Nightmares are terrible, period, but bad dreams that are specifically tied to something you're already feeling anxious about? Yeah, those can feel like direct attacks in the middle of the night. I've dreamt about throwing up, bugs crawling on me, and someone breaking into my house — all causing me to wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, anxiety spiraling out of control. It's . . . not great. Sometimes, my bad dreams mimic exactly what I'm feeling anxious about (like when I just saw a giant spider before bed). Other times, they're about something else, but still seemingly spurred by my anxiety levels. To find out if anxiety really can cause bad dreams, we went straight to the experts.
Can Anxiety Cause Bad Dreams?
You're not imagining it — the experts we spoke with overwhelmingly agreed that anxiety can contribute to bad dreams. "Anxious thoughts while someone is asleep can manifest themselves as bad dreams or stress dreams," Alex Dimitriu, MD, a double board-certified physician in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, told POPSUGAR. "Stress dreams, such as missing an important event, a test, or a flight, are often quite common in people undergoing stress during their daily lives. In turn, this mental activity can also activate the body and result in a lighter, more fitful sleep."
Although the reasons why we dream are not fully understood, there may be times when your mind is simply trying to work through a challenge from that day — one that could be causing you to feel anxious. "We do know from research that the brain continues to work on solving problems during sleep," explained Jason Durant, PsyD, a New York-based licensed clinical psychologist, who specializes in working with the LGBTQ+ community and those with a history of trauma. "This is likely to be true for the anxious mind, only with more emotionally challenging scenes playing out."
In that sense, dreaming can actually be a good thing, even if it feels uncomfortable at the time. "The mind is attempting to prompt you to use what tools you successfully used before when in a similar life situation, or to remind you what did not work and to try something new," Nancy Irwin, PsyD, C.Ht., a clinical psychologist and certified hypnotherapist who teaches dream analysis, told POPSUGAR. "There really are no 'bad dreams.' Whatever comes up in the mind at night is for your highest good — not to torture you or scare you, but to release or resolve what is going on at the time of the dream."
How Can You Prevent Bad Dreams Caused by Anxiety?
You may not be able to prevent bad dreams completely, but you can focus on managing your anxiety during the day, which may help alleviate the problem. "When we are bombarded with information, media feeds, and multiple inboxes, there simply is no time to just think anymore," Dr. Dimitriu said. "So what happens to all those thoughts we accumulate during the day? They pop up at night, or just as we are finally, silently falling asleep, or waking up." He suggests going for a walk, talking to friends, meditating, and journaling to process your feelings throughout the day.
Then, in the evenings, step away from your devices, and take some time to plot out a strategy for tackling the things that are causing you stress. "People with insomnia or stress dreams should spend 20 to 30 minutes each evening problem-solving and coming up with solutions with a pen and paper at hand," Dr. Dimitriu explained. "Thinking alone does not make anxiety better. This is where the importance of talking, writing, or even just sitting with one's feelings becomes essential."
You might also spend a few minutes trying to figure out what your anxiety dreams are trying to tell you. "You have the answers within you to 'crack the code' on the symbols, people, actions, etc. in your dreams," Dr. Irwin told POPSUGAR. "Sometimes they seem absurd, random, farcical, or scary. Ask yourself what the feeling is in the dream that mirrors what is going on in your life personally, professionally, and health-wise — that's how you mine the gift of a dream."
Of course, if your anxiety or bad dreams are causing you to lose sleep or affecting your ability to function during the day, it's important to seek help. Talk to your therapist, psychiatrist, or general practitioner about your concerns.