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Stress Dreams: Why They Happen

*Written by: Sleep experts from https://myslumberyard.com/ *



Stress is a natural part of life that unfortunately has a negative impact on our sleep health. With the uncertain times we are living in, control over your sleep habits is more important now than ever. Our guide will give you the tools needed to make this happen.


When you’re going through a difficult and stressful time in your life, it’s certainly not uncommon to have trouble sleeping. That includes increased sleep latency, the inability to remain asleep, and or stress-induced nightmares. 

Dealing with this insomnia does not mean you are bad at dealing with your emotions. It simply signifies the stressful time you are going through. You are not alone — many who are facing difficulties in life will likely experience the same thing. The National Institutes of Health notes that 20 million people report having occasional sleeping problems. Stress and anxiety might be the root cause of the issue, or contribute to making existing sleep problems worse. 

The uncertainty of the world today has added a lot of distress in people’s lives, especially due to COVID-19. The American Psychological Association (APA) recently polled 3,013 adults in the United States to rate their stress levels on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 means a great deal of stress and 1 means little or no stress. The average response rate in 2019 was a 4.9, but the average in 2020 is a 5.9. They have been doing these polls in partnership with The Harris Poll since 2007, and this is the first significant increase in these stress ratings.


What Causes Stress Dreams?

Dreams don’t usually make any sense. One minute you’re flying over your neighborhood, and in the next, you’re back in high school but you forgot your clothes. It’s usually nonsense, and we know these weird things aren’t going to happen just because we dream of them. The same goes for stress dreams. A stress dream, by definition, is one that causes fear and anxiety upon awakening and can affect you throughout the day with increased anxiety and worry. 

You might dream about your significant other cheating on you, or about missing an important meeting. This does not mean you’re being cheated on or that you will miss any important meeting coming up, even though you might feel scared that it will happen (or is happening). The dreams are usually just your subconscious trying to make sense of your thoughts.

Your brain is aware of the stress you are dealing with, and that will translate into your dreams. A stress dream can have you waking up feeling panicked, anxious, and more prone to insomnia.   

7 Common Causes of Stress Dreams


While there could be number of reasons why somebody experiences stress dreams, here is a list naming a few of the most common:

  1. Stress from work

  2. Big life events 

  3. Use of drugs and alcohol

  4. Poor diet

  5. Strain on personal relationships

  6. Traumatic events

  7. Disrupted sleep

  8. Insomnia

There are several different types of dreams, and it is important to be able to differentiate between them. The types of (negative) dreams include stress dreams, nightmares, and night terrors.


Stress Dreams 

Stress dreams are those caused by a stressor in life, as explained above. Right now, the cause could be COVID-19 and all the stress a global pandemic brings with it (unemployment, fear of contracting the disease, fear of loved ones getting it, kids getting sent to go to school, working around others, etc.).


Nightmares 

Nightmares can also be unsettling, but they are different from stress dreams. While you might wake up terrified, that feeling is much more intense (and usually more short-lived) than the anxiety you experience with stress dreams. Nightmares usually take your anxiety and blow it completely out of proportion while a stress dream is playing on some realistic things you are stressing about during the day. 

Most nightmares occur during REM sleep, during the final stage of sleep (just before awakening). Also, nightmares are more frequent with children and adolescents. Once we reach adulthood, they are an occasional annoyance. If you have an anxiety disorder, however, you might have more nightmares than the average adult. 


Night Terrors 

Night terrors are common in children, but some adults do get them too. Children between the ages of four and eight may experience night terrors and grow out of them naturally. Someone having a night terror can scream, cry, or even walk while they’re asleep. It’s best not to wake them and just make sure they don’t hurt themselves in the process. They will usually naturally go back to sleep and may not have any memory of it the next day. It’s difficult to watch a child go through a night terror because it looks like they are terrified, but it’s important to remember that it’s not harmful to them. If they do remember it the next day, they will vaguely remember it. 


How children are affected.

Children react to stress differently than adults do. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to identify when a child is under distress, which is why we’re here to help.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on all of us, especially children. It has thrown off their normal routines, they’ve had to be homeschooled or switch to remote learning, they are not able to see their friends, and their sports and after school activities have been cancelled. Children are also afraid of getting coronavirus or of their loved ones contracting it. They have a lot of stress on their plates and these are all common triggers of stress for children. A child’s fears typically play on the same fears as the adults they are around. For example: 


Conflicts at home

Household conflicts such as parents arguing or parents and older siblings fighting. Either of these is going to cause stress for the children stuck in these environments. If both are happening in the home, the stress experienced can be even worse. 


Negative energy

Exposure to strong emotions causes kids to stress because they feed off of the energy of the adults around them. We all feel it no matter our age. If someone around us is exhibiting negative energy, it can have an impactful effect on us. The same goes for children, especially when that energy is coming from their parents who are their role models. 


Injuries and accidents

Injuries and/or accidents can trigger stress in children, whether it’s a sports injury, a car accident, or witnessing someone else get injured. It’s important to talk to your kids about the stress they are dealing with, even when we, as parents, are also coping. 


Money worries

Financial strain is a definite stress trigger for children, even though it is out of their control. They are still aware of the financial strain, which causes a sense of helplessness. With most of the adults in the United States out of work or experiencing pay cuts due to COVID-19, financial stress is a common trigger right now. 


New baby

Bringing home a new baby can have a huge impact on your child. The older child might start acting out to get your attention because they are no longer your only child. Or, sometimes the older child will regress. 

The reasons above are all common stress triggers for kids, and can cause them to have stress dreams which usually takes on these forms:

  • Unrealistic fears such as monsters can show up in a kid’s stress dreams. While the nightmare is unrealistic, it might represent something in real life that they are trying to deal with. 

  • Realistic fears such as car accidents, aggressive dogs, etc. These fears can also show up in stress dreams. 

  • Specific experiences they have lived through such as switching schools or family trauma. If your child has experienced any trauma they may have nightmares because of it. 

5 ways to help

There are some things you can do to help if your child is experiencing stress dreams. 

  1. Keep a routine by having them go to bed and awake at the same time every day. 

  2. Teach them an evening routine that helps them relax and get ready for sleep. This can include a soothing bath, a peaceful talk, and reading a story. 

  3. Keep your child’s bed cozy with clean sheets and blankets and their favorite stuffed animal for additional comfort.

  4. Avoid anything that might trigger a nightmare, such as scary movies, books, or TV shows. Finally, help them understand that nightmares are not real and cannot hurt them. 

  5. Try a new mattress to keep it comfortable. 

Avoiding stress dreams