man laying in bed having stressful dream
Sleep Health

Common Stress Dreams: Why You Have Them and What They Might Mean

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    Last Updated
    October 14, 2021
    min read

    Experts don’t know exactly why dreams exist. There are scientific reasons as to how they occur, but their significance is up for debate. Sigmund Freud introduced dream interpretation in the ‘50s, and psychiatrist Carl Jung saw dreams as literal messages from the subconscious.

    There have been attempts to decipher dreams since the first dream was ever dreamt. Although dream interpretation has remained popular, there isn’t much evidence to back up any analyses. However, patterns are evident among people that experience the same type of dreams.

    Stress affects the quality of sleep, and it may play a role in the formation of certain dreams. Anxious states lead to hyperarousal and poor sleep quality, throwing off the delicate balance between sleep and wakefulness.

    This may be the reason for more frequent nightmares. While it’s not known how to control dream content, exactly, there is a clear increase in bad dreams when the dreamer is in a heightened state of anxiety in their waking life.

    Especially if you’re experiencing some daily stressors, dreams may serve as a way to process your waking emotions. Oftentimes, however, these dreams will be more symbolic and abstract — and may require some self-reflection to find their true meaning. Remember that, although common, the meaning behind these dream themes is entirely subjective.

    What Are Stress Dreams?

    Stress Dreams, sometimes referred to as anxiety dreams are during the REM cycle that create a feeling of stress and anxiety and will often wake you in the middle of the night. Keep in mind you are not the only one waking up stressed out. Below are some of the most common stress dreams and what they mean.

    1. Loose Teeth

    If you have a dream in which your teeth seem to be falling out, rotting, breaking, or even crumbling, you’re not alone. This type of dream is commonly reported by those who are experiencing stress in their daily lives. There is a report written by Herodotus, the Ancient Greek “father of history,” in which Hippias, an aristocrat, dreams about sneezing and losing a tooth. As a historian, Herodotus notes this as an omen of the Persian invasion the next day.

    Along the same lines, dreaming about losing teeth may be a bad omen or an indication of stress in modern life. More specifically, it is thought that you may — currently or soon — be going through:

    • Death of a loved one;
    • Changing your job;
    • Breaking up with a partner;
    • Grappling with religious beliefs;
    • A big move;
    • Depression.

    Some sources also say that physical sensations during sleep may leak through to your dreams. If you are a habitual tooth grinder, this may be the case. In fact, teeth grinding and jaw clenching are usually associated with stress — so that only furthers the idea that negative dental dreams are likely due to stressful, transitional situations. In any case, these toothy nightmares are typically a sign that you should seek the help of a comfier pillow, a dentist, or mental health professional.

    2. Heights

    A practical explanation for jolting awake and feeling like you’re about to fall is what is known as a hypnic jerk. The reason for hypnic jerks isn’t exactly known, but it’s theorized that exercise, stimulants, stress, or poor sleeping habits may all play a role. If you are stressed or doing other activities, like drinking caffeine or exercising too close to bedtime, this may increase your propensity to experience these jolts and related images of heights.

    If you are dreaming of falling from great heights — or even just standing at the edge — you are among the majority. Researchers estimate that falling dreams will occur at least five times in every person’s life. These nightmares may include variations on falling, like slipping or being pushed. Regardless, these frightful falls seem to denote:

    • Losing control;
    • Lacking confidence;
    • Fear of failure;
    • Feeling vulnerable.

    This could stem from a variety of situations — from being scared to lose a job to feeling like you won’t be picked for a team. Any form of inadequacy or feeling like something will quite literally slip out from under you may cause this type of nightmare. Alternatively, you could just be falling off the side of your too-small twin bed, and it’s time to look into a new, more supportive mattress.

    3. Drowning

    Similarly, if you are having nightmares of drowning, you are likely feeling like you have lost control of your life. This may include life situations, such as relationships or careers, or it could simply be a loss of control of your emotions. Manifestations of this in dreams usually appear as rising waters or even mud, sand, and milk. Whatever the case, if you find yourself dreaming about any sort of substance overtaking you and your surroundings, you’re likely:

    • Overwhelmed;
    • Feeling like you’ve lost yourself;
    • Ready for a rebirth or rejuvenation of self;
    • About to undergo an emotional test.

    Pay attention to any subtle cues that accompany the drowning. If you’re being drowned forcefully, try to notice who is pushing you down. Remember that dreams are subjective, and you are allowed — and encouraged — to apply them to your unique situation. On the other hand, if you dream about sitting in shallow water, you may just need to change the sheets.

    4. Being Unprepared

    Showing up anywhere unprepared is a stressful situation — in real life and in your dreams. Whether your nightmare includes being ill-prepared for a class, exam, performance, or otherwise, you’re likely:

    • Usually prepared for all situations;
    • Feeling unprepared for a certain situation;
    • Feeling inadequate in some area of your life.

    While this is an overwhelming feeling, it’s normal. It’s impossible to be prepared at all times, but a good night’s sleep may help alleviate some of the stress associated with unpredictable situations. Try resetting your internal clock or even finding a new, more comfortable sleeping position.

    5. Embarrassment

    Humiliation may come in several forms depending on what would make you feel the most vulnerable. Common dreams in this theme include arriving somewhere naked or in a state of undress, people laughing at you, and using the bathroom or soiling yourself in public. If you’re having nightmares full of embarrassing moments, you may be:

    • Nervous about an upcoming event;
    • Scared of looking stupid in front of others;
    • Ready to explore your insecurities and overcome them.

    Take note of what you are embarrassed about, where you are, and who is around you. This may give you insight into how to heal parts of yourself and move forward with more confidence.

    6. Getting Lost

    Be it in a maze or a shopping mall, dreaming about getting lost is a disorienting feeling. Unsurprisingly, this dream theme typically means you are anxious and feeling lost in your waking life. You could be:

    • Searching for something in particular;
    • Unsure of your path in life;
    • Feeling confused or frustrated with a situation.

    Again, this is entirely subjective to your life. Take a critical look at the situations and relationships around you. If you’re feeling uncomfortable or confused, it may be worth it to seek some clarity.

    7. Being Chased

    Being chased is a quintessential nightmare occurrence. You may be chased down by monsters, hunted by killers, or even stalked by people you know. The nightmare, itself, is stress-inducing, but it’s likely caused by anxiety in real life. Poor sleeping habits may exacerbate stress, and stress may lead to less sleep — so it’s a vicious cycle. Use your dreams of being chased to provide insight into what’s going on that could be contributing to your negative state, such as:

    • Running away from your problems;
    • Avoiding people or places that cause you stress;
    • Being overwhelmed with responsibilities.

    To face these issues head-on, it’s crucial to work on sleeping better. Then, you may be able to deal with stressors more directly.

    8. Car Troubles

    You could be dreaming about car troubles that you’re having in real life, or it could be completely unrelated. If you’re having bad dreams about out-of-control driving, vehicles breaking down, or even being involved in a car crash, you are most likely stressed. You could have:

    • Inner guilt or remorse;
    • Difficulties with dealing with the consequences of a breakup;
    • Ongoing conflict with others;
    • Financial issues.

    Whatever the case, there’s likely some strain or turmoil in your everyday life. Dreaming about car troubles just emphasizing your need to push through and come out the other side — stronger and safer for next time.

    Dealing With Stress-Induced Nightmares

    Even if your type of nightmare isn’t included on this list, it may be worth it to explore the underlying cause. Although dream interpretation isn’t an exact science, self-exploration is usually a constructive experience. Everyone has room to change and grow — and if your nightmares help you realize where you should improve, embrace the chance to treat the source of your bad dreams. Nip those issues in the bud, and the nightmares will be likely to stop, too.

    How to Prevent Stress Dreams

    But what if you do all you can to alleviate stress and your dreams continue? If you’re dealing with recurring, anxiety-inducing dreams and nightmares, take specific steps to address them.

    • Talk to a counselor about dream therapy: According to integrative therapist Dr. John Moore, dream therapy is “a technique whereby dreams, including recurring dreams, are explored and analyzed to help understand stressors.”
      • This includes keeping a dream journal. You’ll note the images and themes that pop up in your stress dreams. By doing so, you establish a positive self-care ritual that helps mitigate stress.
      • If you don’t feel your dreams are severe enough to require therapy, you can still try journaling about them to identify stressful elements.
    • Try imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT): IRT achieved positive results in a clinical study and is endorsed by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for the treatment of nightmares. With IRT, you’ll rewrite the negative aspects of a nightmare. Then, you’ll rehearse the rewritten dream imagistically during the day. Visualize the revised dream before you go to sleep.
    • Write about your concerns: Moore also recommends reflecting and journaling about a specific concern before you go to sleep. Then, follow up by noting the images from your stress dream after you wake up. This can increase your awareness of internal conflicts you need to resolve.
    • Practice deep relaxation techniques: Proven stress-reduction methods include focusing on your breath, guiding the imagery in your mind, doing mindfulness meditation, as well as practicing yoga, tai chi, and qigong.
    • Practice good sleep hygiene: This is a way of reducing stress. Turn screens off at least an hour before bed. Remove clutter in your room, dedicate it to nothing but sleep, and exercise earlier in the day.


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