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Why our school days haunt our anxiety dreams

For Theo Pauline Nestor, it’s always the “waitress nightmare.”

“I’m the only server on duty and suddenly the dining room fills with hungry customers,” says the 49-year-old writer from Seattle. “It takes me forever to take all their orders. And then by the time I do, the kitchen’s dark and the chefs have gone home.”

Nestor says the dream always ends with her having to return to the dining room to tell the hungry customers their dinners won’t be arriving.

“I’m filled with dread,” says Nestor, who hasn’t waited tables for 20 years. “I think it’s a dream about not being able to keep everyone happy no matter how hard I work. I have it about once a year, whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed.”

Anxiety dreams come in all shapes and sizes -- but whether they take you back to a hated job or the high school hallways, repetitive ones like Nestor’s waitress nightmare are very common, explains Berkeley-based dream expert Dr. Marcia Emery. But do they serve any purpose -- other than to freak us out?

“I call them ‘lost locker’ dreams,” she says. “You’re back in college, cramming for a final but you can’t find the locker or the textbook or the classroom. Or you’re giving a speech but can’t remember the words. You wake up in a sweat.”

 While the dreams can be upsetting, Emery says they definitely serve a function.

“They help you check yourself out,” she says. “Their function is to get you to ask what you’re afraid of, what’s unfinished, where do you feel unprepared. They’re a wake-up call. There’s something that’s unresolved, usually an unresolved emotional problem.”

Nestor’s waitress dream, for instance, is an “overwhelm alert,” says Emery.

“With that dream, you’re on alert that you’re doing too much, that your hands are too full,” she says.

Other anxiety dreams can mean you’re ignoring something you shouldn’t.

“I knew someone who had a lost locker dream,” she says. “In his dream, he went to basketball practice but couldn’t find his locker. Or remember his combination. When he woke up, he realized he wasn’t spending much time playing basketball anymore. His dream was telling him to reclaim his athletic side that had been lost.”

Why do so many of these repetitive dreams take us back to high school, college or those horrible first jobs?

“I don’t want to oversimplify, but a lot of times it’s attached to an issue that goes back to that time,” says Emery. “If it’s high school, it’s going back to a time when you might have felt unworthy or uncomfortable about not completing your assignments. It often goes back to the time when these feelings were first generated -- when you first felt overloaded or overworked or overwhelmed.”

Dr. Beverly Thorn, a University of Alabama psychologist who specializes in stress, says one of the downsides of the repetitive anxiety dream is that the mere fact we’re having the same dream over and over stresses us out.

“We think ‘Oh my god, what does this mean? Why is this happening repeatedly?’” she says. “You set yourself up for being anxious about it and then it’s more likely to happen again. Instead, try thinking, ‘This is a normal process. This, too, shall pass.’”

She also says it’s important to reassure yourself that it’s only a dream.

“The brain does lots of wild things while we’re asleep and a lot of them have no real basis in reality,” she says. “Look at violent dreams: we don’t exactly know the purpose for them, but they’re normal and in no way suggest you’re going crazy. The more you normalize an anxiety dream and turn your attention to other things in your life, the more you’ll relax and you won’t be bothered by the dream much longer.”

Do you have any recurring anxiety dreams? Leave a comment telling us about it.