To combat anxiety dreams, students, teachers seek out therapy, keep journals, breathe deeply or exercise

(Graphic by Mohini Rye)

My heart’s racing as I quickly type on my laptop. “I’ve got to get this story done,” I tell myself. “It’s already so late!” I only just started, and I can’t figure out the next sentence. I start worrying about whether I’ll ever get the story done when I wake up in a cold sweat.

Sometimes stress manifests itself as dreams such as this. In a poll of 114 high-school students on Oct. 3, 12 said that they have had recurring anxiety dreams, and two of those have sought out therapy to deal with them.

The dreams’ subjects range from the death of loved ones to getting tests back to public humiliation.

Sophomore Gabi Alvarado’s dreams involved doubles of people she was close to, who were out to get her.

“It sounds sort of ridiculous, but it was very scary because I trusted them and they kept turning on me,” she said. “And it was horrific when I had just passed my parents in the house and then saw them somewhere else. I couldn’t tell them apart.

“They got so bad after a couple nights that I couldn’t tell when I was awake or sleeping. One day in math class I thought I was in the nightmare and had a small breakdown.”

These dreams occurred in the span of a week in Alvarado’s eighth-grade year, and she said that at the time she was under a lot of stress.

Her advice to anyone having similar issues is to “find another outlet for whatever is causing it, or find a soothing habit like drinking tea.”

Another example is the dreams of an anonymous sophomore. She started experiencing anxiety dreams in seventh grade, and she has continued to experience them ever since.

The dreams were about the student being chased, or about someone she knew getting hurt and she couldn’t do anything to stop it. The student eventually went to therapy to deal with those dreams.

“It was very frightening,” the student said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep; it affected my schoolwork. I went to therapy because I needed to figure out what was going on and how to stop it.”

She said that these dreams still occur and that sometimes she still can’t fall asleep. Her advice to help deal with these dreams is “Just remember that it’s a dream; it can’t really do anything.”

Dr. Jessica Vando, a clinical psychologist, said that anxiety in students is appropriate.

“We all experience anxiety just as we all experience happiness, sadness, anger and other emotions,” Vando said. “Students have busy lives and experience stress, (and) they worry about school. They might have things going on with friends or family that may contribute to feelings of anxiety and worry.”

Vando said that anxiety comes from biological roots that deal with our feeling of fight or flight. That system is in place to warn us about danger and produces adrenaline to help us. In that way, it is usually felt physically.

“You might feel a faster heartbeat or you might have trouble catching your breath,” Vando said. “You might even feel like you’re having a heart attack in more extreme cases of a panic attack. You can’t get bad thoughts out of your head in extreme cases, and you have trouble calming your body.”

Her advice to help lessen anxiety is to think about a “competing response” because you can’t be anxious if you’re relaxed.

Vando suggests deep breathing, playing sports, working out or just relaxing to help release stress and calm yourself down if you’re feeling a lot of symptoms of anxiety.

Vando said that the point at which someone should consider therapy for anxiety is when it starts adversely affecting daily functioning, such as appetite or sleeping.

As for successfully managing anxiety, she said that it depends a lot on the level of anxiety and what the causes are, but also on personal biology.

“The nice thing about anxiety is that you can’t stay at the peak level of anxiety because there is a point at which the body can’t maintain that level of arousal and so your anxiety comes back down,” she said.

“Eventually some or enough stressors may come to an end, allowing anxiety levels to decrease. All of us experience some amount of anxiety, and most of us eventually manage it.”

But students aren’t the only ones having these dreams. English teacher Ron Bell has had anxiety dreams infrequently throughout his life since he was in middle school.

“They were the usual dreams where I’m going about my business, but I’m not aware that I’m not wearing pants,” he said. “I had dreams of that sort when I was young. I’ve also had dreams where I’m faced with a very steep and frightening hill or slope or something that I have to climb.

“Also, I’ve had dreams where I’m flying but not in a pleasurable way. It’s the fear of not having ground under my feet.

“Depending on my profession, I’ve had dreams where I forget to go to class or am not prepared for class or get my schedule screwed up.”

Bell said that most of his dreams occur in a dream world that doesn’t overlap with ours, and all people in his dreams aren’t people that he knows. Also, his perspective is usually from a different person than himself.

He said he hasn’t sought therapy because “there’s nothing significantly wrong with (having) dreams like these, but I know some people where the dreams are much more severe, so severe to the point where they’re disturbing.

“I became aware as I got older of having lucid dreams. I find myself stopping dreams sometimes and changing the direction of them. I didn’t realize I was lucid dreaming until one night where I just realized I was.”

His advice to people with anxiety dreams is to seek professional help if their dreams bother them a lot, but also to study dream analysis and try to see symbols in their dreams.

“Think of (dreams) as your mind trying to tell you something,” Bell said. “If you don’t forget the dreams immediately, try to figure out what caused them in your waking life.”

By Quin LaComb

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