep. Genetics, neurobiological factors, and environmental stressors all play a role in our individual sleep reactivity. The more reactive we are, the greater our risk of developing a sleep disorder, such as insomnia. Heightened sleep reactivity causes worse sleep, decreased stress coping, and elevated stress levels.

Are There Any Benefits to Stress Dreams? 

Interestingly, sometimes stressful dreams can be beneficial, helping us prepare for something important. For instance, one study noted that students who had a stress dream before taking the medical school entrance exam performed better than those who didn’t have a stress dream.

Another study found that dreaming about a stressful event can help us mentally prepare us to tackle a task at hand. For example, an anxious dream about an important presentation might help us actually present better. 

One explanation for this could be the “social threat simulation theory,” which is the idea that dreams prepare us for social stress. This theory states that dreaming about threatening events has a biological function, making dreaming a useful, insightful teacher. 

Why Are Stress Dreams Problematic?

Besides being unpleasant, stress dreams can be problematic since they can interfere with our quality of sleep. Research has found that stress is a significant predictor of poor sleep: the more stressed we are, the more disturbed our sleep will be. Unfortunately, sleep problems can then lead to more stress, creating a vicious cycle. 

Quality sleep is important for our physical, mental, and emotional health, including our metabolism, energy levels, mood, and immune function. Research suggests that just a single night of sleep deprivation can cause us to age faster. However, good sleep patterns have actually been shown to add years to our life. If we’re continually stressed, chances are our sleep — and thereby our health — is taking a hit. 

How Can We Stop Stress Dreams? 

We might not be able to get rid of stress dreams altogether, but we can reduce our chances of having one. We can do this by taking steps to reduce our stress levels, manage our stress more effectively, and get a better night’s rest. Here are a few tips that can help: 

  • Practice constructive worry: Constructive worry can help us better manage our worries, fears, and anxieties. We can practice this each day by sitting down with a piece of paper and dividing it into two columns. On the left, write the worries that are most likely to keep you up at night. On the right, note a couple of steps you can take to tackle that worry (small steps count!). This practice helps us feel as though we’re more in control of our stress and worry. Plus, the sheer act of writing things out acts as a release. 
  • Journal: Journaling can be a powerful tool for managing stress and exploring our emotions. Oftentimes, the act of writing things down, such as our worries, fears, or anxieties, helps release them. It can also be helpful to journal about our stress dreams and approach them with a curious mindset. For instance, try asking yourself what the dream was trying to tell you and then write about it. This can also help us track our dreams and identify any patterns or triggers.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques can help relax our mind and body and they’re effective at helping reduce stress. Mindfulness, deep breathing, guided meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are some of the most beneficial. They can help activate our parasympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that relaxes our body after periods of stress or danger.  
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: To promote relaxation and sleep, it’s important to have good sleep hygiene and to create an environment that is optimal for sleep. Experts recommend keeping our room quiet, dark, and cool (65℉, 18.5℃), as this helps promote sleep. We should also aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, and eliminate blue-screen technology (computers, televisions, phones) at least 30 minutes before bed. 
  • Develop an evening relaxation routine: Try to incorporate an evening relaxation routine before shutting off the lights, such as taking a bath, doing some light stretching, meditating, journaling, or reading. 

Remember to be patient. We can’t expect our stress to vanish by practicing these just once, or even just for a week. We need to be consistent and stick with them. Over time, they’ll help lower our stress levels and prevent stress dreams from occurring.

When To Get Help With Stress Dreams

Those of us who’ve tried to manage stress dreams on our own and are still struggling with sleep issues should talk to a medical professional. They can evaluate our symptoms and determine appropriate treatment, which may involve psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two. 

Similarly, if we find that these types of dreams are causing significant distress and impacting our life, it’s wise to consider additional professional support from a mental health provider.

In general, we should seek professional help after 1 month of 3 or more nights of trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early. 

Finally, if you’re turning to alcohol to help manage stress or drinking excessively to “unwind,” this can harm your health and well-being, especially in the long run. Reframe can help you cut back on drinking and find healthier alternatives to managing stress.

Summary FAQs

1. What are stress dreams?

Stress dreams are vivid, intense, distressing dreams caused by stress or anxiety. They vary from person to person, but some of the more common stress dreams include teeth falling out, being chased, missing an important event, or being naked in public.

2. What causes stress dreams?

Stress dreams are caused by psychological stress or worries from everyday life. They can happen to anyone, but if we struggle with anxiety or PTSD we’re more likely to experience them.

3. What are stress dreams problematic?

Stress dreams can be unpleasant, leaving us feeling more anxious and stressed when we wake up. They can also significantly disrupt our quality of sleep, leading to a host of physical, mental, and emotional health issues.

4. How can I stop stress dreams?

We can reduce our chances of having a stress dream by better managing our stress and practicing good sleep hygiene. This includes practicing relaxation techniques (such as mindfulness or deep breathing), journaling, developing an evening routine, and creating a cool, dark environment for sleep.

5. When should I get help?

If stress dreams are interfering with your quality of life or ability to function, it’s important to contact a medical professional for help. In general, we should see a doctor after 1 month of experiencing 3 or more nights of trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early.

Take Control of Your Stress With Reframe

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