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sleep / mental health
How to Prevent Anxiety Dreams
by BetterSleep
Mar 8 2022 • 8 min read
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A good night’s sleep is essential for mental and physical health. You may get enough hours of shut-eye, but is it restful if you are plagued by dreams that fill you with anxiety? Sleep is generally good for reducing anxiety, but bad, vivid dreams can leave you feeling unrested and uneasy.

This article will explore why people have anxiety dreams and some tips on preventing them.

What Are Anxiety Dreams?

An anxiety dream is any dream that makes you feel anxious, nervous, stressed, or even scared. Some people describe them as nightmares but don’t always include fear. It’s normal to wake up from these dreams feeling extremely unsettled and more stressed than when you went to sleep.

Everyone has their unique dreams, but certain themes run through most anxiety and stress dreams. Some common anxiety dreams include:

  • Drowning
  • Being chased
  • Fire
  • Natural disasters
  • Being unprepared
  • Being naked in public
  • Losing teeth
  • Forgetting an important event
  • Being late
  • Falling

Regular Dreams vs. Stress Dreams

Anxiety dreams differ from regular dreams because they usually have a higher emotional content. The dreamer may feel more fear, guilt, or shame than they would in a regular dream. These emotions can be so strong that they wake the person up from sleep.

However, all of us have experienced some of the above themes at one point or another in a dream. But these dreams can be much more frequent and intense for people with anxiety. They might have the same dream over and over, or they might have different dreams with similar themes.

People with anxiety might also have dreams about things that haven’t happened yet but are worried about. For example, someone about to take a big exam might dream of failing, even if they haven’t taken the exam yet.

The Science Behind A Stress Dream

There is some science to back up why people have anxiety dreams. Sleep is divided into two main types: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM. REM sleep is when we dream, and our brain is very active. Non-REM sleep is when we are in deep sleep, and our brain is less active.

People tend to have more anxiety dreams during periods of stress because they spend more time in REM sleep. This is the part of sleep when our brain is very active, and we are more likely to dream. Sleep research has found that when we are stressed, our bodies produce more of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the “stress hormone” because it helps our bodies deal with stressful situations.

Cortisol also affects our sleep cycle. It can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. When we finally fall asleep, we are more likely to spend more time in REM sleep. This increased REM sleep can lead to more anxious dreams and poor sleep quality.

However, we don’t necessarily have to be stressed to experience an increase in REM sleep. Anything that disrupts our normal sleep patterns can lead to more time spent in REM sleep and, as a result, more anxiety dreams. This includes jet lag, night shifts, and sleep disorders like insomnia.

Real-life stressors such as job loss, relationship problems, or financial troubles can also lead to more anxiety dreams.

Are There Benefits to Anxiety Dreams?

Sleep researchers have found that nightmares and stressful dreams have some benefits. Any type of dreaming helps the mind heal from traumatic events and difficult emotional experiences. Bad dreams might help you cope with stress.

If you think of your stressful dreams as a therapy that helps you work through real-world situations, they’re not so bad. Still, it’s never fun waking up anxious. Prioritize your sleep and stress management to get more hours of restful sleep with less anxiety.

Seeking Comfort After Loss? Dive Deep into Dreams of Departed Loved Ones.

Coping with Stress Dreams After Waking Up

Waking up with anxiety in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning is not a great way to rest. When it happens, take steps to manage the resulting anxiety. Here are some things that may help:

Write Down the Dream

As soon as you wake up, remember the dream as many details as possible. Write everything down. Don’t try to interpret the dream; just focus on getting it down on paper (or on your phone). Merely writing your dream down will help you release all the emotions and thoughts that you carry.

Take Some Deep Breaths

Once you have the dream written down, take a few deep breaths. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. This will help you start to calm down and may help you fall back asleep.

Make a Plan

If the anxiety from the dream is keeping you up, make a plan to deal with it. This may include relaxing before bed, writing down your worries in a journal, or talking to a therapist.

Talk to Someone

Sometimes it can help to talk to someone about your dream. This can be a friend, family member, therapist, or anyone you feel comfortable talking to. Talking about the dream can help you process it and may help you remember more details that can be helpful in interpretation.

Managing External Factors Behind Stress Dreams

Stress and Anxiety

As mentioned, stress can trigger anxiety, dreams, and nightmares. There are many different types of stress, but all of them can lead to increased anxiety and cause you to have poor sleep quality. It’s important to manage stress in your waking life so that it doesn’t lead to anxiety dreams.

Sleep Deprivation

When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to have bad dreams. The lack of sleep can lead to an increase in stress hormones, which can then trigger anxiety. To avoid this, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. What this looks like will vary from person to person, but most people need around 7-8 hours.

Big Life Changes

We can’t always control the major life changes that happen to us, but we can control how we deal with them. Going through a big change may be exciting and positive, or it may be stressful and negative. Either way, it can lead to anxiety dreams. To prevent this, try to manage your stress levels as best you can during big life changes.


Life-threatening events or other traumas are triggers for anxiety dreams. For example, frequent dreams about being chased or feeling like you can’t escape can signify trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you’ve experienced something traumatic, it’s important to seek professional help. A therapist can help you process the trauma and develop coping strategies.

Substance Use

Some people use alcohol or drugs to cope with stress, worsening their anxiety and leading to even more health problems. There is no better solution to stress than facing it head-on. If you’re struggling with anxiety, seek professional help. A therapist can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms and manage your anxiety.


The lack of sleep associated with insomnia can lead to anxiety dreams. If you have insomnia, talk to your doctor. They may be able to prescribe sleep medicine or suggest other treatments.

Anxiety Dreams and Your Health

Anxiety dreams tend to be disruptive, but they’re not typically dangerous. However, anxiety dreams may be more serious if you have a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea. This is because sleep disorders can cause disruptions in your breathing during sleep.

Some people with sleep apnea stop breathing for short periods during sleep. This can cause anxiety and may even lead to death. Other conditions, such as narcolepsy, can also cause disruptions in breathing during sleep.

Here are other sleep disorders that may cause anxiety dreams:

Restless Legs Syndrome: This disorder causes an irresistible urge to move your legs. Those with it often report feeling anxious and stressed because of their constant need to move.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder: This disorder causes your legs to jerk or twitch during sleep. It can cause anxiety and disrupt your sleep.

Night Terrors: Night terrors are a type of sleep disorder that causes you to feel terror and fear at night. You may scream, thrash around, or have trouble breathing when you have a night terror. Night terrors are different from nightmares and can be more serious.

Nightmare Disorder: When you have a nightmare, you wake up feeling scared and anxious. Nightmare disorder is a condition that causes you to have nightmares more frequently.

Anxiety Dreams and Emotional and Mental Health

Emotions play a role in anxiety dreams. Dreams are symbolic and may represent our fears, worries, and anxieties. If you’re dealing with emotional or mental health issues like depression or anxiety, you may be more likely to have anxiety dreams.

Talk to a therapist if you think your anxiety dreams are connected to your emotional or mental health. They can help you understand and interpret your dreams and develop coping strategies. Some may also suggest medication to help with anxiety or depression. For example, your doctor may prescribe an SSRI medication if you have a generalized anxiety disorder. This can help reduce anxiety and may also reduce the frequency of anxiety dreams.

Cognitive behavioral treatment has also been found to help treat sleep disorders related to anxiety. This therapy can help you manage your emotions and change how you think about your dreams. Some people may find relief from anxiety and dreams by practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga.

Relaxation Strategies For Restful Sleep

If you can prevent or manage triggers for anxiety dreams, you can reduce their frequency. In addition to consulting with your doctor or therapist, you can use relaxation strategies before bed—meditation, stories, gentle exercise—to get in a better state of mind for restful sleep.

BetterSleep provides all of these tools, soothing sounds, and music to help ease anxiety before bed. Relaxing with BetterSleep can help you avoid the triggers that lead to anxiety dreams and get the restful sleep you need.

In addition to some of the tips we mentioned above, here are more relaxation strategies for better sleep:

Exercise During the Day: Exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety. It can also improve sleep quality. However, avoiding exercise close to bedtime is important as it can make it harder to fall asleep.

Create a Bedtime Routine: A bedtime routine can help your body and mind relax before sleep. This may include taking a hot bath, reading a book, or writing in a journal. You may also want to avoid screen time close to bedtime, as the blue light can make it harder to sleep.

Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol: Caffeine and alcohol can both interfere with sleep. If you’re struggling to sleep, avoid caffeine after 2 pm and limit alcohol to one daily drink. Drinks that contain caffeine include coffee, tea, and energy drinks. If you’re looking for herbal tea remedies to help reduce anxiety, check out our top 5 herbal tea recipes to relieve anxiety and stress.

Practice Relaxation Techniques: Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can help reduce stress and anxiety. They may also improve sleep quality. To get started with deep breathing, sit comfortably and place one hand on your stomach. Slowly inhale through your nose, filling your stomach with air. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this process for 10 minutes.

Get in a Comfortable Position: When you’re ready for bed, make sure you’re in a comfortable position. This may mean using extra pillows or blankets to support your back or neck.

Try a Sleep Aid: If you’re still struggling to sleep, there are over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids available. Talk to your doctor about which option may be right for you.

These changes can help you get the restful sleep you need to avoid anxiety dreams. When you wake up feeling refreshed, you’ll be better able to cope with the day’s stressors.

Anxiety Dreams and When to See a Doctor

Most people don’t need to see a doctor for anxiety dreams. However, you may want to talk to your doctor if you have frequent or disruptive anxiety dreams. They can rule out any underlying medical conditions and refer you to a therapist if needed.

If you’re wondering whether you should see a doctor for your anxiety dreams, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do my anxiety dreams happen often?
  • Do my anxiety dreams disrupt my sleep?
  • Do my anxiety dreams cause me distress during the day?
  • Have I tried relaxation techniques and other self-care measures without success?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might want to talk to your doctor. They can help you find ways to manage your anxiety dreams and get the restful sleep you need. In the meantime, you can continue practicing relaxation techniques and using BetterSleep to ease anxiety before bed.

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