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Can Anxiety cause Nightmares?AnxietyPanda Investigates!

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Last updated on November 29, 2019

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We’ve all been there. You wake up in the middle of the night with a jolt, the sheets soaking wet, your heart racing and your stomach feeling like it just landed at the bottom of a pit… Yes, it’s the dreaded nightmare…Now you’re awake and anxious and you wonder: “Can anxiety cause nightmares?” 

The Anxiety-Nightmare Cycle

The thing to remember here is the fact that it is actually just one big vicious circle. Although anxiety does not increase the frequency of nightmares, it does increase the intensity of your dreams. And dreams are caused by the brain processing your thoughts from the day, which, if you have anxiety, are most probably all negative, hence coming out in your nightmares. Then you wake up feeling anxious, only to fall asleep again thinking anxious thoughts and…. you get the drift?

Anxiety can cause nightmares, and nightmares can cause anxiety.
Furthermore, nightmares cause interrupted sleep and we all know that interrupted sleep is just as good as no sleep at all.
Anxious pandas need to always practice good sleep hygiene.
Regularly waking up during the night is not good for sleep hygiene…

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the question: Can anxiety cause nightmares? And if it does, what can an AnxietyPanda do to alleviate or get rid of them?

Does Anxiety Cause Nightmares? Some Facts:



1. a terrifying dream in which the dreamer experiences feelings of helplessness, extreme anxiety, sorrow, etc.

2. a condition, thought, or experience suggestive of a nightmare: the nightmare of his years in prison.

3. (formerly) a monster or evil spirit believed to oppress persons during sleep.
 There are two types of nightmares and they occur mostly during Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, like most other dreams.

The first is your most commonly found variety where you are, for example, busy making a speech, you look down and your fur is exposed (gasp), or your teeth are falling out or you are being chased down a dark forest path by a Yellow-throated marten (oh, the horror)!

Everybody has these types of dreams, not only Anxiety Pandas, and you may be surprised to know that anxiety does not make you have more nightmares than the average person, no, you just experience them more intensely.

The second type of nightmare is a bit more traumatic – post-traumatic nightmares. They often occur after a stressful and traumatic event such as a car accident or if a snow lion almost ate your cub. They are worse not only because they can happen at any stage of your sleep cycle, but they are also recurring and repetitive, playing the scenario in your head over and over again.

But, what causes nightmares?

Nightmares are usually an after-effect of too much brain activity before bed, lack of sleep, stress and even certain medications. Studies have shown that it could also have evolved as a sort of warning system to make our consciousness aware of an underlying problem with our bodies, lives or health.

How does Anxiety affect our Nightmares?

It is a known fact that one of the side-effects of anxiety and depression is a lack of sleep which in turn is linked to having nightmares or bad dreams.

I can't get no sleep

The main problem here is that the anxious person tends to overthink.
Overthinking is the main culprit because your dreams process your thoughts and even amplifies it in certain cases.

Studies also show that anxiety affects the function of certain neurotransmitters in the brain and neurotransmitters have an effect on your dreaming. Certain medications also cause disruptions in certain brain-chemistry which have also been linked to bad dreams.

Coping with Nightmares

  • Take steps to treat any underlying disorders such as insomnia or depression.
  • Stop eating about 3 hours before bedtime. That includes coffee or alcohol. Food speeds up your metabolism which makes your brain more active. Active brains have dreams which could be bad dreams…
  • Indulge in some stress relieving activities, including meditation or yoga or even just listen to some relaxing beats. It will definitely help you to go to bed with a clear and peaceful mind.
  • If you believe that your medication may cause the onset of these dreams, consider talking to your doctor about changing the dosage or perhaps the type.
    AnxietyPanda Tip! Remember that sometimes when you just start a new medication your body goes through an adjustment period and nightmares may be part of the side-effects. These should disappear once this adjustment period has passed. If you’re unsure – check with your GP!
  • Make your bedroom your sanctuary.
  • Get up and get out in nature – a 20-minute jog (or walk) will do you good!
  • Think happy thoughts before drifting to sleep.

Interpreting your Nightmares

The one thing you should try not to do is interpret those horrid nightmares. What many people don’t seem to understand is that dreams don’t necessarily have to MEAN anything.

Dreams are merely your brain’s way of processing information and activity that had an impact on you. Trying to interpret your nightmares are futile as it just causes more anxious thoughts and overthinking which in turn yet again leads to you having another nightmare. Just because you dreamt that your best friend was drowning right in front of you and you were too frozen to do anything to help, it doesn’t mean that he or she is literally going to die and you will be partial to the cause of it.

“I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”
― Frida Kahlo

The meaning of such a dream could be as simple as someone close to you needing help and your mind trying to make you aware of it.

This in itself is advantageous because, in turn, it will assist in strengthening your social bond with that person (by you reaching out to them), which has it’s own mental health benefits in itself.
Or, it could just be that movie you watched last night…

AnxietyPanda Verdict & Some Interesting Follow Up Reads

Although nightmares are a common part of most peoples dreams, they must definitely be addressed should they start to have an impact on your daily life and well-being. Look out for the warning signs, take the necessary steps to combat fatigue and see a professional if the situation does not improve.

Here’s an article from a Harvard Neurobiology newsletter: Nightmares and the Brain

Science Daily provides us with a study that gives clarity on the contents of our dreams and the difference between nightmares and bad dreams: Study Analyzes Content of Nightmares, Bad Dreams

Now, remember, don’t think too much about your nightmares and their meanings. It’s a waste of your time and energy. Focus on your happy thoughts, Panda thoughts!

Why not read through this interesting article from PillowPicker that is all about dreams? Learn interesting new facts and gain a better understanding of dreams and why we have them: 30 Interesting Facts About Dreams (Backed Up By Science) 

Did you know that toddlers and young children also suffer from night terrors and anxieties? For a comprehensive guide on what this is, how it differs from a nightmare, and how you can help your little one overcome this, read Moms Loves Best’s article: Fright at Night: Helping Your Toddler’s Night Terrors

AnxietyPanda would love to hear from you! What do you think? Can anxiety cause nightmares? What has been a successful tactic for you to combat your anxiety driven nightmares?

Panda-love <3




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  1. Thank you Anxiety Panda! I sometimes experience the strangest feeling where I wake up with a start and have no idea where I am. I’ve never been able to work that one out, and I don’t really bother trying. I think you’re spot on about not over analysing what the nightmares might be all about. It could drive us insane! The important thing is to try and go to sleep feeling calm and ready for a peaceful sleep. You have some great tips here about coping with nightmares. I had never thought about stopping eating and drinking 3 hours before going to bed, and that makes absolute sense. Thanks so much for your site Anxiety Panda. Love it 🙂

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Hey there Melissa!
      AnxietyPanda is so happy that you found some use for this article and am glad that you were able to learn something new!

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