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Anxiety and Dreams
A Mosaic of Emotional Health and Nighttime Adventures


Xin Song


Updated on February 23, 2024


Fact checked by

Denys Chumak
Dreams have long fascinated us, offering a glimpse into the enigmatic realm of our subconscious minds. However, recent research has revealed a captivating connection between dreams and anxiety, shedding light on how our nighttime adventures can reflect and even influence our levels of anxiety in our waking lives.

Anxiety and its Ties with Dream Patterns:

Dreams and emotions are deeply intertwined, with anxiety often playing a pivotal role. Research, over the years, has examined how dreams are closely connected with our waking life events and how anxiety in terms shapes our dreams in terms of recall frequency, emotional content, and the consequent effect on our quality of life.

1. Anxiety and Dream Recall:

Our ability to recall dreams, while seemingly straightforward, is deeply influenced by our emotional state, especially anxiety. Numerous studies have enriched our understanding of this complex relationship. For instance,

(Punamäki, 1997)

delved into the effects of traumatic experiences on dream recall, finding that trauma-exposed children frequently recalled dreams rich in bizarre and emotionally intense content. Intriguingly, coping strategies such as denial and numbing heightened dream recall, implying that traumatic events not only influence dream frequency but also their nature, potentially acting as a subconscious medium to process such traumas.

Moreover, individuals with anxiety disorders, as highlighted in the study by

(Rimsh & Pietrowsky, 2022),

tend to have more bad dreams and nightmares and have longer, more negative, and intense dreams. They also have a higher rate of incorporations of waking life into dreams, and their waking-life mood was found to be more often influenced by dreams. This underpins the idea that their subconscious might be continuously active, even in sleep, trying to process daily anxieties.

2. Anxiety and Dream Emotions:

Our emotional state, especially when tinged with anxiety, deeply influences the emotional landscape of our dreams.

(Montebarocci & Giovagnoli, 2019)

explored this relationship, identifying that trait anxiety was related to nightmare frequency, while self-reported depression correlated with déjà-vu experiences.

(Rimsh & Pietrowsky, 2021)

delved into this relationship further, unveiling patients with anxiety experienced dreams with more characters and a variety of activities, including heightened social and aggressive interactions. Conversely, these dreams had fewer friendly interactions.

They frequently depicted failures, misfortunes, and negative emotions, with fewer instances of success, good fortune, and positive feelings. These dreams also spanned more locations and settings, carried more negative judgments, and showcased a broader and more intense spectrum of descriptive elements. Such findings provide a vivid portrayal of how anxiety can infiltrate our subconscious minds, manifesting as distressing dreams.

3. Bad Dreams, Nightmares, and Life Quality:

Our daily anxieties don't simply disappear as we drift into sleep; they often resurface in our dreams. Several studies underscore a direct correlation between heightened anxiety levels and an uptick in bad dreams and nightmares

(Nadorff et al., 2014; Rimsh & Pietrowsky, 2021, 2022).

For instance, a study by

(Nadorff et al., 2014)

on older adults revealed that those with generalized anxiety disorder reported more bad dreams. These weren't just random images but resonated with real-life fears, worries, and concerns, reflecting the individual's emotional state. More than just nighttime disturbances, these dreams can impact overall well-being, intensifying negative emotions and even affecting quality of life. This suggests that our dream patterns might be a subconscious reflection or even an extension of our waking emotional states.

Nightmares, on the other hand, are not merely unsettling dreams; they provide insight into our deepest anxieties and fears. Several studies

(Blagrove & Pace-Schott, 2010; Montebarocci & Giovagnoli, 2019; Rimsh & Pietrowsky, 2022; Simard et al., 2023; Zadra & Donderi, 2000)

have found a robust connection between anxiety and increased nightmare frequency. These anxiety-induced nightmares can significantly impact our daily well-being and mental state

(Rimsh & Pietrowsky, 2022; Zadra & Donderi, 2000).

Such research underscores how anxiety profoundly influences our subconscious, molding the emotional fabric of our dreams and affecting our everyday life.

The COVID-19 Imprint on Dreams:

Dreams are not merely fleeting images but emotional experiences that parallel our waking lives. The COVID-19 pandemic brought forth a wave of unprecedented challenges and anxieties, seeping into our dreams and influencing their content. During Italy's lockdown, many reported dreams that were notably intense, echoing the anxieties, fears, and uncertainties of the pandemic

(Giovanardi et al., 2022).

These weren't merely abstract nightmares; they were deeply personal, reflecting real-world concerns about health, isolation, and the future.

Research by

Solomonova et al. (2021)

further explored this, suggesting that these dream experiences during the pandemic mirrored larger existential fears and signaled increased mental health concerns. Similarly, they discovered that dreams during the lockdown were characterized by negative emotions, reflecting our collective concerns and uncertainties. Dreams became a canvas for processing the emotional turbulence of our waking lives. In a related study,

Scarpelli et al., (2021)

found that individuals reported more frequent nightmares and dreams during the pandemic, highlighting heightened emotional features and changes in sleep habits.

Gender and Cultural Dreamscapes:

Our dreams, while personal, are also shaped by societal factors, including culture and gender. Interestingly, studies, like one by

Nielsen et al. (2000),

have shown that adolescent girls tend to report more disturbing dreams than boys, with a clear link to anxiety. This suggests that dream patterns can be influenced by sociodemographic factors. Additionally, the collective challenges posed by events like the COVID-19 pandemic have shown to manifest differently across cultural and demographic lines, indicating the deep societal impact of global events on our subconscious

(Scarpelli et al., 2021).

Cultural factors also play a role in shaping our dreams.

De Cicco et al., (n.d.)

explored cultural differences in dream content, revealing that both Italians and Canadians had a high frequency of dreams with animals and changes in locations. However, Italians showed higher levels of animal imagery and location changes in their dreams compared to Canadians, suggesting cultural influences on dream content.

Dreams as Emotional Regulations & Coping Mechanisms?

Dreams can often act as a mirror, reflecting our deepest anxieties, hopes, and memories. They might also serve as our mind's mechanism for resilience, especially during distressing times.

Solomonova et al. (2021)

undertook a study during the first COVID-19 lockdown and unearthed significant findings that shed light on this phenomenon. During this period, dream recall, bad dreams, and nightmare frequencies noticeably increased, particularly for individuals experiencing moderate to high stress. This could indicate an individual's heightened sensitivity to environmental changes and a general trait for stress reactivity.

Solomonova et al. (2021)

suggest that the unique experience of a pandemic lockdown induced not just changes in mental health and sleep patterns, but also in the dream landscape. The prevalent dream themes mirrored the sentiments of lives paused and underscored the overarching feeling of lives put on hold. Dreams seemed to be a platform for individuals to process and make sense of this new reality. This aligns with theories emphasizing the associative nature of memory processing in dreams and the importance of emotionally charged and personally significant events in forming dreams.

Further emphasizing the role of dreams in processing trauma, a study by

Punamäki (1997)

on children exposed to trauma offers deeper insights. Among these children, dream recall was more prevalent, especially for those who had undergone more severe trauma. Notably, dreams with bizarre, emotionally rich, and coherent content were most frequently recalled. It's intriguing to note that coping strategies, such as denial and emotional numbing, were linked with increased dream recall.

Together, these studies suggest that while dreams can sometimes be distressing, they play a crucial role in emotional regulation and coping, especially during challenging times.


The intricate link between dreams and anxiety offers a revealing look into the depths of our psyche and its connection to our emotional health. Dreams not only provide insights into our anxieties, fears, and challenges but also present opportunities for introspection and clarity. While cultural contexts mold the narratives of our dreams, traumatic experiences influence their recall and content. Meanwhile, anxiety leaves its distinct mark on the emotional fabric of these nighttime visions. Our dreams serve as a reflective medium, helping us navigate and process the emotional ebbs and flows of our daily lives. We've dedicated significant effort to understanding this relationship through a rigorous in-house study. We're thrilled to share the science behind dreams with you. For a closer look at our findings, click on the link to explore our most recent in-house research.



Xin Song

Ph.D. Candidate in Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Researcher at DreamApp, dedicated to connecting mental health and dream research.


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