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What are anxiety dreams and why do we get them?

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Anna Brech
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Had an anxiety dream? Join the club. The key is, not to shy away from them…

Presenter Zoe Ball has admitted having anxiety dreams ahead of her new gig fronting the BBC 2 Breakfast Show - the UK’s most listened-to radio programme. 

“I absolutely didn’t worry at all about work as I am so excited but that hasn’t stopped the anxiety dreams,” says Ball, who is set to replace Chris Evans in the hot seat next week.  

“I saw Lauren Laverne in Wogan House last week, and we compared [our anxiety dreams], so it makes me feel that I’m not on my own.”

Anxiety dreams are something that many of us are familiar with. Less potent than a nightmare, they are nevertheless unnerving and can lead to an “anxiety hangover” that casts a shadow over the following day.

To make things more confusing, they don’t always strike at the most obvious points, either. Sure, you may have anxiety dreams during a difficult break-up, or before taking on a shiny new job - as Ball found - but equally, they may emerge out of the blue. 


Anxiety dreams often revolve around the sensation of being exposed, unprepared or out of control.

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. 

“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.”

Dream of missing a train? You’re not alone

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. 

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.”

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. 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.