Sometimes Anxiety Is A (Literal) Nightmare

by Katie Cloyd
Originally Published: 
Sometimes Anxiety Is A (Literal) Nightmare
Scary Mommy and DESEO/Getty, Felix Mittermeier/Unsplash

Since this pandemic has been keeping us mostly at home, my anxiety has started to manifest as nightmares and stress dreams.

I have had the signs of an anxiety disorder since I was a very young child. I never knew that I should ask for help because I thought it was normal. Didn’t everyone sneak into the bathroom in the middle of the night with an upset stomach before a test, even if they were totally prepared for it? Wasn’t a racing heart and blurred vision just par for the course when you thought someone — anyone — might be mad at you? Surely every child laid awake for hours and silently cried because the idea that their grandparents would eventually die crept into their brain, and they found themselves gripped with physical terror?

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I struggled with anxiety throughout my teens, always deemed a worrywart or the “mom” of the group. But I was in my mid-twenties when my anxiety disorder came to a head, and massive panic attacks entered the chat. I’ve spent the last decade figuring out how to manage my anxiety to keep those experiences few and far between.

Through lots of trial and error, I’ve been able to keep it manageable. I’ve found that, in addition to working with my doctors when I need medication, I need to stay active and busy to stay mentally healthy. Being alone too much is not good for my mental health. It’s also incredibly important that I get enough sleep.

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept me in my home almost constantly since March. “Active and busy” is not exactly how I’d describe my life. I’m either home or at the grocery store. I might be at my dad’s house once in a while. My kids and I don’t go anywhere for five or six days at a time. I barely see anyone but my husband and children.

Speaking of children, I have three of them, and one is just a little baby right now. As you might imagine, getting enough sleep isn’t always possible for me.

A pandemic is not a great situation for anyone with anxiety, and I’m no exception. This whole scenario has upended every system I’ve put in place to try to stay on top of my mental illness.

But somehow, I’ve been basically okay most of the time. I have my really hard days, but most of the time, when I’m awake and going through the routine of our day, I feel alright. No panic attacks. No racing heart. I’m really, truly okay when the sun is up.

It’s like my brain knows I don’t have another choice right now, and I’m in some kind of survival mode or something. Instead of making me irritable, emotional, and nervous like it usually does, my anxiety is manifesting in a different way.

I’m having out-of-control, stressful nightmares.

Yeah. Nightmares. Awesome. This is just super.

I’m not really that shocked because this isn’t my first experience with anxiety dreams. I have them once in a while, but not this frequently and definitely not to this level.

After I had my second baby, I suffered with debilitating postpartum anxiety that took over primarily at night. Many nights I didn’t really sleep at all until the sun came up. If I did nod off, I was gripped with horrible nightmares. I spent months in a fog, hiding my suffering because anxiety told me that if I admitted how I was feeling, I would look “crazy” and someone would take my babies away. It took about six months after he was born to feel like myself again.

Thankfully, this is not quite like that hellacious season. But the nightmares are back. They aren’t monster-under-the-bed nightmares. They aren’t falling-off-a-cliff adrenaline dreams.

These images in my mind are my actual fears come to life. Most of the time, they involve my kids.

I recently had a dream that my husband set our baby on top of a car and walked away from her. He didn’t even realize how dangerous it was. I tried to shout to him, but I couldn’t make a sound. I tried to run to her, but I was stuck, unable to move. Tears streamed down my face, but I had to watch helplessly as she toppled headfirst to the concrete below.

I was finally able let out a scream, and suddenly I was released and able to move. Just as I started to run to her, I woke up with a jolt. My heart was racing, and I couldn’t shake that image of her falling and the feeling of powerlessness knowing I couldn’t get to her in time to save her. Even though my sweet baby was just a foot away from me, safely asleep in her bassinet, I wept because what I’d seen was so scary.

One night, I dreamed my husband and I were kidnapped and held captive in a hotel, and we realized there was no chance we could escape to be with our kids again. Another night, all of my teeth fell out. Just this week, I dreamt that my oldest son got on the wrong school bus and nobody knew where he was.

I’ve had a few dreams that are so horrible, I don’t even want to share them because I just don’t want anyone else to live with that imagery in their brain.

When I wake up after one of these nightmares, it takes me forever to fall asleep again. I have to get up for a minute, check on my family, make sure everyone is okay. It takes me a while to talk myself back down. Sometimes the fear lingers, and I have to wake my husband for comfort.

This is so damn frustrating I can barely even stand it. Sleep is a precious commodity with a baby in the house, and losing precious moments of slumber because my mind is hellbent on creating terrifying scenarios while I’m asleep is exasperating AF.

I am incredibly grateful that I get some peace during the day. I know that when I am able to go out frequently again, this will taper off. It’s possible the nightmares will calm down on their own before that. Anxiety is a weird beast.

These anxiety nightmares are making it hard for me to follow the rules and stay home during this pandemic, but I’m doing it anyway. I’d love to throw my hands up and go back to business as usual. I would quite literally sleep easier if I stopped following the recommendations and prioritized my own happiness over public health.

But I won’t. I’ll keep doing what all the major health organizations say I should do. I’ll stay in when I can, take minimal risks, wear my mask, and be as careful as possible. In the end, I’d rather lose sleep than know that my indifference contributed to a pandemic that is taking lives.

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