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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.
Today’s uncertainty 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 4.9, but the average in 2020 is 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. By definition, a stress dream 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). Dreams are usually just your subconscious trying to make sense of your thoughts.
Your brain is aware of the stress you are dealing with, translating 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 a number of reasons why somebody experiences stress dreams, here is a list naming a few of the most common:
- Stress from work
- Big life events
- Use of drugs and alcohol
- Poor diet
- Strain on personal relationships
- Traumatic events
- Disrupted sleep
There are several different types of dreams, and it is important to differentiate between them. The types of (negative) dreams include stress dreams, nightmares, and night terrors.
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 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 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. 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 cannot see their friends and their sports and after-school activities have been canceled. Children are also afraid of getting coronavirus or of their loved ones contracting it. They have a lot of stress on their plates, which 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.
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 comes 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.
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 many adults in the United States out of work or experiencing pay cuts due to COVID-19, financial stress can be a common trigger.
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.
6 ways to help
There are some things you can do to help if your child is experiencing stress dreams.
- Talk to your child about what is happening and make space for them to share their fears and concerns.
- Keep a routine by having them go to bed and awake at the same time every day.
- Teach them an evening routine that helps them relax and get ready for sleep. This can include a soothing bath, peaceful talk, and reading a story.
- Keep your child’s bed cozy with clean sheets and blankets and their favorite stuffed animal for additional comfort.
- 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.
- Try a new mattress to keep it comfortable.
Avoiding stress dreams
Stress dreams are very common and normal responses to stressful situations. Still, the most important part of getting these feelings under control is to start with the underlying issue. Once you start to regain control over whatever the situation is, the less stress you’ll feel and the better you will sleep.
Address the root cause of your stress. It could be the pandemic (we are all feeling that), losing a job, getting a pay cut, losing a loved one, dealing with kids going back to school, an injury you’ve gotten, or an accident you were in or anything else. It can also be a worry of any of those things happening. So, first, you must determine the root cause of your stress. Stress is powerful, but you can overcome it. No matter your situation or how overwhelming it may feel, addressing it at its root and moving forward from there is the best way to regain control of your stress. You can’t completely avoid stress and anxiety, but you can learn some healthy ways to cope with them.
Do not avoid situations because you are feeling stressed about them. Avoiding it because it scares you will only cause you more stress and give it more control over your life. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away, so attack it head-on. You will need to learn ways to manage your stress healthily. For example, someone with panic disorder may start to avoid places where they have had panic attacks. This can unintentionally turn into agoraphobia, where they will not leave their house because they are afraid. To help this problem, we suggest you work through the panic to cope properly. You may need help from a mental health professional to deal with your panic disorder, especially if the symptoms intensify or begin to cause significant disruption in your life.
Have a support system. You cannot do this alone. We suggest you rally a support group — it could be one person or a group of people. Having someone in your life that you can talk to can make a huge difference. Being able to talk through your feelings and get trusted advice can help you feel more ready and confident to handle any situation that comes your way.
Regular exercise has been shown to help with stress and anxiety. There are physical and mental health benefits with regular exercise and a healthy diet. This can help you sleep better, too. Exercise releases feel-good endorphins, takes your mind off of your stress, helps you cope in a healthy manner. Find something you enjoy doing for exercise, such as dancing, boxing, swimming, hiking, biking, walking, jogging, or martial arts. If you enjoy it, you’re more likely to do it regularly. Try exercising for about 30 minutes three to five times a week or as often as you enjoy doing them or as instructed by a doctor. What you eat and drink also matter. According to Harvard Health, studies show eating healthy can reduce your risk of depression by up to 35%. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can help you better cope with stress and help you sleep better.
You may need to see a therapist where you can do talk therapy, and many are doing what is called telehealth appointments, so you don’t have to go to their office and risk being exposed to the coronavirus. Talking through your stress can help considerably, and a therapist can give you some insight and coping tools. There are also some crisis helplines you can call or text to help you talk through your stress.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
You can also chat with someone live on their website.
Text 741741 and you’ll be connected to a crisis counselor.
Message them on Facebook
Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1
Call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
COVID specific helplines:
Twenty million people report having sleeping problems, and 40 million people in the United States report having a long-term sleep disorder such as insomnia. You are not alone if you are dealing with stress dreams or insomnia. The information in this article will help you better understand why sleep problems happen and how you can learn coping mechanisms so you don’t let anxiety or stress dreams keep you awake at night.
We think it’s beneficial to have a support person, talk to a therapist online, call or text a helpline, check on your kids, exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and maintain good sleep hygiene practices. All of these things may help you receive more quality sleep and get rid of those stress dreams.