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Decoding Anxiety Dreams

What are you telling yourself when you wake up from a common nightmare?

Perhaps you’re standing naked among a crowd of people who are all dressed and staring at you in derision or shock. Maybe you’re on stage in a play whose plot is totally unknown to you. The other actors on stage are waiting, and the audience is beginning to murmur, and you have no idea at all what your next line is supposed to be. Another common scenario has you running down miles-long school building hallways, late for a crucial exam you must take, one for which you have never attended class or even opened the required text.

Although my theatrical experiences are very limited, I still have had the “What play is this I am in?” dream a few times, and, even several decades out of school, I occasionally still have the test panic dream of not being able to find the exam room or staring blankly at the blue book with no knowledge of the subject matter.

Having worked as an artist's model when I was in college many years ago inured me to the naked among a group of clothed people dream. I have really been there. It wasn’t horrible. On the contrary, having all those eyes upon me while they made art was very flattering.

My own recurring, frightening dreamscape is New York City, where I have not lived for more than 50 years. I awaken distressed and upset, having spent what feels like hours walking the streets of the city, unable to remember the phone number or address of a relative I need to contact, being late for a critical appointment, or without my purse and no way to get wherever I am going.

Whenever I have a typical anxiety dream, I wake up and lie abed, assessing my real-time emotional landscape. What is going on in my life that is causing me distress? Usually, nothing of the magnitude of the dreamscape’s anxiety, but the feeling must come from somewhere. If I seek it, I usually find something specific on which I can pin my feelings.

If your typical anxiety dream is the naked in public one, it is usually a reflection of feeling somehow exposed or ashamed in your real life. The unprepared stage actor scenario or the exam for which you’re late and haven’t studied often reflect a feeling of not being prepared for some actual, real-life event.

Trying to identify the feeling state is often a good way to interpret your dreams. Is the specific anxiety—feeling naked, trapped, exposed, unprepared—reflected in any way that is familiar to you? Are you dealing with it effectively? Reassuring yourself that you are taking steps to prepare yourself or manage a challenge at hand can allow you to start the day without that anxious dream hangover that often plagues those of us who don’t quite remember our dreams, but must suffer an emotional fallout with no clear idea of what caused it.

Reciting your dream to a patient intimate while it’s still fresh or perhaps writing it in a dream journal may help you figure out what’s going on when you look at it later. Free-floating anxiety somehow feels worse, less handlable, than when you have attached it to a situation you can assure yourself you can handle.

Do you remember a song often sung around a campfire? It goes something like this: “I’ve told you my dream. You tell me yours.”