02/25/2016 06:22 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2017

Three Reasons That You May Have Anxiety Dreams

Anxiety dreams, particularly those about examinations, performances, and being seen naked in public, may seem like they're just a nuisance. But take a little more time with them, look a little closer, and they may reveal a deeper process in which we're actually trying to work something through. If we work with this process, we may experience reduced anxiety, growth and healing.

Increasing research supports Carl Jung's idea that dreams serve a function in our well-being by compensating an unbalanced conscious position.

Here are three questions to help you get something out of these dreams:

1. Does the dream bring up something you've been trying to ignore?

According to a recent study, when people try to suppress a particular thought before going to sleep, when they try not to think about something that bothers them, that subject is more likely to surface in their dreams, and those dreams tend to be more distressed.(1)

When we're dreaming we aren't able to maintain the same sort of inhibition we do when awake, so some things that we'd rather forget surface when our defenses are down.

For instance, let's say you've been avoiding speaking with your boss about your salary. It's been a long time since you had a raise, but you fear conflict in general and avoid it whenever you can. Your dream may not specifically show your boss, but it may picture you drawing back from a performance, from going on stage or entering a ring. In any case, it dramatically portrays the very thing you're avoiding--conflict. It's time to consider dealing with your avoidance.

2. Is the dream trying to help you resolve a difficult situation from the past, or prepare for a difficult one in the future?

The trending theory about anxiety is that whatever its original cause, it persists only when we avoid the situation we fear. So the remedy is always to face into the fear, to expose ourselves to it gently, and to gradually become more comfortable with the situation and the fear itself.

Anxiety dreams may be our unconscious way of trying to expose ourselves to a fear so that it disturbs us less.

For instance, according to a study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, students that dreamt about their medical school entrance exam the night before the test actually did better than those that did not. The authors concluded that "the negative anticipation of a stressful event in dreams is common and that this episodic simulation provides a cognitive gain."(2)

Further, according to increasing evidence for the Threat Stimulation Theory of dreams, dreams serve a biological purpose in that they repeatedly simulate threatening events, and in doing do they "rehearse the cognitive mechanisms required for efficient threat perception and threat avoidance, leading to increased probability of reproductive success during human evolution." (3)

In other words, when you have certain anxiety dreams, you may be practicing by leaning into the fear.

According to researcher Ernest Hartmann (4), dreams are hyperconnective, they creatively associate ideas and feelings--different sets of neural configurations--in a way that helps us adapt to what we've been through, where we are, and where we may be headed. When we're awake our mode of thinking is too linear to allow us to develop these more creative ways of seeing our situation.

3. Does the dream highlight your need to be self-accepting and more authentic?

Examination dreams aren't just about examinations. And performance dreams aren't just about performances. They're also about a felt discrepancy between who we feel we are, and who we imagine the world expects us to be.

As in those dreams of being seen naked in public, we fear being seen for who we really are.

Because tests represent an assessment of whether we are meeting collective standards, examination dreams may actually point to a fear of being evaluated by society and not meeting their criteria. Similarly, performance dreams draw our attention to a fear that our capacity to play a certain role is being evaluated by society and that we fear we aren't up to it.

The take away is to explore what it is about yourself that you're afraid of people seeing, and come to terms with it. Your dream may indicate that keeping up the performance is taking up too much of your energy and may not be worth it.

* * *

A positive and inquisitive attitude toward your dreams may help you come to terms with your fears. While there is no hard and fast proof, there are studies that support the idea that engaging with dreams increases well-being.(5) Rather than feeling at war with yourself, a more open attitude will certainly go a long way in reducing your anxiety and more comfort with your present situation.

If you're interested in dreams, you might enjoy my previous post: Five Essential Keys To Using Your Dreams To Achieve Emotional Wellbeing helpful.  

(1). Kroner-Borowik, T., et al. 2013. "The Effects of Suppressing Intrusive Thoughts on Dream Content, Dream Distress and Psychological Parameters." J Sleep Res 22 (5):600-4.

(2). Valli, K., et al. 2005. "The Threat Simulation Theory of the Evolutionary Function of Dreaming: Evidence from Dreams of Traumatized Children." Conscious Cogn 14(1).

(3). Arnulf, Isabelle, et al. 2014. "Will Students Pass a Competitive Exam That They Failed in Their Dreams?" Consciousness and Cognition 29:36-47.

(4). Hartmann, Ernest. 2011. The Nature and Functions of Dreaming. New York: Oxford University Press.

(5). Barrett, Deirdre. 1993. "The "Committee of Sleep": A Study of Dream Incubation for Problem Solving " Dreaming 3 (2).