What Are Stress Dreams?

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Stress dreams are vivid, intense, and often distressing dreams that are caused by stress or anxiety. These dreams generally occur during REM sleep and focus on daytime worries. They can be upsetting, but they can also be more mundane.

Research has found that stress is a significant predictor of poor sleep, meaning that the more stressed people are, the worse their sleep will be affected. Unfortunately, sleep problems then lead to more stress and poorer stress coping.

Stress dreams don’t just interfere with sleep; they can also contribute to increased anxiety the next day. Finding ways to manage stress effectively can help minimize the risk of having stress-related dreams.

Learn more about how to recognize the signs of a stress dream and how to identify the cause. Also, explore some tips for how to treat and cope with stress dreams.

Characteristics of Stress Dreams

Some common signs of stress dreams include:

  • Falling asleep worrying
  • Waking up feeling anxious and unsettled
  • Having upsetting dreams focused on the source of your stress
  • Experiencing dreams that are focused on other topics but that are still distressing

Stress dreams are often focused on the things you are worried about during the day. So if you’re stressed about a project at work, you might dream that you forgot to finish the job or that you made a terrible mistake.

Identifying Stress Dreams

Stress dreams tend to differ from normal dreams and nightmares in a few different ways. Normal dreams tend to be more mundane. They can range from pleasant to completely unmemorable. Nightmares, on the other hand, are marked by feelings of intense fear or terror.

Unlike regular dreams or nightmares, stress dreams inspire feelings of anxiety, worry, frustration, or dread. Such feelings often linger after waking and can grow worse as the source of the anxiety remains unresolved.

If you are experiencing stress dreams, it is important to identify the source of your stress and take steps to manage it effectively.

Causes of Stress Dreams

Stress is the clear cause of these dreams, but certain factors may make them more likely to occur. Factors that can contribute to their onset include:

Stressful Events

Dealing with situational stressors in your life is a common source of stress-induced dreams. When you go to sleep worrying about stress from work, school, relationships, health, or finances, those worries are more likely to make their way into your dreams as well.

Causes of such stress can include:

  • Academic pressures
  • Breakups, divorce, or other relationship problems
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Death of a loved one
  • Financial problems
  • Mental health conditions
  • Significant life changes
  • Substance use problems
  • Work problems

Stressful world events can also contribute to stress dreams. One study found that during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, people reported sleeping more—yet experiencing less quality sleep due to frequent awakenings, bad dreams, and nightmares.

Sleep Reactivity

Sleep reactivity refers to a person’s tendency to have their sleep disrupted by stress. Genetics, neurobiological factors, and environmental stressors all play a role in an individual’s sleep reactivity, and being more reactive increases the risk of developing an insomnia disorder.

Researchers have found that pre-sleep thoughts dominate the content of dreams. Worrisome thoughts increase arousal levels, leading to fragmented REM sleep, poor stress resolution, and can lead to a state of chronic hyperarousal.

The consequences of this heightened sleep reactivity are worse sleep, decreased stress coping, and the physical and mental strain of elevated stress levels.

Anxiety Disorders

Having an anxiety disorder may increase the risk of experiencing stress dreams. Researchers have found, for example, that people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) tend to have more bad dreams than those without the condition. Such dreams were linked to increased anxiety during the day, a vicious cycle that can increase anxiety and worsen sleep quality.

Cognitive Preparation

Stress dreams might not always be a bad thing, however. After all, a certain amount of stress can help prepare you to tackle a task and perform your best. In fact, dreams stemming from stress over an upcoming event may even give you a mental edge. 

One study found that dreaming about stressful events can help mentally prepare you to tackle the task.

For example, an anxious dream about an important exam may help you perform better on the actual test. The researchers concluded that “negative anticipation of a stressful event in dreams is common and that this episodic simulation provides a cognitive gain.”

And while stressful dreams might cause you to wake feeling anxious or worried, another study suggests that these dreams can improve emotional regulation and processing. In such cases, your dreams might seem unpleasant, but they might actually help you cope with life’s difficulties more effectively.

Types of Stress Dreams

The content of individual dreams varies considerably from one person to the next. According to some research, the vast majority of dreams focus on events from the previous day.

In such cases, such dreams are related to common stressors including:

  • Money worries or financial issues
  • Work
  • Personal relationships
  • Children and parenting issues
  • Health issues
  • Daily life stresses

But sometimes stress dreams involve content that isn’t directly related to your daily life. In such cases, you might find yourself experiencing common dreams focused on topics such as:

  • Infidelity
  • Losing teeth
  • Falling
  • Death
  • Being chased
  • Being attacked
  • Being late

Treatment for Stress Dreams

If you’ve tried to manage your stress dreams on your own but still struggle with sleep issues, it is important to talk to your doctor. They can evaluate your symptoms and determine if a medical or mental health condition might be contributing to your symptoms.

Treatments for the excessive stress that causes stress dreams may involve psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two.

Psychotherapy

Types of psychotherapy that can be helpful for stress include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy helps people learn to recognize the negative thoughts and cognitive distortions that contribute to feelings of stress and then replace them with more effective coping strategies.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): This form of therapy incorporates meditation, yoga, and mindfulness to help people better cope with stress.

Medication

In some cases, such as if you are experiencing anxiety or depression, your doctor may prescribe medications to help relieve your symptoms. Some medications that may be prescribed include anti-anxiety medications such as Ativan (lorazepam), Xanax (alprazolam), and Valium (diazepam). Antidepressant medications, including Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Paxil (paroxetine), may also be prescribed.

If your stress dreams are causing distress and interfering with your sleep, talk to a doctor or mental health professional. They may also refer you to a sleep specialist if you are experiencing symptoms of insomnia or another sleep disorder.

Coping With Stress Dreams

While it isn't possible to elimate all stress (and the associated risk of having stress dreams), but there are steps that you can take to reduce stress, manage it more effectively, and get a better night's rest. A few strategies that can help:

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Make sure that your sleep environment is comfortable, restful, and free of stress triggers. Go to bed and wake at the same time each day. Halt screen time an hour before bed and create a restful nighttime routine.

Schedule "Worry Time"

Worry time involves setting aside a specific, limited period of time to worry. By restricting how much you can worry about something, you are still able to think about ways to solve the problem without burdening yourself with non-stop worrying. This strategy, while it seems counterintuitive, can help reduce the amount of time you spend worrying each day.

Use Relaxation Techniques

When you can't eliminate stress, you can find ways to help relax your mind and body. Effective relaxation techniques include such things as:

Experimenting with different techniques can help you find what works best for you. Over time and with more practice, these techniques can help lower your stress levels and may make stress dreams less likely to happen.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.