What Your Dreams Could Be Telling You About Your Health
You know that dream you have—the one that makes you wake up worried and on edge? The "I'm so glad that was just a dream" dream?
The one where you're failing a test (wasn't high school so long ago?), being chased or are told that your partner is leaving you?
These dreams are worth paying attention to—and maybe even doing something about. Because, yes, your dreams may serve as a potent clue to your overall mental health, concluded a study in Scientific Reports in 2018. Researchers asked participants to complete a questionnaire assessing their well-being and also asked them to keep a dream journal. Those who had more anxiety were more likely to have negative dreams.
"We have thoughts, fears or anxieties during the day—and they have to go somewhere. It's not a surprise that these may play themselves out in a dream state," says dream interpreter and medium Alaine Portner. "That's the way your body finds homeostasis, or balance," she says.
An anxiety dream may be your way of trying to work out unresolved issues or conflicts, either those that are long-term and simmering under the surface or things that just happened that you still haven't come to terms with. Thing is, they may linger if you don't take care of yourself in real life. "Dreams can create a greater awareness of our subconscious and are therefore capable of providing guidance and helping you move out of fear and into greater happiness," Portner says.
As scary and impactful as they can be (perhaps you make your partner apologize to you after he wronged you in your dream), they're sending a very clear message: Pay attention, says Portner.
What Your Anxiety Dreams Mean
We asked Portner for her take on a few common themes in anxiety dreams, but know that they don't give the full picture or explanation on what's happening—only a place to start and a jump-start into self-examination. "No one can interpret your dreams better than you," says Portner. Here are five common themes:
Your boss, co-workers or friend did you dirty
If your dream is focused on one person, it's easy to assume it's all about them or that they're the problem. But part of addressing stress and anxiety is figuring out what you can do about it (in real life) and focusing on that. "You are the person in reception of that anxiety and are the only one who can control the outcome," says Porter. The big takeaway here is that it's not the other person who's at fault. You have no power over what they do, only the steps you take to make your situation better. Maybe that's going to be talking to your boss about a festering problem or diplomatically confronting a friend.
You're being chased by a wild animal
Sometimes, what's chasing you can also appear as an unidentifiable object, says Portner. When you're being pursued, it's a sign that "Things are out of order in your life. Whatever is chasing you is bigger than you. In reality, it's the anxiety that's out of control," she explains.
You miss the bus, show up late to a test, can't find your locker or have no one to sit with at lunch
What a throwback. "We have these types of recurrent dreams because we've been in these places before, and they're imprinted anxious memories," says Portner. That's why when you're anxious now, you may revert back to a formative time when you felt those same feelings. High school may be in the past, but those memories can be resurrected with today's anxieties.
Your partner broke up with you
"You're scared about being alone. You don't even need to have a bad relationship to have this dream," says Portner. In fact, it may have nothing to do with your relationship at all, but may relate to the loneliness you feel in this state of isolation we're in during the pandemic.
You're falling through the sky
You weren't quite ready to take off and fly. Ultimately, "[these types of] anxiety dreams can indicate that you're trying to prepare yourself for something bigger, but you don't feel ready enough," says Portner.
5 Steps to Dealing with Anxiety Dreams
1. Say thank you
After you shake off that just-waking-up sleep inertia, give some gratitude to that scary or uncomfortable dream. It's sending you a signal that you're feeling a bit out of balance or there's something more going on inside you that needs to be explored, says Portner. Flip your thinking from avoidance to appreciation and understand that the most self-compassionate next step is to take care of yourself.
2. See the possibility of change
Have that breakup dream? Again, it all comes down to doing what's in your control. "You can open yourself up to your partner more and focus on showing them love," says Portner. Similarly, if you're routinely dreaming about work, is there anything you can do to change your situation now? Set up boundaries on your hours "in office"?
3. Hone your habits
There are certain triggers for anxious thoughts, like watching the news, your social media feed and scrolling Twitter. Consume those before bed, and your mind may dwell on them later. Porter advises trading potentially anxiety-triggering habits for calming ones. "Try to empty out your mind before you go to sleep," she says. Catch up on news earlier in the day and reserve the 10 minutes before bed for a guided meditation (these are easy to find on apps like Headspace, Calm and Sleep Cycle), stretching or reading a pleasant book.
4. Take care of your body
Stress and anxiety may throw once-healthy habits to the wayside, but consuming excessive alcohol and over-caffeinating are related to sleep disturbance. Focus on eating well, exercising regularly and doing activities that help you to relax.
5. Get help when you need it
If life is busy and you know you're muscling through your day, you may think you're able to successfully ignore or live with anxiety. Your dreams may be telling you otherwise. Don't hesitate to get help to address anxiety by talking to someone, whether that's turning to a trusted loved one or reaching out to a therapist.