Essentially, anxiety dreams act as a form of nocturnal therapy, helping us to work through our fears and concerns.
When there are added stressors in our lives, our physiology gears up for a fight-or-flight response that can contribute to sleepless nights and anxious dreams. Up to 55% of dream content thematically relates to emotions experienced the day before, so, essentially, anxiety dreams act as a form of nocturnal therapy, helping us to work through our fears and concerns. They may even have a role in moderating our fears in waking life – making us less reactive and so more able to act more responsively in our daily lives.
As with all difficult emotions, the simplest way to decrease their intensity is to write them down or talk about them with a trusted friend or therapist. You can also reimagine your dream in a positive way, speaking up for yourself calmly and assertively. For instance, if you dream of entering the wrong Zoom meeting and people tell you you’re stupid, recall the dream scene but this time try saying, ‘Hey, I’m not stupid, I’m just getting the hang of this technology! There’s no need to be unkind.’ You can do the same for events during the day that made you anxious, imagining how you would have liked to respond or behave differently.
Moving into a ‘rest and digest’ mode for the night means practising good sleep and dream health before bedtime. In the evening, eat dinner before 7:00pm and avoid stimulants like alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine. Do vigorous exercise early in the day and only gentle stretching in the evening when our bodies are meant to be restful. Avoid ‘blue light’ from computers screens and instead make sure to get exposure to natural light during the day which helps to set the body’s circadian ‘clock’. Research suggests that Vitamin D deficiency can contribute to insomnia, so be sure to get your daily Vitamin D intake.
Sleep loves routine. Set regular sleeping hours. Clear your mind and rest your body with a gadget-free hour before bedtime. (If you do have to use blue-light technology before bed, set the screen lighting to ‘Night shift’ and avoid the news or social media.) Take a warm bath. Retire to a sleep-friendly room, quiet, softly lit, and about 65 degrees. Read something that lifts your mood. Before falling asleep, imagine yourself in a natural setting where you feel restful and safe. Think about the kind of dream you would like to have.
If you wake up anxious in the night, bring your attention to relaxing your body and mind. While lying in bed, breathe in and out deeply for ten breaths, slowly and evenly. Tighten and release different muscle groups in the body to relieve tension. Do a calming practice like repeating a mantra or saying a prayer. If worries persist, you can imagine putting your anxieties in a box, closing the lid and locking it until another time. Most importantly, think of things you are thankful for. Reimagine your dream. Surrender to sleep.
*An excerpt from this was published in Good to Know online magazine in ‘Why do I keep waking up early? Here’s what the experts have to say’ by Grace Walsh, August 13, 2020 2:22 pm.