What School Anxiety Dreams Teach Us About Ourselves

Right before my children went back to school this month, I had one of my most frequently recurring stress dreams. As usual, it was this version of a partially true experience: I am a few credits away from graduating from college, and I realize I have a Russian history test that I have not studied for at all. My books are stuck in a locker outside an unfamiliar classroom, and when I try to open it I can’t remember the combination.

I was recounting this to my mother, who told me that her father had a similar recurring anxiety dream. My opa grew up poor in Vienna and then got a scholarship to a prestigious Jewish high school. When he matriculated, he was way behind in Hebrew and had nightmares about failing Hebrew tests for the rest of his life. I was quite surprised to hear that this was his most indelible stress dream, since he experienced so much more acute hardship as a Jew living in Austria in the 1930s.

That test anxiety dreams persisted for decades for my grandfather, despite all the other difficulties he encountered in his long life, is a testament to how powerful these kinds of dreams can be. Over the years, multiple newspapers have written about the fact that so many of us have academic stress dreams, and there are many Reddit threads devoted to people sharing their stories. One Reddit poster describes having panicky dreams relating to high school, like “Realizing I haven’t attended one of my classes in months BUT I can’t find or access my schedule anywhere or figure out where the class is,” as frequently as once a week. (My children, who are both under 10, do not have these particular stress dreams … yet. Their nightmares tend to be about things like squirrel attacks or literal monsters, not about going blank during their timed multiplication tests.)

There’s not a ton of solid research around this specific type of dream. But according to most of the anecdotal reports from adults who experience it, the event they keep reliving is from either high school or college. I think this happens both because that is the period when high stakes testing reaches its apogee in life, and also because of something called “the reminiscence bump.”

The reminiscence bump is the idea that “we remember more events from late adolescence and early adulthood than from any other stage of our lives,” according to my former colleague Katy Waldman, who examined the phenomenon for Slate in 2013. Available research suggests that memories from potentially as early as when we’re 9 and through this time period are particularly sticky because that is a prime period of identity formation: It is when we really start to understand who we are in the world and what is important to us.

I found one small study published in 2007 in the academic journal “Self and Identity” that discusses the reminiscence bump in the dreams of older adults. The psychologist Philippe Cappeliez interviewed 30 women in their 60s and 70s and cataloged 90 of their dreams. About a quarter of their dreams contained memories of the “reminiscence bump period.” He found that “life goals and identity issues are particularly salient in those dreams.”

Since doing well on the tests we take in late adolescence does tend to be tied up in our career aspirations, it makes sense that these dreams would continue to recur into later years. As Cappeliez put it, “older adults use these ‘personal data’ to (re)construct a coherent and meaningful self.” So these stress dreams, because they are connected to our identity-creating years, may simply be reminding us who we are and what we find valuable.

I also talked to Shelby Harris, a sleep medicine expert and a clinical associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, about what might be going on in the brains of recurring stress dreamers. “Your brain is a filing cabinet at night, and it is trying to figure out what to make a file for and remember, and what to shred, because you can’t remember everything. Dreams are a jumbled-up version of what you’re thinking about” in your waking life, she said.

When something becomes a nightmare, it may be upsetting enough to wake you up — and that means whatever you’re trying to file away doesn’t get properly sorted, Harris said. Then, any time when you may be experiencing increased stress, even if it has nothing to do with any kind of test or academic challenge, you may go back to that unfiled recollection. (Harris said that she also has a recurring dream about not being able to get into her high school locker.) That stress trigger is why there was an increase in nightmares and anxiety dreams for many people during the pandemic lockdowns.

If these types of nightmares happen frequently enough for you (or your kid) to affect your sleep quality and duration, Harris said the first step is to make sure that you’re practicing basic sleep hygiene: Have consistent sleep and wake times, and try to resolve stress in a productive way while you are awake.

If this specific narrative persists, she recommends something called imagery rehearsal therapy (I.R.T.), which is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy in which the patient is taught how to move from an unpleasant or even traumatic recurring nightmare image to a more pleasant one. Going through this process while you are awake can actually help you rewrite your dreams while you are asleep. Researchers have found that “I.R.T. appears to jump-start a natural human healing system that was previously dormant. In other words, working on just a few disturbing dreams and turning them into new dreams has a ripple effect on other nightmares.”

I don’t know that I’m disturbed enough by my Russian history dreams to go through extensive therapy. And what actually happened in my life is much less upsetting than what happens in my dream world. In reality, I drank an entire pot of coffee, pulled an all-nighter to study for the final exam and got a mediocre grade, which was enough to get the credits I needed to graduate. Since no trauma actually occurred, I wonder if the recurring dream is also doing the identity work of telling me who I really want to be, which is not someone who puts in the minimum acceptable effort. Maybe this waking realization will help me have the locker code in hand the next time this dream reoccurs.

Want More?

  • In 2021, I interviewed Shelby Harris about a phenomenon she calls “momsomnia,” also known as “revenge bedtime procrastination.”

  • Also last year, I asked the question on many parents’ minds: “What if Your Kids Never Let You Sleep Again?”

  • In 2016, Jenny Rohn wrote for The Guardian about how her academic stress dreams helped her solve problems in her real life.

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