Stress-triggered nightmares

It never fails. During particularly stressful times, I tend to have nightmares. (In fact, sometimes I don't even really know how stressed I am until I start having recurring nightmares.) They were especially prevalent during my third-year review year, during a hiring mess a while back, and then again this past spring, when I was struggling mightily for some unknown reason. They seem to be back, now that I'm heading into my tenure review year---I've had one almost every night this week.

Oh, joy!

Helpfully, I've discovered that my bad dreams are usually some variation of the following:

  1. The classic unprepared dream. Who doesn't have these dreams? For me, this dream takes one of two forms:
    • I'm giving a final in an hour, in a class I don't remember teaching. The final is not written and every time I go to write it, something goofy happens: I can't find the textbook, my computer crashes, a colleague corners me, ....
    • I'm supposed to be somewhere across the country in an hour. I'm not packed nor do I have a ticket. I try to pack but, as with the exam dream, shenanigans occur to interfere w/ the packing.
  2. The world is ending dream. I never used to have these dreams, but they've been pretty common for me lately. Typically, this involves some sort of natural disaster, or war, or even (once) alien invasion. The world doesn't actually end in the dream, but I know that the end is imminent anyway. I think this dream has something to do with significant change, or the expectation of major change, and possibly mourning what will be lost. (I did have a few of these before I gave birth, too.)
  3. The house dream. I'm staying in a house; it could be just a random house, or it could be one that resembles somewhere I've lived or some other building from my past. Typically, the house is a shambles: it might be nice in parts, but there is some room that's filled with junk or half-done or half-gutted or just old and dirty. There are always other people staying there too; sometimes I know them, but often it's a mix of knowns and unknowns. And we all spend the majority of our time in these undesirable parts. (In some forms of the dream, I'm house-shopping, and the house looks like this.) Do houses in dreams have something to do with the sense of self? If that's the case, then I'm guessing these dreams reflect the struggles that I have in "fitting" into my current job and my various roles as professor, mother, wife, friend, researcher, etc.
  4. The car/vehicle dream. This one's morphed a lot over the years. In recent versions, I'm a passenger in either a car or some sort of bizarre flying thing (like a lawn chair attached to a wind sail-ish thing). The driver and I are careening around, and we're either just a bit uncomfortably beyond my control (going too fast, getting too close to buildings, about to crash) or I have no idea where we're going. I'm pretty sure that this has something to do with the sense of control over one's life. In this context, being a passenger would make sense, because with the whole tenure thing I definitely don't feel as if I have control over my life or my future.
  5. Sense of urgency dream. This is actually more of a theme that pops up in any of the other dreams. Typically, there's something that I sense needs to be addressed immediately, and I try to get others to help me address it, yet no one else seems to be at all concerned, which leads me to get more and more anxious, which leads nowhere....Example: I dreamt a while back that a tornado was bearing down on us. I kept screaming at Mr. Jane and our neighbors to get to shelter and grab any kids/pets and get them to safety, but everyone was going calmly about their business, as if it was a perfectly calm day. This left me to try and grab all the kids and pets and get to safety. I'm thinking this has something to do with "being heard", or more specifically not being heard. It would be interesting to track these dreams and see how many of them happen around department meetings....

What is your most common recurring nightmare, and what does it say about your state of mind?

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I'm always fascinated when people talk about having recurring dreams or themes in dreams. My dreams seem to be a mess and not systematic in any way. Maybe I don't remember them well enough.

As the semester starts, I *always* know because I start having the unprepared dream. I forget it's the first day of class, or I can't find the room, or I oversleep, or the students are being awful, or... I think the cause of the dream is obvious. :) If things are stressful during the semester, I have the inadequacy dreams - students misbehaving, making a fool of myself in meetings/presentations/submissions. If it's just generalized stress, it tends to be dreams of being chased, but not in the traditional running sense, but in the thriller movie sense - someone is out there, hunting me down...

All in all, I'm totally with you. When the stress gets really bad, I'm almost afraid to go to sleep sometimes. :(

By Fellow Junior … (not verified) on 06 Aug 2008 #permalink

I thought this happened to everyone.

I have the "unprepared" dream, but it's always school. I'll be looking in my bookbag mid-semester, and find a book for a class in my major that I signed up for but never attended. I'll thereupon panic, decide irrationally I'm going to flunk the whole semester, and stop going to all my classes, but haunt campus like an unlaid ghost anyway, avoiding people I know and trying to figure out where I went wrong.

I have the "world is ending" dream. One time I realized what was going on when I was swimming in my backyard pool, heard a hissing noise, and turned around to see lava seeping into the other side of the pool. Freaky.

I have the "car" dream. It isn't always a car, though. When it is, I actually do crash (and the dream ends). When it isn't, I'm riding around on a motorized skateboard or refrigerator dolly, either in the middle of the street, or on a 90-degree tilted plane world (as if the ground didn't exist, but a wall did).

I also have the "sense of urgency" dream, but it's always got a component of grief... something terrible happened--I got cancer, or kicked out of my apartment without notice, or my cat got run over, or my fiance went on a trip and called to say he was never coming back--and I'm running around trying to cope with the aftermath. My fiance says I whimper and moan in my sleep. I think these dreams happen when I can't breathe well and I panic.

By speedwell (not verified) on 06 Aug 2008 #permalink

Doesn't anyone have the falling teeth dream? It's simple, all your teeth fall out. I heard it's a very common dream.

I also have the tsunami dream. I'm at the beach and I notice the waves are growing, until they become huge tsunamis. After years of tsunami dreams, they don't scare me anymore, because I know what to do: go to the highest floor of the highest building. The tornado dream doesn't scare me anymore either: just drive away from the tornado. In my dreams they are never fast enough to catch me.

A long time ago, when I was a child, I used to dream that there was a shark in every water puddle, water glass, bathtub, kitchen sink etc, and if you got near the water, the shark would jump and bite your head off.

By Mirrorball (not verified) on 06 Aug 2008 #permalink

Bizarre that the last thing I was reading on the internet before I came to this post was about hypnotherapy for generalized anxiety disorder.

I have serious anxiety, and I'm thinking about seeking treatment (again). Lately, my nightmares have been pretty bad as well. My most recurrent nightmares are the unprepared dreams as well as dreams of death. It's the dreams of death that have gotten a grip on me lately, and they are so hard to handle.

I hope your bad dreams clear up soon.

When I was wrapping up my dissertation, I had "car", "unprepared", and "house" nightmares CONSTANTLY and I hoped a) they would go away to never return and b) that I was the only nutjob I knew. I lost cars in Wallyworld lots, couldn't find keys to rooms in far off galaxies, and sat in the middle of a hardwood floor for hours waiting for someone to ring a nonexistent doorbell at a window. Turns out that alot of my friends have recurring nightmares about getting jobs, moving, submitting papers, getting reviewer comments back, etc. Telling my family about all this gets me the classic "what planet are you from exactly?!" look. It's the same planet where I got the PhD from: ACADEMIA!!!
Since I bought a sleep machine, it seems to help me drift off when I can't turn off my brain and it makes it harder to remember what hell I was going through while I was asleep.
Sweet dreams!

By sleeplessinscience (not verified) on 06 Aug 2008 #permalink

I've had teeth smashing or falling out dreams. When stressed I dream details of stuff, and wake up and half sleep and have loop thoughts. The Doom Loop!

But in the past, when really upset, I've had extremely violent and disturbing nightmares that were unrelated. But then I'd awake refreshed! So I came to recognise they seem to have a useful role.

I've often had an unpleasant combination of the "house" and "unprepared" dreams - there's something or someone I need to find, and I know they're somewhere in the house, but the house is huge, and maze-like, and keeps changing. Often the thing or person that I'm looking for keeps changing as well. It gets more and more urgent, until I'm trying to run, then my legs don't work... Often there's something chasing me as well. Sometimes it's on a bigger scale - it's a city rather than a house. There's this weird version of Edinburgh (my home town) in my dreams, that's almost consistent over time - but its topography makes even less sense than that of the real Edinburgh (it's a strange town).

When I'm particularly stressed out about something, I often have the "surrounded by spiders" dream (I'm a bit arachnophobic). I'm in a room, and suddenly, there's this really big spider. And then another one and another one, and they're blocking all exits, so I can't run away from them. Strangely enough, after I have this dream, I often feel calmer and less stressed about the problem I was facing.

As a kid, I had what I called "Twilight Zone" dreams. I was walking around in a familiar, but dark surrounding (our neighborhood, my school...) looking for the exit/our house/something, but just couldn't find it. I knew where it should've theoretically been, but it wasn't there, so I'd start running around and panicing. The really strange thing about these dreams was that I'd have them over the course of months or even years, and then one night I'd actually find what I was looking for and bam, they went away and never returned.

By Darwin's Minion (not verified) on 07 Aug 2008 #permalink

One kind of dream I have that I never hear others talking about is the "campus" dream. Sometimes it's college campus, but more often it's some kind of industrial park or business campus. Broad, open lawns dotted with large buildings, wide streets and walkways, and other infrastructure. Sometimes it's a kind of fairgrounds, or one of those parks where they hold big music festivals. It's always in this kind of liminal zone, an area wedged between a densely populated city and rural fields and farmland, neither here nor there.

Usually the dream has to do with me trying to get from end of the campus to another, and being thwarted by various obstacles and distractions. Sometimes I'll enter one of the buildings, and wind up lost in twisty passages and corridors. Sometimes everything is shiny and new and science-fictional; other times (like last night), everything is sort of broken down and grimy. These dreams aren't always nightmares -- sometimes they're sort of surreally comical.

I have the traveling dream... I'm usually supposed to be flying to Europe, and I'm completely unprepared! Sometimes my unprepared dreams have me showing up for what I think are auditions for some kind of performance (play/musical), and I find out it's the dress rehearsal and I'm trying to make up lines/totally fake sight-reading. (The last remnant of my performing days!) I knew I'd internalized being a prof as opposed to a grad student when my "unprepared" dreams shifted from not being prepared to take a class, to not being prepared to TEACH the class!

I had car dreams a lot when I was a little kid - I used to dream that my mom would pull up somewhere, get out of the car, and it would drive away, with me and my sister still in it. I knew I'd have to try to drive the car because I was the older one and had to take care of my sister (who's in fact usually a baby in these dreams, which is weird since she's only a year younger than me). Then I got around high school age and I'd dream that the car was driving away with me and it was all about freedom and getting away. I don't have these dreams anymore, though.

I have also had house dreams - usually we're house/apartment hunting, and the places we look at are often cool/interesting (if not necessarily very sound!), but they're often places where we suddenly figure out that our apartment opens right into another couple's apartment, or that the front of the apartment is glass and open to the rest of the apartment community. Sometimes it's more fun, like I discover a really cool room we never knew we had. (If these are about sense of self, then... well, I don't know!)

I also used to dream that I was trying to cross the road, or move out of the way of something, and it was like wading through molasses... other times, I'd dream that I could run and run for hours. Very weird.

(Now that I've read the comments, I have to add that I've never had the teeth-falling-out dream (though I think my husband has), but I do have dreams where I get gum or caramel or the like stuck to my teeth, and it fills up my mouth and I can't get it out and I can't talk.)

Wow, I'm amazed that so many people have similar dreams! Especially the house dream---I've told a lot of friends about that one and no one I know has had anything similar.

I do have to say, though, that I've never had the teeth-falling-out dream, although I imagine that it's not too fun. :)


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I have the teeth dream, except I sneeze and all my teeth fly out, it's horrible! I also have the "lost in a building" dream when I'm stressed - I am in a hotel or a house or an apartment building trying to get from one place to another by a really complicated path. Sometimes there is time stress, like I have to catch a flight or give a paper or something, but other times it's just random ambling... and I'm exhausted when I wake up.

I get the 'unprepared' dream - usually I'm trying to pack for a trip or am trying to get to an airport to get a flight that I can't miss, but things keep intervening and I get nowhere.

My most common one is when I'm at work and either in my office and trying to get to the computer or sometimes in the classroom I least like teaching in and I'm trying to get to the projector system. In both dreams there are all these people, most of whom I know, and they're all needing things from me, waving bits of paper at me, talking to me, and I can't get to the thing I need to do, and I feel like I'm screaming at them and no sound is coming out (well that's not hard to disentangle). They usually need things I don't have or that are irrelevant to who they are - so a friend from school who I haven't seen for 20 years needs an extension form signing, a student I'm teaching this year will be going on about the name of my sister's toy rabbit, that sort of nonsense.

Never had the tooth dream, that sounds scary! I worry enough about my teeth when I'm awake!

I do get a version of the house dream - I don;t know where I'm going but I have to get there urgently and I keep going in and out of rooms and down corridors and there are people around but no-one seems to know where I need to be, and I can't even get back to the room I started in. Sometimes it's a big science building, sometimes it starts as a house I knew, sometimes it's a campus-type setting (except I can't get out-doors, I can only see the outdoors through windows). It's really nerve-wracking, going from room to room to room, and I get more and more anxious...

This one sometimes gets mixed up with an end of the world dream, usually because there's a huge crack opening up in the floor and I have to keep getting away from it, or try to get to the other side of it... actually end of the world dreams usually wake me up pretty fast, it's the unprepared/have to be somewhere/can't get through the crowd ones that go on and on.

Waking UP with a tense neck and shoulders is no fun!

I get the house dream - usually some version of a place I've lived in in the past, weirdly transformed, and always with malfunctioning bathrooms. Sometimes the house leaves me aching with desire to live there, sometimes it is a place I can't wait to get out of. Usually the latter is when the house also contains my ex-husband and I'm dreaming I've somehow been coerced into re-marrying him. Talk about nightmares!

The airplane dream: usually I'm flying to Europe, or in Europe and need to fly home. In both cases, I have about 10 minutes to get to the airport and board the plane, and I don't have my passport. If I'm in Europe, I am in fear of being thrown in jail for somehow having gotten into Europe without my passport.

Teeth falling out: haven't had this for years, but used to always have it as a child/teenager. Teeth would just be pouring out of my mouth, filling up the sink and spilling on the floor. Ick.

Unprepared dream: of course. Who doesn't??!?!?

Car dream: haven't had this since I quit working! Used to be driving and then the road would go uphill, become so steep that the car would fall backwards off the road. Or, on an elevated narrow highway, going way too fast and in danger of running off the side going around a curve. Yeah, too much stress.

What about the phone dream, anyone ever have that? I dream I desperately need to phone someone but can't dial the number. Keep making a mistake and have to start the number over, over and over and over...never get it dialed. Happened just last night. Clearly that's about communicating and being heard.

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By spell caster (not verified) on 21 May 2012 #permalink