Why Do I Always Have the Same Stress Dream?

Stress dreams feel like low-key nightmares, but they plague us even in our waking hours. Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

My very first job was working at a Blockbuster. It also ended up being by third job.

It's been around 10 years since I last scanned a bar code on a DVD rental case or explained that, no, a Blu-Ray disc will not play in a DVD player, yet I still dream about Blockbuster. It's the same dream every time: It's always closing time, but I can't get the door to lock and customers keep coming into the store, and they're renting a ton of movies, so there's always a lot of scanning to do. Sometimes the scanner gun stops working, so I have to find another one and, naturally, I can't.

I normally wake up from this dream, which just tapers off, feeling incredibly anxious and stressed because the dream is weirdly intense. And also because it's been a decade since I even worked at Blockbuster. So why am I still dreaming about it?

Common dream feelings

A man covers his face while in bed
Dreams with negative emotions are very common. Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Anxiety dreams, like my Blockbuster experience, differ from nightmares in that they don't cause you to wake up; they just increase your stress level, according to Vice. (But maybe if one of those scanner guns turned into a piranha ...) Like nightmares, however, anxiety dreams still kick in during REM sleep.

That I have anxiety-inducing dreams isn't particularly rare. In fact, most recorded dreams involve some type of negative emotion. Dr. Michael Nardoff, a clinical psychologist speaking to Vice, explained that more than half of all dreams involve some kind of negative emotion, regardless of if we remember them or not. Historical data backs this up. The 1966 book "The Content Analysis of Dreams" found that one-third of dreams contained some kind of "misfortune," with 80 percent of men and 77 percent of women experiencing dreams with some kind of "negative element."

Given the time the book was written, that isn't too surprising. Between the Cold War and political turmoil, people in the late '60s had reasons to be anxious. We're not too different now. The World Health Organization reports that there was a 50 percent increase in the amount of people with depression or anxiety between 1990 and 2013. The upside is that general anxiety isn't necessarily going to result in more anxious dreams.

"It's not just being more anxious that makes you likely to have anxious dreams," Antonio Zadra, a psychologist, told The Guardian. "It's being more anxious and finding yourself in a stressful situation."

Of course, anxiety dreams can make you feel more stressed when you're awake, too, leading to a vicious cycle of being stressed regardless of when you're awake. It could cause you to avoid sleep altogether, and the result can be ill effects of chronic unrest. This can include REM rebound, where your brain prioritizes REM sleep and induces it sooner in the sleep cycle. This can, as Vice notes, result in more bad dreams than usual.

How to relax the grip of stress dreams

So what's an anxious dreamer to do? It depends on who you ask.

1. Try image rehearsal therapy (IRT). This process requires you to write out your stress dream and alter it in ways that make it less negative. This process is to be done several times a day for 10 to 20 minutes, according to recommendations published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. IRT "acts to inhibit the original nightmare, providing a cognitive shift that empirically refutes the original premise" of the dream.

While IRT is recommended for helping to alleviate nightmares, it could easily help alter the flow of anxiety dreams. For instance, I could rewrite my Blockbuster dream so that the door locks. This might simply stop the dream in its tracks.

A woman speaks with a psychologist
Speaking with a therapist about your dreams can help you process them or improve your sleep. Stock-Asso/Shutterstock

2. Don't do anything. Provided the dreams aren't truly causing you too much distress, you may just want to allow the dreams to run their course. According to The Guardian, psychoanalysts could see something like IRT "as a contamination of good material" that could lead to a better understanding of what's happening in your brain and your life. Indeed, a Jungian psychologist told The New York Times that changing up a dream robs the dreamer of an "opportunity to really get some meaning out of it."

3. Address the potential root cause. Perhaps better considered as a continuation of not doing anything, figuring out what's happening in your life to trigger the dream could stop it from happening.

Given that my dream occurs in the first job I ever had, I've always assumed that the dream was connected to some kind of professional stress, whether it be that I felt I wasn't doing a good enough job, or not taking enough breaks or something else along those lines. I'm keeping an eye on that idea, to see if there's a connection between a tense day at work and a recurrence of the dream. But unless the scanner gun really does turn into a piranha in one of my dreams, I think I will let this dream run its course.