Yes, Anxiety Can Cause Bad Dreams — Here’s How to Stop Them

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Nightmares are terrifying enough on their own, but anxiety never seems to make dreams much sweeter. In my own experience, anxiety-induced nightmares may include illness, crawling bugs, or even someone breaking into my house — all of which cause me to wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, and anxiety spiraling out of control.

Sometimes my bad dreams reflect the things I’m feeling anxious about in the real world (like when I saw a giant spider right before bed). Other times, the contents of the dreams are unrelated. Still — at least on an anecdotal level — dealing anxiety right before bed also seems to affect the overall intensity of my nightmares. But can anxiety really cause bad dreams? And if so, is there a way to stop it? To find out more about anxiety, nightmares, and how to have a better night’s sleep, we went straight to the experts. Read on to see how psychologists think real-world anxiety could affect you in dreamland.

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, tells PS. “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,” says 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,” say Nancy Irwin, PsyD, C.Ht., a clinical psychologist and certified hypnotherapist who teaches dream analysis. “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 Do You Stop Anxiety Dreams?

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 at night. “When we are bombarded with information, media feeds, and multiple inboxes, there simply is no time to just think anymore,” Dr. Dimitriu says. “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.

As you get ready for bed, it’s a good idea to have a solid sleep routine in place, even if that just means stepping away from your devices and taking some extra time to unwind and de-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 suggests. “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 could also take a few minutes 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 says. “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, it’s important to seek help. Talk to your therapist, psychiatrist, or general practitioner about your concerns for more specific medical advice.

Sydni Ellis is a PS contributor with her master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas. She loves talking about her passions, including writing, shopping, and reading murder mysteries.

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