Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/29/2022
Stress can invade our lives in many ways. The upcoming deadlines, the quarterly reports — they can give us nightmares (if we’re able to sleep at all). When there’s an obvious source for these problems (like a big presentation), usually it’s easy to deal with the problem. But when bad dreams are coming for no particular reason, it may be a sign that you’re having anxiety dreams.
Anxiety dreams aren’t just a plot tool in your favorite sitcom. They’re a real symptom of underlying anxiety for normal people, and if you’ve had some of your own, you probably know the feeling of waking up in a panic and needing time to come out of it, even after you realize it was all a dream.
If these dreams have become a pattern for you — if they affect your quality of life — it may be time to do something about them once and for all.
Anxiety is a perception of danger or threats, but these perceived threats may be exaggerated or overestimated to the point of causing more distress from the worry than the danger itself.
Depending on the form of anxiety you’re talking about, a variety of symptoms may pop up, from restlessness and fatigue to irritability and sleep disturbances.
Anxiety dreams, meanwhile, are just that: dreams that cause us anxiety. They happen in our sleep, and even if they depict ridiculous scenarios, they can be representative of real problems in our waking life.
Stress and anxiety are generally associated with poor sleep — we’ll get to insomnia in a moment — but it’s not always the case that stress prevents sleep, and it’s not always the case that anxiety gets left on the bedside table when you doze off.
Anxiety dreams or stress dreams are typically signs of an external, waking source of anxiety. Whether it’s work, school, relationships, health or another antagonistic source of fear, your body responds to this anxiety in many ways, and one can be bad dreams related to — or symbolic of — those issues.
We’re not here to break down the “what does this mean?” type of questions here — whether you feel your teeth liquifying in your head or are constantly chased by zombies, or even if you’re just caught unprepared for a school you graduated from 20 years ago.
That’s a conversation between you and your therapy professional — we’re only here to cover the how and why of anxiety dreams, and what you can do to alleviate them.
That said, exactly how anxiety affects your dreams from a physiological perspective isn’t totally clear, but the long and short of it is that if your body is experiencing a stress response during the day, leading your mind to wander to worries, there’s no reason your unconscious mind won’t do the same thing to a still-stressed body at night.
Anxiety can cause you a lot of problems centered around the bedroom, from sexual dysfunction, to insomnia, sleep disturbances and more.
But your anxiety may also be the cause of nightmares, which can be triggered by stress or anxiety, trauma, and similar disorders of the mood.
One study looked at older peoples’ dream reports based on perceived anxiety and positivity, and found that anxiety affected waking and dreaming, and that dream reports could serve as a measure of mental health.
Furthermore, according to some research, depression and anxiety problems in your waking hours can create a sort of endless loop — these conditions can increase your nightmare frequency, which can, in turn, lead to more problems with your mood as the unpleasant dreams persist.
Anxiety dreams are an important problem to address if they are considered “disordered” — and that means they have to meet a few criteria. They have to be frequent, create distress or impairment during the day and cause fatigue, low energy or problems functioning in work or school life.
If that’s the case for you, then you may have a nightmare disorder or anxiety dream disorder, and it's time to seek treatment.
This may consist of a variety of treatment options, but most of these are going to treat the underlying problem as the primary issue. For you, that may mean anxiety treatments like stress reduction techniques, counseling, therapy, medication or treatments for underlying medical symptoms.
Those symptoms could very well include an anxiety disorder like generalized anxiety disorder, and if that’s the case, then you may also benefit from antidepressant medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors(SSRI), Tricyclic Antidepressants(TCAs), therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy(CBT) or, in some cases, exposure therapy
A thoughtful mental health professional might even use several of these treatments in common — in fact, that might be the best way to get you the desired results.
Anxious dreams happen to everyone, but if you’ve found yourself experiencing common anxiety dreams, waking up in a cold sweat or even just experiencing sleep deprivation, it may be a sign of more serious issues like post-traumatic stress disorder.
For these people and people with anxiety, the content of dreams like these can affect your daily life. And when that’s happening, it’s time to get help.
Help may include strategies for better, more restful sleep or even some clinical sleep medicine for a short time. But more than anything, it should involve professional support.
If you’re looking for a good night’s sleep and/or some support with your anxiety fight, it may be time to consider help, starting with resources on anxiety treatment options and more symptoms of anxiety.
Our online therapy options are available to you right now, and mental health professionals are here to help you find the right course of treatment to recapture your dreams for your own purposes.