You’re naked in public. Your teeth are falling out. You can’t find the room to take your test. Imagine flitting from one to the other of these dreams nightly.

Ashley, 31, of Portland, Ore., says she darts from anxiety dream to anxiety dream all night. She can’t get to the dogs she’s pet sitting to feed them and let them out. There’s one with a baby in a hot car. “I knew I left the baby in the car. I didn’t forget but I just couldn’t get to the baby because I kept getting distracted by other things to do,” she says.

Kelly, 54 of Chicago, Ill., can’t ever graduate from high school. She keeps telling people she has two degrees and that this doesn’t make sense. Yet in the dream she can’t ever finish high school.

Jennifer of Tampa, Fla., and her 13-year old son both have dreamt they have Coronavirus. They don’t.

Welcome To Anxiety Dreams

“Obviously the general level of anxiety has gone up tremendously because people are fearful of COVID-19,” says Lea Lis, MD, a double board certified adult and child psychiatrist, and clinical professor at New York University with a practice in the Hamptons.

Coronavirus may be causing an uptick in anxiety dreams though no one is currently making their way to Nebraska looking for Mother Abigail–aka Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic The Stand, in which all the characters have the same dream.

 Nevertheless, anxiety dreams can be unnerving. Essentially, they’re bad or negative dreams that cause an overwhelming sense of dread, panic and fear.

“We know that people can problem solve in their dreams, and so, as the overall anxiety level has crept up, it is not uncommon that we may have more anxious dreams,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine, and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in the San Francisco Bay area.

 Dreams, according to Freud, and in reality, also have “day residue.” “This is the leftover unfinished business of the day that we try to catch up on, and resolve in our sleep,” he says. They’re a reflection of what’s going on in our conscious mind that becomes part of our unconscious, and we process it during sleep.

Another reason people may see an uptick in anxiety dreams is they could be sleeping more or later in the morning and waking up in the middle of their REM cycle of sleep, where you remember dreams more.

You needn’t have anxiety to have anxious dreams. Simply watching a lot of news about the virus, especially at night, being worried about your family and friends, work or the economic fallout are enough to stoke your anxiety dream flames.

How To Cope With Dreams In Overdrive

#1: Take a look at your sleep hygiene. Go to sleep and get up at the same time every day, even weekends. Lis says oversleeping can promote bad dreams. Make sure to work in exercise during the day, since studies show it helps you get more restful sleep at night. Avoid caffeine after lunchtime and don’t go heavy on alcohol in the evenings, which can fragment sleep. Instead, drink sleep-inducing tea like chamomile. Skip the news before bed and switch gears by reading a book or watching a funny show. “Activate your funny bone by adding humor into your bedtime preparation,” says Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Irvine, Calif., who advocates that humor relieves emotional stress and changes negative thinking patterns.

#2: Manage your stress. All that COVID-19 anxiety needs an outlet, so up your self-care game. Try meditation, yoga or an app for breathing visualizations like CALM. Listen to enjoyable music, watch comforting movies and work crossword or jigsaw puzzles. Read, make art or engage in a hobby. Dimitriu recommends journaling and problem solving based partly on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) principles, a type of talk therapy. Use three columns to write out your initial concern, perceived fear and a reasonable solution. All these self-care tactics can reduce your waking anxiety, help work out your worries, and promote relaxation so you’ll have less anxious dreams.

 #3: Reimagine your dreams. Image rehearsal is a technique used to help PTSD sufferers have less nightmares. You take the negative dream and restructure it to have a more positive outcome. If you dream that you can’t get to the test on time, then you think about all the tests you did get to on time and did well on. Lis says, spin the dream instead to ‘I’ve never not gotten to a test.’ “Talk back to it,” she says. You can reimagine more positive endings for all your anxiety dreams:  ‘I got to the dogs or the baby;’ ‘I did graduate;’ ‘I may have contracted Coronavirus but I recovered.’

 #4: Mindfully let go. Another option is to allow negative dream thoughts to flow by without giving them any attention. Rather than reprocess the dreams, just let them go. “Picture stuffing all your anxiety dreams into a balloon and watching it go off into space,” says Lis.

 Remember, these dreams are just a reflection of what’s happening during the day and may be the mind’s coping method for processing anxiety.  “Dreams say a lot about what our fears are,” says Lis. For instance, if you have constant dreams about failing a test, it may mean you’re anxious about failing something. Lis had one patient who dreamt she was on a rollercoaster that she couldn’t get off. That likely speaks to feeling out of control.

Certain SSRI medications may increase vivid dreaming, so talk to your doctor if you think that could be the culprit. You may also want to talk with a therapist about your anxiety dreams. “As with most things in psychology, getting them out by speaking, writing, or imagining, can help,” says Dimitriu.

Last Updated: Apr 13, 2020