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For six months in 2014, I had the same nightmare: I’d wake up before dawn to the sound of several incoming work emails on my phone, but would fall back to sleep. When I woke up (in the dream), I’d see a dozen missed calls and text messages from my boss berating me for not responding. Only then would I open my eyes for real, and I’d be overwhelmed with anxiety that an actual angry note was waiting in my inbox.
I left that job by the end of the year, in part because of that recurring nightmare.
It turns out that nightmares, including work-related ones like tests we haven’t studied for, deadlines we missed or tongue-lashings from supervisors, are part of life for many people.
According to Psychology Today, 50 percent of people experience nightmares, and women are more likely to have them than men. And a study published in late 2017 found that people who experience stress in their waking lives are likely to carry those anxieties into their dreams.
Sometimes the connection is painfully, if hilariously, obvious. Jessie Opoien, a 28-year-old political reporter in Wisconsin, said that she frequently has dreams about surreal mishaps while covering events.
“Most of my work stress dreams are so ridiculous that when I wake up, I end up feeling like some levity has been injected into whatever madness is surrounding me at that moment,” she said in an email. Recently, she had a dream in which a squirrel gave her the evil eye, attacked her and made off with a mitten. “If I had to analyze myself, I'd say these dreams are my body's way of releasing stress by sliding an element of absurdity into whatever work scenario is occupying my mind.”
Other times, work stress dreams are more rooted to reality. When Lilli Petersen, 31, waited tables in New York City, her tormentor was a restaurant’s computer system. "I was trying to put a bunch of orders in the point-of-sale system, and all the tables began disappearing from the computer,” she told me. “I'd go to enter something, and it would disappear. Again and again and again,” all while her boss hovered over her shoulder.
And Meg Clark, a 33-year-old social media editor in New York, said she's had entire dreams unfold over Slack, a workplace messaging program. "I have nightmares about typos on a regular basis,” she said. “I often wake up confused and disoriented and have to grab my phone to make sure it wasn't real."
Because dreams aren’t quantifiable, like other areas of sleep science, there’s no consensus on what meaning they hold for our day-to-day life, said Dr. Rebecca Robbins, a co-author of “Sleep for Success” and a postdoctoral research fellow at the NYU School of Medicine.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to reduce the frequency and intensity of stress dreams. Try these solutions:
Healthy habits. It may not be fun, but neither is waking up in a cold sweat. Cutting down on afternoon caffeine, reducing alcohol consumption, and exercise have all been shown to help improve sleep quality.
Sleeping in the cold: “If you sleep in a bedroom that is too hot, you are more likely to experience disruptive nightmares than [in] a bedroom that is set at the optimal temperature for sleep,” said Robbins. The ideal? Between 60 and 67 degrees, she said.
Keeping a dream journal: “Just because dreams are random doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability to influence them during the day,” said Dr. Matthew Ebben, a sleep medicine expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. As frustrating as it may be to turn on a light and describe your dreams on paper, keeping a record can give you a place to start addressing real life anxieties and fears.
It’s also important to note that there’s a point when stress dreams stop being an annoying periodic disruption and become a sign of more serious problems that require medical attention. If you’re having the same bad dream multiple times a week, see a doctor, says Ebben.
"Dreams are not always a sleep problem, sometimes it’s just a symptom of another type of problem," Ebben added.
There are also ways to deal with dreams that don’t involve medication, such as image rehearsal therapy - essentially replaying dreams during waking hours to improve their storylines. “With cognitive behavioral treatments, you do have to do some work,” Ebben said. “It may take a little bit of time, but it can really work.”