15 Types of Anxiety Dreams: Causes + Meaning

August 10, 2020 | Casper Editorial Team

We don’t have much control over what we dream about. Dreams are the mind’s way of processing emotions, and when we’re under stress, our dreams can turn into anxiety dreams.
Anxiety dreams are unpleasant dreams that cause distress. They can be more off-putting than nightmares and can result in you waking up panicked or nervous. These feelings of angst tend to remain in your mind throughout the next day.
In order to take a peek under the sheets and learn more about what these dreams really mean, we tapped the minds of a few sleep experts to uncover what causes anxiety dreams and whether or not they mean anything.
To get the low-down on what exactly common anxiety dreams mean, Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, a professional dream analyst, weighs in. “Specifics matter!” she says. “Ask yourself: What exactly am I trying to do in this dream? What is my exact, specific emotion? Then, apply all of that to your real life. Like magic, the dots will suddenly connect.” Yes, stress and anxiety are the main causes of anxiety dreams, but what in your life is causing you to feel stressed out?
Negative or worrisome thoughts can influence the types of dreams you have. If you’ve been worrying about that work project all day, odds are your dreams will reflect that. To help uncover the hidden meaning behind your dreams, we cover some of the most common anxiety dreams and what they mean below.

1. Tornadoes

A tornado tosses around a small house. Illustration.
According to Loewenberg, some types of anxiety dreams can be tied to a specific form of anxiety. If you experience recurring dreams of tornadoes, you may have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This is an anxiety disorder characterized by excessive worrying. Loewenberg says that tornadoes often represent worry, so those with GAD often have dreams about tornadoes, though not everyone with GAD experiences this. If you don’t have GAD, dreaming of tornadoes could mean you’re worried about something in your personal life. Is it something at work? Take a holistic look at your life and pinpoint what may be causing you stress.

2. Drowning

A man with his head and fingers above the water makes a scared face. Illustration.
Drowning can also be tied to a specific form of anxiety. Loewenberg says that dreaming of drowning can be tied to panic disorders — an anxiety disorder where one experiences frequent panic attacks. This is because feelings of drowning are similar to panic attacks. Pressure on your chest and difficulty breathing are synonymous with what you may experience while drowning or having a panic attack.

3. Being Chased

A man runs from an arm carrying a large knife. Illustration.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) can be associated with frequent dreams of being chased, Loewenberg says. Those with SAD often avoid social interactions. She mentions that “this constant avoidance will be expressed in dreams in the form of running away from something or someone.” However, this is not true of everyone with social anxiety. If you experience dreams of being chased and don’t have SAD, ask yourself what you may be avoiding in your personal life. Is it a tough conversation? Credit card debt? Getting to the bottom of what may be causing your anxiety dreams can help you take steps to stop them.

4. Earthquakes

A person jumps as the earth cracks underneath them. Illustration
Frequently dreaming of earthquakes — whether you’re just watching one or actually experiencing one — can represent some form of instability in your life. Does something in your life feel uncertain? If so, that unsettled feeling could be brought to life in the form of a dream about an earthquake.

5. Tidal Waves/Flooding

A house, tree, and stopsign all float in fast water. Illustration.
According to Loewenberg, dreams including tidal waves and/or flooding can “indicate a sense of feeling utterly overwhelmed by an increasingly worsening situation.” This can be anything from receiving the news that someone in your family has been diagnosed with cancer to feeling overwhelmed about starting a new phase of your life. To alleviate these dreams, take a look at what might be overwhelming you and confront it.

6. House Fires

A house surrounded by large flames. Illustration.
Whether you’re watching your house burn down or you’re burning down with it, dreams of house fires are directly related to the stress you may be feeling in life. Loewenberg calls this type of dream “the ultimate stress dream” because they usually occur when we are stressed out to the max. Are you feeling burnt out at work? Stressed about a big exam coming up? Try to find what is causing you so much stress and actively look for ways to relax.

7. Car Problems

C car sits with it's hood propper up while smoke billows up. Illustration.
If you frequently dream of car problems — whether that be faulty brakes or an uncontrollable steering wheel — that loss of control could be related to something in your life. Loewenberg says that we often experience these dreams “when something (is) going off the intended path or direction we thought it was going in.” If you’re losing control of something in your life, you tend to feel helpless and that feeling will emerge in your dreams in the form of car problems. If this sounds familiar to you, try to let go of your need for certainty and set more realistic expectations for yourself and others.

8. Naked in Public

A naked man holds a flower pot over his lower half. Illustration
While sleeping naked is encouraged, being naked in public is less ideal. If you frequently dream of being naked in public, it could be related to feelings of inferiority, embarrassment, or anxiety over how others perceive you. Loewenberg mentions that most of the time when these dreams take place, no one else in the room notices your nudity. “That is the subconscious letting us know that we are the only ones giving this any energy,” she says.

9. Back at School

A man looks angrily at an apple in his hand. He's surrounded by books and school supplies. Illustration.
After a long day of work, you close your eyes to sleep only to find yourself back at school. Sound familiar? Dreams about going back to school are often associated with job stress. “School was our first job,” Loewenberg states. It’s where we learned the role of responsibility, how to be on time, how to be prepared, and how to fit in. These are similar pressures to what you experience at a full-time job, so it’s natural to have this sort of dream when you’re experiencing job stress.

10. Unprepared for a Test

A woman sits at a desk and stares absent-mindedly while charts float around her face. Illustration
Similar to dreaming of yourself back at school, dreaming of being ill-prepared for a test relates to work stress. Loewenberg says that this sort of dream “can mean you are not feeling prepared for something big at work that will be testing you.” This can be anything from a big presentation to putting yourself out there to get a promotion.

11. Can’t Find Your Class/Locker

Four lockers stand next to each other, but one is hidden. Illustration.
Not being able to find your classroom or locker can represent a feeling of being lost in your personal or professional life. According to Loewenberg, being “unable to find your class or locker can mean you are feeling that you are not where you belong.” Perhaps you’re not feeling fulfilled in your current career or are not as successful as you’d like to be at this stage in your life. If you’re feeling stagnant or inadequate in your career or a personal endeavor, it may be time to make a change.

12. Teeth Falling Out

A man panics as his teeth fall out of his mouth. Illustration.
Believe it or not, anxiety dreams about teeth falling out are pretty common and they can represent a variety of things. This specific type of dream is said to be brought on by psychological stress. While this sort of dream is caused by extreme stress or anxiety, it has also been tied to personal loss — whether that be the death of someone close to you or the loss of a job or home. Dreams of teeth falling out have also been tied to stress around religion. If you’re paranoid about the future or a certain aspect of your beliefs, these emotions may play out in your dreams in the form of tooth loss.

13. Forgetting Something Important

A man looks at his suitcase from the window of a moving train. Illustration.
We’re all familiar with the crippling anxiety that follows the realization of forgetting something important. When this scene plays out in your dreams, it could be tied to an important, high-pressure event in your life. This could be anything from planning a wedding to preparing to perform on stage. Whatever it is that’s causing you stress, try to set some boundaries around the event and take the time to relax.

14. Running Late

A woman sweats and runs. Illustration.
Dreaming of missing a bus, plane, or another mode of transportation can feel so realistic that you wake up questioning whether or not it was real. This type of dream can be unsettling. However, it’s typically related to feelings of time pressure in your real life. Pam Muller, author of 33 Ways to Work with Your Dreams, says that these dreams “can be an expression of anxiety or stress related to time in waking life.” On the other hand, Carolyn Cole, LCPC, LMFT, NCC, a psychotherapist, says that these dreams mean “you feel you are always one step behind, just missing that opportunity which you are desiring.” Take a look at the various aspects of your life and try to pinpoint where you may be feeling the most pressure.

15. Falling

A woman falls through the air. Illustration.
Falling dreams can jolt you awake and leave your heart racing. Psychologist Ian Wallace says that these dreams indicate “that you are hanging on too tightly to a particular situation in waking life.” Dreams like this can also represent a loss of control. If you experience falling dreams frequently, take a look at your career, school work, or personal relationship. Are you holding a grudge against someone? Do you feel you’re falling behind in school? Either of these situations could play out in your dreams as falling. “You need to relax and let go of it,” says Wallace.

What Causes Anxiety Dreams?

According to Claudia Luiz, Psychoanalyst and Author of The Making of a Psychoanalyst, “anxiety dreams are generated as a result of unprocessed negative stimuli the brain is trying to process through the regulatory process of sleep.” Dreams are your unconscious mind’s way of educating you on your thoughts. In other words: our dreams are often illustrations of our daytime experiences.
A person sleeps while images of nightmares float around his head. Illustration.
Anxiety dreams can be caused by internal or external stressors. Internal stressors can be anything from angry emotions to impulses. External stressors can be anything from past trauma to a bad day at work, or maybe a global pandemic. Some other causes of anxiety dreams include excessive alcohol before bed, drinking caffeine past 2:00 PM, or not getting enough sleep.
According to Loewenberg, “frequent and recurring anxiety dreams are often a bi-product of varying anxiety disorders.” That this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone with an anxiety disorder will have anxiety dreams, but it’s often more common.
She states that “those of us without an anxiety disorder can still get anxiety dreams, simply because — from time to time — we are faced with a difficult issue in life that causes some level of anxiety.” When we are faced with difficult times, our dreams express what we may be going through.

How to Stop Anxiety Dreams

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If any of the above anxiety dreams are recurring to you, it may be time to take a look at what’s going on in your life. Are you stretched thin at work? Feeling pressure to make a big decision? Sleep experts weigh in on how to stop anxiety dreams.

  • Take care of your sleep: Dr. Jennifer Martin, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Specialist, states that “since nightmares have a bigger impact when sleep is fragmented, getting good sleep is more important than ever.” You can take care of your sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene and getting the recommended seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night.
  • Rewrite your dreams: Martin Reed, a certified clinical sleep health educator (CCSH) and the founder of Insomnia Coach, says it can be helpful to write down your anxiety dreams in detail. “Then, reimagine the dream so it’s no longer a nightmare. This might involve rewriting large parts of the dream, or just changing the ending. When you’ve done this, take time during the day to imagine and recreate this new dream you’ve formulated in as much detail as possible,” he says. With practice, you may experience the dream less frequently.
  • Talk it out: Psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz says that sometimes just talking it out and bringing your dreams to a conscious level can help stop them. She says that doing this “takes the stimuli from an unconscious level to a conscious level. Once the brain no longer needs to process the unconscious stimuli, it can move on to other types of dreams.”
  • Pinpoint the issue: Dreams are our unconscious thoughts playing out, so in order to get to the bottom of what may be causing your anxiety dreams, it’s important to take a look at your life and figure out what may be causing you stress. How can you resolve the issue? “When a negative or upsetting situation or behavior is resolved or corrected, the dream connected to it stops,” says Loewenberg.
  • Create a zen bedtime routine: Reducing the overall amount of stress you’re under is key to stopping any anxiety dream. One great way to do that is by creating a meditative bedtime routine. You can do this by turning off your tech, practicing yoga before bed, or drinking something warm like chamomile tea.
  • Think positive thoughts: It’s important to focus on positivity before heading to bed. When doing your bedtime routine, create a positive atmosphere. Avoid the news, listen to calming music, and think about everything you’re grateful for. Positive affirmations and being kind to yourself can go a long way.

Experiencing anxiety dreams is normal. Joy Strong, Life Coach and Dream Analyst, says that “having anxiety dreams simply means you are human and have a full range of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Your subconscious is helping you by processing the feelings in your sleep life to help you better face your real life issues.” Anxiety dreams are a window into what your unconscious mind is holding on to. Take a look at your life and what may be causing you stress and actively look for ways to resolve it.

While anxiety dreams are normal, many still experience severe nighttime anxiety as a result. One great way to soothe your mind before bed is to create a comfortable sleep environment. This includes a mattress that conforms to your body and a pillow that you can hold on to tight. For more information on the meaning behind dreams, check out our list of foods that cause nightmares.

PsychCentral | Bustle