3 themes found in the dreams of anxious people

A new study published in Dreaming analyzes the dreams of people with anxiety disorders. The study suggests that these frequently troubling dreams can turn the waking life of such individuals into a nightmare, if not given the right care.

“The results of our study reveal that the dream contents of anxiety patients differ significantly from the dream contents of healthy persons and contain more negative and unpleasant elements,” explains lead author and psychologist Anton Rimsh of Universität Düsseldorf in Germany.

Dream content of anxiety patients
Rimsh’s study tracked the dream content of 38 anxiety patients through dream diaries, questionnaires, and one-on-one dream analysis.

The results of the study found several dream topics to be more prevalent in anxiety patients compared to healthy persons. These themes include:

  • Being chased and pursued
  • Being physically attacked and facing aggressive actions
  • Being frozen with fright
  • Quarrels and verbally aggressive interactions
  • Anxiety and fear about aggressive actions from others
  • Fear of falling and being in danger of falling
  • Being excluded and rejected in social situations
  • Death of parents and family members
  • Accidents and car or plane crashes
  • Facing failures and being unsuccessful

Apart from these recurring images and events, there were also some common defining characteristics that were found in many of the participants’ dreams, such as:

  1. Previous love interests. Dreamers’ ex-partners or ex-spouses were also more frequent in the dream contents of anxiety-disordered individuals than in dreams of healthy people.
  2. High speed and power. Dreams of anxiety-disordered patients were also characterized by the common presence of high velocity and fast speed in general — and, subsequently, fast-moving characters, objects, transport, and vehicles.
  3. High emotional intensity. The presence of an anxiety disorder instigates a higher overall subjective intensity of dream experiences and dream imagery. The dream contents in anxiety patients not only exist in large numbers but also are experienced with a particularly high subjective intensity and emphasis.

Rimsh’s study also suggests that an anxiety patient is more likely to analyze and deconstruct their dreams. There are two reasons for this tendency, according to Rimsh:

  1. Individuals suffering from anxiety disorders generally tend to be preoccupied and concerned with experiences and events in their waking life. It is this preoccupation that also takes over when it comes to their dreams.
  2. Rimsh also guesses that anxious individuals tend to look at their dreams as the key to their waking life problems. The obsessive interpretation of their dreams thus becomes a way to solve problems that they experience while being awake.

However, Rimsh warns that anxiety patients can find themselves being stuck in negative feedback loops between their waking life and dreams – i.e., the negative dreams can worsen anxiety symptoms in their waking life which makes for even more disturbing dreams and so on.

Rimsh also offers the same advice to anyone suffering from disturbing dreams due to an underlying anxiety problem:

“The best advice which I could give to a person who experiences such dreams on a regular basis is to consult with a psychologist, or better, with a practicing psychotherapist, and most preferably, with a practicing psychoanalyst,” he explains. “This is because they usually have the necessary experience, skills, and knowledge of working not only with anxiety disorders but also with a person’s dreams.”


Psychology Today

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