Everyone knows that anxiety affects thoughts. But what you may not know is that anxiety can affect your subconscious mind as well. Your dreams are affected by what you do and think during the day, and in many cases they may create more intense, vivid, and incredible dreams that may cause you to wonder: are dreams and anxiety related?
Dreams = Anxiety?
No one can tell you that your dreams are definitely caused by your anxiety. But then no one else can see your dreams. Learn more about your anxiety by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test.
How Anxiety Affects Thoughts
Every type of anxiety disorder has the potential to affect how you think, what you worry about, and what you experience during the day. That's why it's so important to learn more about your anxiety so that you can tell what you're doing, experiencing, and eventually what you can do to cure it. Take my anxiety test now to learn more.
Dream Interpretation and Anxiety
Scientists currently believe that dreams do not necessarily have meaning. That is - dream interpretation itself is likely a fake science, and convinces people that their dreams meant something they may not mean.
That is not to say that "all" dreams have no meaning. There are often unique cases of dreams which obviously occur for a reason. But often this reason isn't the dream trying to tell you something. Rather, it's something you thought or think that is telling the dream what to display. There are two beliefs about dreams:
- Dreams are occur because your brain is trying to make connections between various thoughts. Sleep is when memories and brain connections are made. Then, the dream itself is your brain trying to turn those thoughts into a story so that it makes sense to you. This is why dreams are often so random and unusual. The content in dreams can occur at any time in your life, but the more recently you thought about, saw, or did the subjective the dream, the more likely it is to be included.
- While dreams aren't trying to tell you something, you can still learn something about how you see the dream. For example, if you yourself feel that the dream meant something to you, and you can explain/verbalize what it is, that's still interesting and relevant when it comes to understanding the way you think. It's rarely a good idea to act on a dream, but thinking about what the dream means to you can still be revealing to yourself - provided you realize that you're the one interpreting it that way. It's not the dream telling you something you don't realize.
So with that in mind, we can see where anxiety can affect dreaming. But to be more specific, let's look at the potential causes of dreaming issues from anxiety:
- Many Thoughts Those with anxiety are far more likely to have a lot of random, interspersed, and nervous thoughts. Because of that, it's possible that their dreams may be covering a wider range of topics than the average person, and that means more interesting and strange "storylines" that the person is going to remember.
- Emotional Effect Your emotions when you go to sleep can affect your dreams. It's not clear how, but it's possible that anxiety changes the way you dream (and how it configures storylines) based on your nervousness, your emotions, and even the way those emotions affect your mind.
- Memory Those with anxiety also have a tendency to focus on things they otherwise wouldn't focus on. So it's possible that you're not actually having more unique dreams, but rather your brain is trying harder to remember them when you wake up. Those without anxiety may wake up and focus on their day, while those with anxiety may wake up and focus on their dreams.
- Neurotransmitters Somehow, neurotransmitters likely play a role in dreaming, and they also can be affected by anxiety. Kava, a common herbal supplement for anxiety, is known to affect dreaming, and it's believed this is because of the way it affects your brain chemistry. It's possible that anxiety itself does something similar to your brain.
- Sleep Problems Anxiety also creates sleep problems. In most ways, anxiety actually prevents sleep, and so dreaming will be less common. But if this occurs, the body is more likely to have deeper sleeps when it is able to get rest (because of how tired the mind is). This may (although no studies have shown this) cause the brain to get to REM faster and possibly create these more intense dreams.
Again, dreaming is such a complex issue that there is no way to definitively tell why dreaming and anxiety are related, but these are the potential issues at play.
Not all dreams are going to be stressful or cause anxiety. In fact, it's not uncommon to have relatively normal dreams that are simply more intense than you experienced without anxiety. But since emotions affect dreams and since anxious thoughts all day could create some anxious dreaming, anxiety-producing dreams are not a surprise.
Night Panic and Anxiety
It should also be noted that some people with anxiety experience nighttime panic attacks, and may attribute that to their dreams. But anxiety actually isn't the leading cause of nighttime panic attacks. Those are usually caused by sleep apnea, which then causes ventilation issues which trigger a panic attack.
Is Dream Overload Preventable?
Contrary to what some believe, dreams aren't something you can easily control. Ideally, the way to control your dreams is by controlling your thoughts and your emotions, and the only way to do that is to focus on some way to reduce your anxiety.
I've helped hundreds of those with unusual and vivid dreams control their anxiety. Start with my free 7 minute anxiety test. It'll help you learn more about your anxiety and find effective treatment options.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.