How to feel calmer after a stressful dream

It’s 11pm on a Thursday and you’ve just folded the corner of the 217th page of the novel you’re reading.

You flick off your lamp, and next thing you know you’re back in a GCSE history lesson; you just found out the exam that matters most is a week away, but somehow, you haven’t been to a single class. 

You wake up, heart beating, sweat dripping off your forehead. After that initial sigh of relief – it was just a dream, thank God – you attempt to get on with your day, but it’s clear you’ve set off on the wrong foot.

‘Oftentimes, even if you forget about a disturbing dream, the feeling of the dream will linger in your mind when you wake up,’ Desiree Silverstone, a psychotherapist turned executive coach, tells

This is because, she explains, the brain is extremely sensitive to threats – a mechanism that helps humans survive. 

‘After we wake up,’ she continues, ‘our physiology will be affected by the physiological reactions to the threat while we are asleep. 

‘This will result in a change in cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline levels and it will take some time for our physiology to return to normal.’

The fact that stressful dreams are self-perpetuating is stressful in and of itself. 

Where do stress dreams stem from?

For the most part, stress or anxiety-inducing dreams are reflective of our current mental state, even if we haven’t consciously acknowledged our stress levels yet.

Dreaming, explains sleep specialist Dave Gibson, involves ‘thought processing,’ which involves problem solving and rinsing our emotions.

‘In fact,’ he tells, ‘our Amygdala, the part of the brain which helps process emotions such as fear and aggression, is actually 50% more active when we dream than when we’re awake.’

This means that, as we dream, ‘we are essentially logging our emotional memory storage,’ so if we’re stressed or worried, our dreams are going to reflect that. 

Desiree agrees, adding that if we’ve had a particularly stressful day or week, that will also impact our dreams.

‘Generally, dreams can be viewed as part of the same problem-solving process we use to solve problems in our daily lives, whereas dreams use images instead of words,’ she says.

‘What happens during the day will affect what we dream about – this is called day residue.’

Moreover, sleep expert and founder of Senses Wellness Clinic Abdullah Boulad says that poor sleep quality can impact our dreams. 

He tells ‘Our sleep cycle can greatly affect our tendency to experience stressful dreams.

‘You may find that the more out of sync you are with circadian rhythms, the more likely you are to experience nightmares. This is due in part to your body experiencing the biological stress of being out of your cycle.’

Essentially, poor sleep can exacerbate stressful situations, making them more difficult to deal with and leading to you having more stress dreams. Ugh.

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