Anxiety dreams: why do we get them, and what do they really mean?

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Anna Brech
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Anxiety dreams – or night terrors – are a phenomenon most of us will have experienced at some point in our lives. But what can they tell us about our subconscious worries? Here’s how to find out.

You’ll know when you’ve had an anxiety dream when you wake up and feel it afterwards – a sensation sometimes called an “anxiety hangover”.

While it’s likely many of us will be familiar with this phenomenon, anxiety dreams are nevertheless unnerving – and have the potential to cast a shadow over the following day.

Often identified as a dream which revolves around the sensation of being exposed, unprepared or out of control, the main problem with anxiety dreams is just how unpredictable they are: you may have anxiety dreams during a particularly stressful period of your life, such as during a break-up or when you’re starting a new job, but they’re also known to pop up completely out of the blue. 

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Being naked in public is a very familiar one, as is walking on-stage without knowing your lines. You might find yourself transported to your A-Level exam hall, years after the fact, and without having done an ounce of revision. Or, you may try and solve a difficult problem, over and again, without any resolution or result.

While such dreams take on a surreal element, they shouldn’t be dismissed altogether, says California-based therapist Isadora Alman.

Instead, the key is to try and identify what root feelings they are magnifying, and how this might to relate to whatever you’re facing in day-to-day life. 

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“Trying to identify the feeling state is often a good way to interpret your dreams,” Alman writes in Psychology Today.

“Is the specific anxiety—feeling naked, trapped, exposed, unprepared—reflected in any way that is familiar to you? Are you dealing with it effectively?

“Reassuring yourself that you are taking steps to prepare yourself or manage a challenge at hand can allow you to start the day without that anxious dream hangover that often plagues those of us who don’t quite remember our dreams but must suffer an emotional fallout with no clear idea of what caused it.”

Woman running for a train
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For example, the common dream of missing a train “indicates that you feel you may be missing some opportunity to fulfil a particular ambition in waking life”, according to psychologist Ian Wallace.

Although you may wake up panicked, it doesn’t mean you’ve actually missed an opportunity. Instead, it’s possible to re-frame the anxiety dream into motivation for whatever plans you’ve been stalling on.

“[It] is announcing that it is now time to embark upon this particular project,” says Wallace. 

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Professional dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg agrees that anxiety dreams don’t need to be threatening, but instead can be used as metaphors to think about what you’re doing in real life.

They can also be a prompt to take ownership over particular areas of your life, be that by tackling a new project, or managing your stress overload.

“They [dreams] are with you every step of the way, advising you, smacking you in the face when you mess up. They’re your inner guru,” Loewenberg tells Mic. “It’s really important to keep up a conversation with them.”

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This article was originally published in 2019, but has been updated with new information throughout.

Images: Getty


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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