Using Dreams to Combat Your Anxiety
Anxiety is such a huge topic, as it is one of the most prevalent psychiatric disorders in America. There is a wide range of definitions of anxiety and each person has their own personal experience with the term and its symptoms. Anxiety dreams are similarly common, and often pop up right away when a person begins a dream practice. My dreamwork training taught me a specific lens through which to understand anxiety, which I would like to share with you now as I’ve known many to find it helpful. But since anxiety is so varied and complex I would never claim that this is true for all experiences of anxiety nor is it meant to claim that this the ‘one’ way to understand anxiety.
There are two defining features of the kind of anxiety I want to discuss: one, it perpetuates itself through thoughts that make projections about the future, and two, it tends to coincide with deeper, more intense feelings and/or trauma. Taking these two observations together, I’ve come to consider anxiety as an aroused state that keeps us focused outside of the present moment, which serves to protect or buffer us from the intensity of feeling fully in the moment. In that sense, I would consider anxiety and anxious states as a useful coping mechanism for the psyche. This may be a difficult concept to swallow for those that suffer so immensely under the weight of anxiety, but simply because something is useful does not mean it is pleasurable or ultimately effective.
Understanding anxiety as an emotional tool of our subtle bodies can help us break through patterns of anxiety. But first, we have to develop the skill of recognizing when we are anxious. Since anxiety has become so pervasive and universal, many of us have become acclimated to the experience and only notice it when it flares up in particularly strong ways, i.e. in a panic attack. Developing the skill of recognizing your anxious states, especially when they are subtle, is an important first step to combating your anxiety.
Dreams offer us a unique and powerful way to attune ourselves to our present state of being, because they give us an unfiltered experience of what it is like to be us. When we receive an anxiety dream, especially if it feels mundane or reflective of your current life’s concerns, consider it an alarm bell from your inner self. You are being asked to pay even closer attention to the times when anxiety pulses strongly in your body. Feel into, as deeply as you can, the visceral experience of the anxiety as you experienced it in the dream. Don’t focus on the particular thoughts that perpetuated your anxiety but rather locate the experience of anxiety within your body and focus on allowing that experience to be present in your consciousness as much as possible. By doing this, you will train yourself to become aware when you are experiencing an anxious state.
Next, we must do the work of pulling apart the anxious state from the thoughts that become attached to it, often defined as the ‘cause’ of the anxiety. It’s important to realize that the thoughts of an anxious mind are particularly cloudy and untrustworthy. We must train ourselves to disregard our minds almost completely when we realize that we are in a highly anxious state, because they will tell us baseless and often outrageously unrealistic stories about what is going to happen next, what others feel about us, and even who we are.
Some of the most universal anxiety dreams in our society include being unprepared for a test, running late, not having proper ID, losing things (keys, wallet, etc), and being naked/exposed in front of others. All of these dreams demonstrate the enormous imaginative capability of an anxious mind, because of course, when you are in a dream, there is no legitimate reason to have anxiety about anything, since, by definition, you are in a state of reality where there are no actual consequences.
It’s helpful to observe this in dreams because of course in the real world, even though our anxious minds take part in the same kinds of imagination games, there is also an objective reality to deal with that can be legitimately anxiety producing. Rejection, failure, and danger run rampant in the world so it’s easy for the mind to latch on to something nearby to explain your anxious state. But that does not mean that these explanations are any more legitimate or real than the anxious thoughts you have in a dream.
For example, I once had a client come in with a dream where they were at the doctor’s office, concerned that they had HIV. This was also an anxiety they dealt with in waking life. They had no legitimate reason to be concerned they had contracted the virus, but the anxiety would not go away. In fact, they came to me because they believed the dream was telling them that they truly did have HIV, even though they had been tested recently and the results were negative.
I would contend that the purpose of the dream isn’t to demonstrate that the person actually does have the virus, but rather to show that the anxiety has reached such an intensity level that even in their dreams they are having this concern. This was backed up by the details of the dream, where the doctor simply stood there and smiled patiently as the client explained their anxiety.
The task for the dreamer here is to recognize that the anxiety they are experiencing within the dream and within themselves is very real and needs to be felt as deeply as possible within their own bodies. But in order to this, they must reject the story the mind is telling them about what their anxiety is about. I tell my clients to repeat this mantra over and over: It’s not about what my mind is making it about. Yes, I am feeling anxious, but it is not because of some reality that I may have a disease. It’s about something deeper, and yes, probably something a lot more painful, personal, and intimate than the concern that you have HIV. We may be months or even years away from knowing fully what the deepest cause of the anxious state is. But what we do know, for now, is that it is not about what your mind is telling you it is about. And if we want to begin the path of true self knowledge and discovery, we have to let go of the stories the anxious mind tells us about why we feel one way or another, and step into that treacherous place of accepting that we don’t know everything, and we may not even know much, about why we feel the way that we do.
Finally, once we have recognized our anxious state and stood our ground against the cycling thoughts our anxious mind creates to perpetuate it, the opportunity arrives for us to be as gentle and tender with ourselves as we possibly can. There is probably a very good reason that your psyche developed this anxious pattern and to attempt to break it will mean to break something open that may have been closed for a very long time. Simply allowing and making space for this possibility that there is something deeper going on inside of you beyond the experience of your anxiety is a courageous step to take on the journey of healing. As many times as you are willing to take it is the number of times you should congratulate, honor, and respect yourself for the hard work you’re doing to become who you truly are.