What Do You (Stress) Dream About?

One charming thing about my brain is that I have nightmares on the regular. Despite my fascination with horror movies, when I was a kid I was terrified to the point of not sleeping by them solely because I was afraid I’d have nightmares. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized my nightmares are seldom influenced by anything I watched during the day. They are an independent entity and they come so often than I got used to them. In fact, I seldom have a nightmare that makes it difficult for me to go back to sleep.

I read somewhere that it’s believed there’s actually a nightmare trait -a gene that makes a person predisposed to having nightmares- and I believe it. My youngest niece suffers from the same nightmare issue. Her sleep got a lot better once I gave her some of my coping mechanisms. She used to call recurring dreams “reruns” and get annoyed with them. “Ugh! I had another bad dream last night, but it was a rerun! I already did this!”

As annoying and sometimes disturbing as those nightmares can be, I’d take them over stress dreams any day.

Or night, as it were.

I’ve had stress dreams since probably junior high or high school. I get stressed, my dreams get stressed. They’re different from nightmares because stress dreams are more likely to trigger my somnambulism.

They’re also different from nightmares because stress dreams are relentless. If I have one, then that’s going to be my night. No amount of changing position is going to save me. I’ll wake up, roll over, and go right back into it.

My stress dreams are usually about the situation that has me stressed. That’s usually work. A busy library with no help and an inability to do my job is pretty common. Or I’ll dream about past jobs as a substitute for my current one. Usually I’m back at Wal-Mart trying to remember how to do my job.

But sometimes my stress dreams take on a fun twist.

They evoke the same feelings as my usual stress dreams, but they’re more like the nightmares I have. Like the time I dreamed about the 10 plagues, but not in a fun, Dr. Phibes way. Or the time I dreamed about stabbing zombies in the eye with the handle of a rat tail comb. Normally, these nightmare-adjacent dreams would have been nothing for me. Instead, I was left feeling wound for sound as much as drained.

Sometimes the stress dreams will co-opt dreams that I don’t consider bad and warp them. I frequently dream about tornadoes and sharks (but not together), which might be nightmares for some people, but for me they’re not because I’m never scared in any of them. Unless they’re stress-related. Then these dreams take on an anxiety-inducing quality that spills over into my waking hours and wrecks my day.

My stress dreams have become more and more frequent over the past few years to the point that recently I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t have one. My body adjusted to them apparently because they stopped wearing me out as much as they used to, but my mind still struggles.

It’s bad when I crave the bizarre dreams, the absolute nightmares, but I really would prefer them.

Those I can sleep through.

Let’s Talk About Stress, Baby

In my little world, I categorize my stress into two categories: To Do List Stress and Life Stress. Sometimes they overlap, but they tend to affect me differently.

I prefer no stress, but if I had to pick one of these, I’ll pick the To Do List Stress.

To Do List Stress is the consequence of me overestimating my ability to be productive and scheduling myself to do a whole lot of things in a certain period of time. To Do List Stress is most prevalent in December, but I can honestly do this to myself at any time. I tend to cope with this stress better. Not because I can choose to reschedule the things on my To Do List to be more accommodating (because even if I say I’m going to do that, I never do), but for whatever reason, it’s just something I can handle. Maybe it’s because I’m a Capricorn. Who knows.

One contributing factor to my ability to deal with To Do List Stress is that it triggers my “DO IT ALL NOW” anxiety and out of all of my anxiety manifestations, I can actually deal with that one pretty easily. It mostly involves me reminding myself that I don’t have to do it all now and I have it all scheduled out. Do I have to remind myself of this multiple times a day, if not an hour, and does it sometimes disrupt my sleep? Yes. But it’s mild compared to what Life Stress does to me.

Life Stress is everything else in my world.

It’s working short-handed most days of the week. It’s working a customer service job during a pandemic. It’s the constant barrage of bad news. It’s going grocery shopping at any point in time. It’s the ever present strain that never seems to abate.

I’m not great at dealing with that kind of stress, at least not anymore. I think I was better at dealing with it when I was younger and more resilient. Or I was too dumb to stop and realize what I was dealing with. Whatever the reason, after the Massively Stressful Summer of ’18, my ability to cope with Life Stress is basically non-existent. It totally drains me.

Which is not good.

It’s not ideal to go through life feeling like you’re unable to catch your breath.

I think -and this is just speculation- that I might be able to cope with Life Stress better if it didn’t absolutely wreck me anxiety-wise. While To Do List Stress triggers one particular anxiety manifestation, Life Stress triggers several and they’re all the worst.

The general dread that comes with social situations, like going to work for example, goes from barely registering/normal to now dialed up to 11 because every shift guarantees an unpleasant interaction with someone.

And every unpleasant interaction leads to rumination that I can’t stop, whether I acknowledge it or not. Because most days, I just chalk it up to the normal of now and don’t consciously think about it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not pinballing through my brain, off in the background, coming to the fore when I finally sleep and the guard goes down.

Stress dreams are not fun. And I’m having them a lot more often than I ever did.

This sort of thing has made my baseline anxiety worse. I question every single human interaction I have outside of the people in my house, and still question those interactions on occasion. I cannot wish someone happy birthday without questioning my word choice. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. I can have a chat with someone I’ve known most of my life, who knows me and my quirks and my dumbassery, and still walk away from that conversation ruminating over every single thing I said and did during that interaction.

This is the toll that Life Stress takes on me. Is taking on me. Because in addition to just sucking in general, it’s also feeding a beast I’m quickly losing control of.

Now I know that I’m not unique in this. A lot of people have Life Stress issues along with mental illness. Some might argue that I’m lucky because I don’t have the added stresses of a spouse and kids and a real job. But think about it. If I can’t handle what I’ve already got, it’s probably for the best that I’m not dealing with more. I’m hardly coping (not really) as it is.

Do I feel like a complete failure and a total baby? Absolutely.

Will I find a way to cope and/or live with it?

I hope so.