I woke up last night around midnight. I was a sweaty mess. My sheets were tangled between my legs as my heart pounded through my chest.
After opening my eyes, it took me a minute to realize I was safe in my bedroom (oh my god, I love my bedroom) and that I was not walking down the hallway of my high school naked. Nor was I trying desperately to open my locker but unable to remember my combination. I really didn’t have a huge test I forgot to study for, and I sure as hell didn’t have a schedule (remember those?) I was supposed to be following but couldn’t because I didn’t remember the time or location of my classes.
This dream creeps into my sleepy mind on the regular. Why am I at school trying to get out of a situation that would never really happen? Why the hell am I butt-naked? Why can’t I be dreaming about Bradley Cooper and chocolate fondue instead? Life is not fair.
In actuality, if I ever had forgotten my locker combination or class schedule while I was in high school, I wouldn’t have stressed about it at all. I would have asked for help or just decided to call it a day and skip class, likely the latter.
I started paying attention to these dreams and noticed something: They only happen when I am stressed or going through a big life transition. And I am not the only one. Being back in high school is a common recurring stress dream for many of us.
There is a reason you’re having visions floating in your head during sleep about cramming for a test, or not being able to find your locker, and all fingers point to stress, anxiety, or something you should be doing for yourself, but aren’t. Self-care plays a big role in keeping us healthy, especially as our schedules get busier and we let things we want to do for ourselves perpetually slip through the cracks.
Berkeley-based dream expert Dr. Marcia Emery explains our dreams are a good indicator something is off in our life and we should pay attention: “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.”
Walking around my high school peers naked certainly gets my attention. It’s not fun to try to cover your lady parts with books and folders as you are trying to find your biology classroom and worrying whether you have to dissect a frog in the buff.
I can’t help but wonder why I always get thrown back to my school days in my dreams. I graduated 24 years ago, any stress I had during this tumultuous time is long gone, and I don’t feel like it affects me in my day-to-day life.
Emery explains the high school dream is so common because that’s the time when feeling less-than, self-conscious, or stressed is first introduced to us. Now that makes sense. I think most, if not all, of us had feelings like these during our teenage years.
Once we hit our 30s, 40s, and 50s, we may also experience the reminiscence bump, which means we are able to remember things that happened in early adulthood, or our teen years, better than ever. Weird, I know.
So when we have those feeling later in life, our mind takes us back to the time we first felt them even though we aren’t thinking, wow, this new job is making me feel like the day I forgot my gym shorts in the eighth grade.
The experiences we’ve had in life, the good and the bad, play a huge part in who we become and how we deal with trauma and stressful situations as we get older. It makes sense that past experiences float to the surface, even if we aren’t consciously thinking about them during our waking hours. Events and lessons get implanted in our brains and stay with us, and sometimes they visit us again while we sleep. (Kinda creepy, no?)
Our minds never shut off, even if we desperately want them to. Who wouldn’t rather have a good night’s sleep instead of trying to remember their high school locker combination while everyone stares at their naked ass? But looking at the research more closely can be beneficial for us all.
If our dreams are trying to tell us we are trying to take on too much, or pushing something important under the rug, by having us roam old hallways with nothing but a Trapper Keeper to cover our genitals, we should take the hint and let some things go so we can fulfill other desires, like indulging in hobbies, exercise, or disconnecting from electronics when we are off work.
A delicious eight hours (or a Brad and chocolate situation) depend on it.