Suffering From Anxiety? Here’s the Aspect of Your Life You Need to Pay Closer Attention To
A new study finds common patterns and links between dreams and anxiety.
A few days ago I watched an episode of The Boys before bed. I love the show and its satire on the superhero genre, but this was a particularly graphic episode, full of exploding heads, violence, and blood splatter. By the time the credits rolled, I was ready for sleep, so without much decompression time, other than brushing my teeth, my head hit the pillow, and I drifted into dreamland.
Generally, my dreams are spacious, fun, and usually offer insight into my personal development. But this night was different. My dreams were fragmented, frenetic, and fitting to the theme of The Boys; surreal, and at times grotesque.
I woke up in the morning with a strange feeling toward the part of my psyche that produced such bizarre scenarios and explicit images. But I knew it was related to the TV show, so I moved on quickly.
Soon it dawned on me that the night’s sleep was similar to when I experienced depression and anxiety. Rather than being teaching, intriguing, or pleasant, my dreams used to be deeply unsettling. According to a recent study in Dreaming, it looks like I’m not alone. Dreams hide secrets about your mental state, in particular, the level of anxiety. Here, we’ll explore those common themes, and explore how dreams can actually help reduce anxiety.
What Did the Study Find?
Researchers from the University of Düsseldorf set up the study to understand the difference in dreams between people with and without anxiety. Using a mixture of tools such as dream diaries, questionnaires, and one-on-one analysis, researchers explored the dream content of 38 participants with anxiety disorder, and 38 participants without. Anxiety patients’ dreams “differed significantly from the dream contents of healthy persons and contained more negative and unpleasant elements.”
There were patterns in the dream content itself. They included being chased, being attacked or treated aggressively, being frozen with fright, arguments, falling or being afraid of falling, being rejected in social situations, the death of loved ones, accidents such as car or plane crashes, and experiencing failure.
Fitting the frenetic nature my post-The Boys dreaming reminded me of, anxious dreams also had more locations, more characters, less friendly interactions, and higher aggressive or sexual encounters. There was more speed, such as fast-moving vehicles or people, and higher overall intensity. Emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness were more common. People with anxiety disorder dreamt about ex-partners more frequently than those without, too.
Interpretation and Over-Analyzing
Study author Anton Rimsh noted that people with anxiety tend to analyze their dreams more than average, and attempt “to find and uncover some clues for their waking life concerns.” This links to the nature of anxiety and rumination, or becoming overly focused past events, or obsessing over the future or day-to-day worries. Compared to healthy subjects, participants had higher dream incorporation, the psychological term for dreaming about events from waking life.
Rimsh noted a “vicious cycle” between both the waking and dream experience. Difficult experiences, such as anxiety, depression, influence the nature of dreams. And experiencing lots of negative or scary dreams directly influences mood in waking life. In addition, people with anxiety tended to look at their dreams in detail, in order to find solutions to waking life. Combined, this creates a perfect storm for anxiety to thrive.
There is a symbiotic relationship between dreams and waking life. In my experience, emotions I’m not acknowledging or suppressing, tend to surface in my dreams. This study didn’t delve into the world of dream interpretation, other than reporting the content factually, but there are valuable pointers to take from Jungian philosophy. Let’s keep in mind that people with an anxiety disorder tend to over-analyze. I’ve been there. There’s a difference between calm reflection, and anxious rumination, and this difference is key when approaching dreams as a way to learn or uncover insight.
Befriending the Dreamworld
Rimsh recommends people with severe anxiety and disturbing dreams seek professional help. But I would like to offer you the approach I’ve taken to dreams and anxiety, in a way that worked for me, whilst referencing this recent study. Take what works for you, leave what doesn’t, and seek help when needed.
“I leave theory aside as much as possible when analyzing dreams — not entirely, of course, for we always need some theory to make things intelligible. It is on the basis of theory, for instance, that I expect dreams to have a meaning. I cannot prove in every case that this is so, for there are dreams which the doctor and the patient simply do not understand.”Carl Jung
Very often, dreams are symbols from deep within our unconscious mind. They have their own intelligence and can absolutely guide us to overcome issues or develop and grow in infinite ways. But not all dreams are equal. A big breakthrough I had was realizing that not every dream, or every night’s sleep, has value. Sometimes your brain is just processing data, as the conventional approach to dream analysis captures. It doesn’t always have meaning.
This is an important point because it taps into the need to know that, while everything is meaningful in its own right, it doesn’t mean every piece of information has to be analyzed or deconstructed. My dreams following The Boys was a perfect example of this; they represented an over-active, over-stimulated brain, which is a similar experience to an anxiety disorder.
RELATED: How to Overcome Anxiety
Part of integrating dreams is knowing which dreams carry a message, or deeper value, and which can be discarded as junk. I say this because, well, dreams can be weird. Like, really weird. And as people with anxiety tend to be judgemental with their own thinking processes, it’s easy to start interpreting absurd dreams as a reflection of character.
It pays to exercise an objective approach to dreams. Keep a dream diary, and notice anything that significantly stands out. Writing them off as “only dreams” might cause you to miss valuable information presented from your unconscious mind. Obsessing over dreams will likely heighten your anxiety. Attempt to find a middle ground.
Work From the Inside Out and the Outside In
The next question is how to manage, or break free, from the vicious cycle Rimsh discusses. Rather than focus on one side or the other, approach both sides simultaneously. When I started to pay attention to my dreams, not trying to avoid them if they were unpleasant, or indulge if they were joyful, their tone started to shift. Even then, I’d say around 20 percent of my dreams contain true messages, the rest are easily discarded.
Notice any dreams that reoccur. What is the theme? Dream interpretation is intuitive because the creator of the dream is your unconscious mind. That means exploring with curiosity tends to uncover a deeper meaning. Perhaps you are actually stressed about something in life, and it spills over. Or perhaps a theme keeps surfacing or carries intense emotion. Always ask: what is this dream trying to show me?
Carl Jung’s significant contribution was to decipher the dreamworld, and explain how they act as symbols. He noted that dreams are often “occupied with apparently very silly details, thus producing an impression of absurdity,” but below the surface, contain wisdom and insight. Dreams aren’t literal, but symbols. Equally, they aren’t always symbolizing something significant. They might reflect the quality of your mind and emotions in the waking world.
When that’s the case, explore the deeper causes of your anxiety. One way to do this is through journaling; are there specific events that play through your mind? Ruminations that gravitate towards similar themes? General fears about the future?
There are other “wins” you can make from the outside, too. Your physiology and life choices will affect your dreamscape, dreams, or no dreams. If you go out late partying and drinking alcohol or taking drugs, or watch violent content just before sleep, or don’t have a wind-down ritual, you’ll likely find the background stress surface once your eyes are closed. Consider treating your body right, set up a nourishing environment, and treat your bedroom as a sacred space.
“In the dream, the psyche speaks in images, and gives expression to instincts, which derive from the most primitive levels of nature. Therefore, through the assimilation of unconscious contents, the momentary life of consciousness can once more be brought into harmony with the law of nature from which it all too easily departs, and the patient can be led back to the natural law of his own being.”Carl Jung
When feeling anxious, this translates to both your dreams and your waking life. This research shows that anxiety tends to relate to common themes, which, if present in your dream world, indicate levels of anxiety you might not be fully switched onto. In addition, the study shows how obsessing over dream contents, or seeing negative dreams as significant, can reduce mood further. But that doesn’t mean dream interpretation doesn’t have a role.
Anxiety is incredibly pervasive and has to be approached from multiple angles. That includes all the conventional modes, from healing trauma, meditation, mindfulness, lifestyle changes, exercise, thought reframing, and so on. But it also includes your dreamworld. What if you could find a healthy balance, and know what dreams to discard, and which carry significant clues to your growth and evolution?
Sometimes dreams are just dreams, reflecting an unsettled mind. Other times, dreams contain solutions. Knowing what to follow, and when, could be another tool in overcoming anxiety, all while you sleep.