It was another one of those nights. You dreamt you were going back to school, and not only were you supposed to take an exam you hadn’t studied for, you also couldn’t find your clothes. So now you’re thinking, why am I having anxiety dreams?
In short, they bring our attention to things we’ve been trying to ignore, they help us resolve past issues and plan for future ones, and they highlight our need for self-acceptance.
Increasing research supports Carl Jung’s idea that dreams contribute to our well-being by compensating unbalanced conscious positions. Unhealthy attitudes and perspectives can be shifted by the experience of dreams.
Anxiety dreams, particularly those about examinations, performances, and being seen naked in public, may seem like they’re just a nuisance. But take a little more time with them, look a little closer, and they may reveal a deeper process in which you’re actually trying to work something through. When we work with this process, we can experience reduced anxiety, and a more adaptive mind set.
Here are three questions to help you get something out of these dreams:
1. Does the anxiety dream bring up something I’ve been trying to ignore?
According to a recent study, when people try to suppress a particular thought before going to sleep, when they try not to think about something that bothers them, that subject is more likely to surface in their dreams, and those dreams tend to be more distressed.(1)
When we’re dreaming we aren’t able to maintain the same inhibition we do when awake, so some things that we’d rather forget surface when our defenses are down.
For instance, let’s say you’ve been avoiding speaking with your boss about your salary. It’s been a long time since you had a raise, but you fear conflict in general and avoid it whenever you can. Your dream may not specifically show your boss, but it may picture you drawing back from a performance, from going on stage or entering a ring. It dramatically portrays the very thing you’re avoiding–conflict.
It’s time to consider dealing with your avoidance.
2. Is the anxiety dream trying to help me resolve a difficult situation from the past, or prepare for a difficult one in the future?
The trending theory about anxiety is that whatever its original cause, it persists only when we avoid the situation we fear. So the remedy is always to face into the fear, to expose ourselves to it gently, and to gradually become more comfortable with the situation and the fear itself.
Anxiety dreams may be our unconscious way of trying to expose ourselves to a fear so that it disturbs us less.
For instance, according to a study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, students that dreamt about their medical school entrance exam the night before the test actually did better than those that did not. The authors concluded that “the negative anticipation of a stressful event in dreams is common and that this episodic simulation provides a cognitive gain.”(2)
Further, according to increasing evidence for the Threat Simulation Theory of dreams, dreams serve a biological purpose in that they repeatedly simulate threatening events, and in doing do they “rehearse the cognitive mechanisms required for efficient threat perception and threat avoidance, leading to increased probability of reproductive success during human evolution.” (3)
In other words, when you have certain anxiety dreams, you may be practicing by leaning into the fear.
According to researcher Ernest Hartmann, dreams are hyper-connective. They creatively associate ideas and feelings–creating different sets of neural configurations–in a way that helps us adapt to what we’ve been through, where we are, and where we may be headed. When we’re awake our mode of thinking is too linear to allow us to develop these more creative ways of seeing our situation. (4)
3. Does the anxiety dream highlight my need to be more self-accepting and authentic?
Examination dreams aren’t just about examinations. And performance dreams aren’t just about performances. They’re also about a felt discrepancy between who we feel we are, and who we imagine the world expects us to be.
As in those dreams of being seen naked in public, we fear being seen for who we really are.
Because tests represent an assessment of whether we are meeting collective standards, examination dreams may actually point to a fear of being evaluated by society and not meeting their criteria. Similarly, performance dreams draw our attention to a fear that our capacity to play a certain role is being evaluated by society and that we fear we aren’t up to it.
Or, as I’ve explored in a previous post, trying too hard to be good may indicate that our life has become a test, an attempt to prove that we’re OK, that we’re respectable and not lazy.
The take-away is to explore what it is about yourself that you’re afraid of people seeing, and come to terms with it. Your dream may indicate that keeping up the performance is taking up too much of your energy and may not be worth it.
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Whatever the purpose of the dream may be, the most effective way to get something out of it is not to “figure it out” in some definitive way, but rather to engage with it: imagine into it, dream it onward, talk to the characters. The deeper your experience of it, the more likely it is that it will shift you in the direction you need to go.
A positive and inquisitive attitude toward your dreams can help you come to terms with your fears. (5) Rather than feeling at war with yourself, a more open attitude will go a long way in reducing your anxiety and having more comfort with your present situation.
(1). Kroner-Borowik, T., et al. 2013. “The Effects of Suppressing Intrusive Thoughts on Dream Content, Dream Distress and Psychological Parameters.” J Sleep Res 22 (5):600-4.
(2). Valli, K., et al. 2005. “The Threat Simulation Theory of the Evolutionary Function of Dreaming: Evidence from Dreams of Traumatized Children.” Conscious Cogn 14(1).
(3). Arnulf, Isabelle, et al. 2014. “Will Students Pass a Competitive Exam That They Failed in Their Dreams?” Consciousness and Cognition 29:36-47.
(4). Hartmann, Ernest. 2011. The Nature and Functions of Dreaming. New York: Oxford University Press.
(5). Barrett, Deirdre. 1993. “The “Committee of Sleep”: A Study of Dream Incubation for Problem Solving ” Dreaming 3 (2).