Anxiety and bad dreams: An unpleasant cycle

Last night, I had a vivid dream that a rabid ferret with blood on its face was trying to squeeze through my patio fence to attack me. Even after I woke up and realized "Phew, that wasn't real," for the entire morning, my anxiety levels were through the roof because of that stupid imaginary little weasel! 

Dreams don't make sense. They can make you relive bad memories, think about people you haven't thought about in years (I'd rather dream about a blood thirsty ferret than dream about any of my exes), experience your greatest fears or feel like you're on a bad psychedelic trip. So it makes sense that your dreams can stress you out, even after you wake up. 

It also makes sense, if you already struggle with anxiety, that you're more likely to have stressful dreams (after all, just because I'm asleep, that doesn't mean my brain's chemical imbalances just go away). In fact, there's research to back me up. According to a study in the Behavioral Sleep Medicine journal, participants with generalized anxiety disorder reported a significantly higher number of bad dreams than those without mental illness.  

"Anxiety and nightmares can feed into each other, creating an unpleasant cycle," Healthline contributor Crystal Raypole wrote in an article. 

To prevent bad dreams, Raypole suggests avoiding stressful activities before bed. 

Well, last night, right before bed, my boyfriend and I had this in-depth conversation about our rigged economic system and greedy Wall Street bros — not really the most relaxing bedtime fodder. So maybe that ferret symbolized my fear of rich people stealing my money? Who knows.  
Either way, Raypole recommends getting your stressful tasks done earlier in the day (I guess we should've had that conversation during our lunch break yesterday instead, huh?). 

Some calming things to start practicing before bed include reading, journaling, meditating, taking a warm bath or listening to music (probably not "F tha Police" or "Down with the Sickness;" maybe something a little more soothing). Watching thriller or horror movies right before bed, which I frequently do, is discouraged. Also: Adding a half hour of moderate aerobic activity to your day at least an hour before bed has been proven to instigate a better night's sleep.  

"Anxiety dreams generally just mean you’re dealing with some stress, but they’re still no fun. ... However you look at them, taking steps to cope with anxiety can help these dreams disappear. If you have trouble managing stress alone, a therapist can help," said Raypole.  

In an interview with Vice Magazine, clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Nadorff said that even having one or two nightmares a week is enough to make an appointment with a physician or therapist. 

According to the article, "Because anxiety and bad dreams are processed in different areas of the brain, patients usually need to address the two disorders separately, even if they're symptomatically the same. ... If you're not treating the sleep disorder in addition to the psychopathy, you're not going to see much remission and you'll have higher rates of relapse."

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