How to combat stress dreams

How to combat stress dreams when exam worry is sneaking into your brain like a creep into your DMs

Is exam season looming on the horizon (cue dramatic “dun dun DUN”)? If the answer to that question is a slightly panicked ‘YES!’ you may be feeling the effects of exam stress – especially when it comes to sleep.

You’re not alone either. Research carried out as part of Campus Living Villages’ Mental Health Report shows that around three-quarters (74%) of academics in the UK have had some sort of trouble sleeping during their studies.

If you’ve ever woken up with your heart racing a million miles an hour after dreaming that you failed your exams (and had to subsequently break the news to your parents – yikes!), then you have experienced a stress dream, my friend.

But it’s totally cool; we’ve spoken to the sleep experts and gathered some top tips to help you understand the psychological stuff behind them, steps to take to tackle daytime stress head-on and who you should talk to if things get a little out of hand.

The psychological stuff: why do we have them?

Exam season is tough. We’ve all been through the emotional experience at some point in our lives, so we can totally relate with those feelings of stress, frustration and everything in between.

We spoke to Steve Dell from Steve Dell Hypnotherapy, who explained that “stress is a natural flight or fight response that kicks in when the brain is exposed to some kind of crisis or emergency.”

So what happens in your ol’ noggin to turn this stress into some pretty crazy dreams?

He told us that “stress dreams tend to happen when you’re experiencing high levels of stress which have gradually built up to the point where it is affecting your brain, even whilst you’re asleep. Your brain attempts to process the thoughts, emotions and stresses you’ve felt during the day.”

So, if you’re finding it hard to keep those stress levels in-check, “your brain may struggle to effectively and positively process these stresses that you’re facing, resulting in negative dreams a.k.a. ‘nightmares’ or stress dreams.”

Bad dreams make you stronger

It may sound like a wild concept, but bad dreams could actually be (in a way) good for you.

Uxshely Chotai, from The Food Psychology Clinic, revealed “recent studies show that dreams may serve the function of helping us to discharge the emotions associated with a particular event or situation.”

Your mates might tease you for having a pea brain once in a blue moon, but it’s actually a super-smart piece of kit; it regulates your emotions and helps you feel better about a situation. Bad dreams about failing exams are probably “your body’s way of processing some of the negative emotions attached to that situation.”

Daytime de-stressing to prevent your bad dreams

Steve suggested taking control of day-to-day student stress by “keeping organised with deadlines and taking breaks when necessary. The brain requires time after working hard to rest and repair”, so give yourself a brain breather 60-90 minutes of the way through your studying sesh.

Do something you don’t have to think about – whether that’s having a goss with your housemates or making yourself a well-earned brew. Your attention span will go from nay to yay, keeping those stress levels well below boiling point (and more importantly those dreams about exams at bay).

You are what you eat

Steve advises to limit your caffeine and alcohol intake as “both of these are known for negatively affecting your quality of sleep. They can also worsen anxiety and stress-related symptoms, making it best to avoid them completely if your stress is at an all-time high.”

When it comes to scran, we all fall victim to those sweet Domino’s Pizza deals on a slightly too-regular basis; ditch the junk for healthier alternatives instead. Sam and Allan Watts, Directors of Sleep Well, suggested “fuelling up on brain-boosting snacks… nuts are full of good fats and magnesium, which can help keep stress levels low and berries are full of vitamin C to help keep your immune system running smoothly.”

Be a routine machine

You may shrug your shoulders at the thought of a bedtime routine, but “what you do 30 minutes before settling down for the night directly affects the quality of your sleep”, as Sam and Allen told us.

  • First things first, make sure to set a time to catch those ZZZs. Our Sleep Well experts encourage people to “count back eight hours from when you want to wake up, then start your bedtime routine around 45 minutes before that” – so no partying ‘til the sun comes up!
  • Reflecting on the positive aspects of your day as “practising gratitude regularly helps you feel more optimistic, satisfied with your life and enjoy better physical health.”
  • Keep screen time to a minimum, according to Uxshely. Try and put your phone or laptop down at least an hour before bedtime as “blue light emitted by LED devices surpasses melatonin production (which is the hormone which helps to get sleep).” Science.
  • According to the UK Sleep Council, 82% of teens do last-minute revision in bed. The Sleep Well crew said it’s essential that “the bedroom should be a sanctuary reserved for sleep.”

Let those emotions free

If you are feeling particularly overwhelmed, Claire Bradshaw, Executive Manager or Unihealth reinforced the importance of talking to someone, and even suggested “therapy such as CBT can help manage emotions – and stop them managing you.”

Do you struggle with stress dreams? You’re not alone! We hope our expert tips have helped you feel at ease, but if you’ve got any other suggestions for your fellow student worriers, we’d love to hear them on our Facebook page!