Stress Dreams Ruining My Sleep
August 31, 2013 12:13 AM   Subscribe

I am waking up in the middle of the night every night due to panicky stress dreams/half-dreams that are about my job. Is there a way to stop this without having to find a new job?

I started a new high volume, deadline-driven, extremely detail-oriented job 3 months ago which sucks because my personally suits none of those things, but I came into the job welcoming the challenge and excited to get out of my old job where I was miserable. I think I'm warming up to the work, and I definitely like my coworkers/work atmosphere so much better. But it has all not been without it's hiccups, some bigger than others, which has been relatively stressful. Still, I am trying my best and plugging on - I hope to have mastered it within a few more months. I think I can do it, and I'll be really proud if I can.

The past few weeks though I've found myself waking up in this overwhelming state of panic 3 or 4 or 5 hours after falling asleep. They are dreams about work, but not full-on dreams - it's more like I fully convince myself in my sleep that I forgot to do something, missed a detail, screwed something up, got a date wrong, put a decimal in the wrong place, didn't check the right box, etc (all things that have happened at work before). It is usually never exactly one of those things, but I get this same vague sense of panic.

It's like I am making up extremely realistic yet un-detailed situations in my head that something has actually gone wrong at work, and because the dream was so literal (as opposed to nightmarish/surreal) I feel all the stress and panic lying in bed half-awake for the next hour or two tossing and turning and have to actively convince myself that it was all made up in a dream, that I somehow concocted a scenario while asleep. You know that awful feeling you get when you realize "Oh my god, I forgot to _____ the _____" - it's like that, just vague and confused and foggy in the way that stress-dreams can be.

I usually read or watch reruns of a funny sitcom before I fall asleep, so I make sure not to go to bed with work on my mind. And I definitely don't even dread work that much going to bed. So is there anything I can do to make this stop? It's happened almost every night for the past three weeks, including weekend nights.

I am committed to seeing this job through for at least a year, so no, I'm not going to just "find a new job" - and as bad as I've made it sound here ("MY JOB IS SO STRESSFUL IT'S GIVING ME NIGHTMARES") it's really not that bad when I'm there.
posted by windbox to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Just because you're stressed doesn't mean your insomnia is anything but. Make a doctors appointment if you can.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:36 AM on August 31, 2013

Hello! and welcome to the world of incredibly realistic anxiety dreams. I often dream about the results of an overnight experiment the morning before I go in to see the actual results, which sometimes leads to a few moments of confusion. As they're anxiety dreams they often foretell failure, which when the real experiment worked is an even more pleasant surprise.

I also often get around 3-4 hours of sleep because I wake up, then can get tormented by anxiety for the next three hours. Here's what I do to avoid it:
1. Checklists and cross-checks, before I leave the lab for the night, (Turned all the things off, put all the things in the freezer etc) I try to associate something else, a specific time or unique data point (sending a text to someone) at that time, so that in the wee small hours I can review the day and assure myself that it was, in fact, done.
If I really and truly forgot to do the thing, I just get up, go to lab and do it.
2. Getting back to sleep is hard for me, so I have a few contingencies and variables that come into play. If, say, I wake up at 4 a.m. I have less than an hour to get to sleep with enough time to be reasonably awake at 8 a.m. I'll read, or otherwise distract myself until either a. I fall asleep, or b. it's 5 a.m.
3. At 5 a.m. there is not enough time to get another good sleep cycle in, so, guess what, time to get UP! Then, I go for a long bike ride, with all my new early a.m. time. (BONUS: stress reduction by exercise).
So keep a book that you want to read, but that also puts you to sleep by the bed. When you wake up, way too early, obliterate the anxiety dream with escapism into the book. If that doesn't work quickly enough, get up and start doing things that assuage anxiety.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 1:01 AM on August 31, 2013 [8 favorites]

In addition to the excellent advice above, I'd try turning your clock face around. Sometimes freakout upon waking is in part seeing the time and trying to do the math on how much sleep I have left to go until work/what I was just dreaming about, how it would make the work day suck if I was tired, etc etc. For me it would happen instantly upon waking in the middle of the night and add to the anxiety, making falling back asleep even harder.
posted by ArgyleMarionette at 5:19 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think many people have those kinds of dreams at some point - about not studying enough for the upcoming exam, about leaving the window open, missing deadlines at work, not turning off the stove and so on.

The point Cold Lurkey raised about doing all the things consciously, so you remember that you did them is very helpful. Check and double check your work before you go home. A short daily checklist (All dates correct, all calculations correct, window closed,...) might really help to calm your stress.

Physical exercise helps to lower stress and might make you too tired to remember your dreams. Could you walk home after work?

A nice shower or bath before bed are very relaxing as well. Then slip into bed with crisp, fresh linen. Keep your bedroom cool.

Also watching TV before bed might actually be counter indicative, all the blue light keeps us awake. I sometimes listen to podcasts in bed but you could also try radio - both are less engaging mediums than television.

When you wake up from such a stress dream, try to remember how it all is just a chemical response that will pass shortly.

Try to change your routine for a week or so and see if it helps.
posted by travelwithcats at 6:11 AM on August 31, 2013

I give myself a default thing to think about whenever I'm trying to sleep. Usually creating Mary Sue stories, explicitly and unabashedly starring me, in my current favorite fictional setting. Generally I have some kind of arc going already. Then, when my eyes pop open in the middle of the night because I have to remember to do this thing and this thing and that thing and am I really going to be able to??? I tell myself, "Think about Stargate Atlantis!" and concentrate on the story (which I already on some level associate with going to sleep).

It's not a perfect solution because it doesn't prevent the sleep disturbances but it's the best way I've found so far to quickly redirect and get back to resting. I think it's important that the story be fantastical enough to be really and truly escapist, not simply a dream for my future that has even the most remote chance of happening.

Another thing - some sleep aids, like in my experience, melatonin and http5, make dreams much more intense, which tends to be bad for my sleep. Others just knock me out and tend to eliminate dreams. Benadryl works for me for that, though sometimes it leaves me a bit groggy in the morning and I suspect that the quality of the sleep might not be as good as uninterrupted 'real' sleep, though still better than intense hectic dreams. I'll use it readily if I need to get out of the cycle of intense disturbing dreams followed by me procrastinating bedtime to avoid the dreams followed by not getting enough sleep and likely more dreams.

Good luck!
posted by Salamandrous at 7:19 AM on August 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I do this too, and the things that have helped the most for me are turning off screens before bed and avoiding alcohol.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 8:41 AM on August 31, 2013

Checklists, as others have said above, are one of the most effective ways to combat this. That, and having a plan for how the work will get done, are key. This is about anxiety management and reduction. You need to tame your work life before it takes over your dreams. Scheduling everything and knowing what the over/under contingencies on that schedule are is also helpful. Know your own abilities and estimate on that basis: How long have these tasks taken before, and how long will they take in the future? What are the externalities in your process; that is, what do you rely on others for? Build padding into your schedule, so if you fall behind on one piece of what you're doing, you can recover gracefully, without excess anxiety. Also, communicate your schedule and plans, expected rate of completion of tasks, etc. to others, so you have shared expectations. Knowing that others aren't anxious about your work will go a long way toward reducing your own anxiety.

This is all in the ideal, of course; these steps work in a workplace where there's some equilibrium and everyone around you isn't a massive stress case. If your workplace has stress/anxiety issues, the first thing to do is separate what of that is at all your responsibility to worry about from what's not. Susie in accounting worrying about getting done with the budget is something you may be sympathetic about, but if it's not part of your job, don't make it (or let her make it) your problem. Set boundaries; define your role, with help from your boss, so everyone is clear about the scope of your duties. Clarity is good and will help reduce your stress level.

Oh, and yes, you need separation between your work life and home life. A ritual can help with this; that is, drinking a beer or reading something non-work-related when you first get home, something to establish a clear break between workday and home life. Don't take your work home with you mentally. I know everyone these days wants that, and you'll be tempted to check work email from home, etc., but try not to do that. Along those lines, avoid multitasking at work and at home. If you multitask, you'll never be sure you got everything done, because you didn't focus on it.

These are some of the ways I, a longtime procrastinator, learned to deal with and even thrive at a job that requires me to set and meet deadlines all month every month.
posted by limeonaire at 9:14 AM on August 31, 2013

The best thing to do after you've woken up from one of these dreams is to get out of bed and do something low-key for a while. I usually read a boring book (textbooks work great for this) with a very dim light on. Don't do anything involving screens, which emit light similar to daylight and announce to your body that it must be time to wake up. As soon as you start to feel sleepy, get back into bed.

I'll note that this is not my favorite thing to do, as it feels totally counter intuitive towards achieving the ultimate goal of falling back asleep. But the one-two punch of waking up panicking after your dream and then tossing and turning and stressing basically just teaches your body that bed=stress. It's ultimately more restful for you to get up and do something quiet for awhile than to lay in bed freaking out over the dream and how hard it is to get back to sleep and how you're going to be too tired to function the next morning etc etc etc.

Other hacks I would try is staying in a different bed for a night or sleeping in the opposite direction (head at the foot of the bed) after you've woken up. Both of these seem to help break the bed=stress connection. Neither are long term fixes but will hopefully help you squeeze in a couple of nights of restful sleep.

The dreams will taper off as soon as the stress in your waking life subsides, so you'll also be well served by doing things like exercising more or meditation/mindfulness.
posted by fox problems at 9:18 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think discharging this kind of stress and anxiety is part of the normal function of dreams, but waking up in the middle may interfere with or cancel out the benefits, somewhat as it seems to in people with PTSD.

If it keeps up, you might consider asking a doctor about a prescription for Trazodone, which has been used with some success for precisely this problem in treating veterans with PTSD.
posted by jamjam at 10:29 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have this problem sometimes as well, to the point that I sometimes have to spend time reminding myself in the morning that what I dreamt about could not possibly have happened.

Now I listen to a meditation or guided imagery CD as I fall asleep, and if I wake up in the middle of the night, I turn it on and follow it until I fall back to sleep. I find that it helps me feel more rested in the morning, even if I have to repeat it a few times before I actually drop off. Bellaruth Napurstek has some good guided imagery recordings available on Amazon and iTunes.
posted by rpfields at 12:43 PM on August 31, 2013

I feel you. I've been right there. A few years ago I began a job which stressed the everliving crap out of me, especially with an annual project that I was given responsibility for despite having zero experience in that type of work and it have nothing to do with the rest of my job. The first year I led on the project, I had nightmares about it almost constantly. I couldn't sleep at all, would wake up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, etc.

Things which helped:
- A very restful pre-bedtime routine (camomile tea, computer off, Georgette Heyer romance novels)
- Giving myself a 'thought deadline'. I allowed myself to freak out about work all day, but as soon as I left the office at 6pm I would tell myself 'That's the end of the work day, and I'm not going to think about work stuff until 9am tomorrow'. It was a little hard to stick to the deadline at first. I found my thoughts constantly wandering back to work. But I persevered and towards the end of the 4 months I was working on the project I was basically leaving it at work when I left for the day.

And another thing:
- My advice is, take the long view. Everything that is easy to us now was difficult for us once upon a time. I still run the annual project which caused me so much angst a couple of years ago, and although I am as busy as I ever was, I'm much more philosophical about it because I've done it all before and none of the stresses are new to me. You will learn how to handle it, you will get used to it, you'll find things that stress you out now do not stress you out in future. I am absolutely not a restful person, but work-stress is something I'm so used to it doesn't really even register as stress as much as other stressors in my life do.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:23 AM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

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