I think most of us would agree that daily life often bleeds over into our dreams. And when your daily life is comprised 99% by working hours (we all know that the time spent at work is not the only time our minds are preoccupied with work) — a lot of those dreams are going to have to do with the day-to-day grind. For many of us, it is unavoidable: we’re going to have work dreams, whether we like it or not.
Kelly Sullivan Walden, author of I Had the Strangest Dream: The Dreamer’s Dictionary for the 21st Century, explains that the “subconscious mind uses 88% of our mind’s power, while the logical, or conscious mind uses 12%.” And, that “subconscious mind” is what drives our dream life.
When we were kids, our anxiety dreams often centered around school. Alison K. had two recurring nightmares. One was the archetypal “show-up-unprepared-for-class-and-find-out-you-have-a-final-exam” one. In the other, she asks a girl behind her in math class for a pencil and a cilia-covered tentacle wriggles over and tries to hand her one. I am not sure of the connection between #2 writing utensils and octopuses, but nevertheless, the dream terrified her.
Our adult dreams may differ in context and content — but now, as members of the workforce, we are dealing with the same anxious reality we did as students. Whatever occupies our waking mind is going to show up in our dreams. That is where work dreams come into play.
Some work dreams can actually benefit us, according to Sullivan Walden. “Subconsciously, you’re making sure that you’re prepared for the things that are testing you right now,” she says. “Our dream is telling us to show up prepared.”
So, if the climax of your work dreams is you standing at a podium in your skivvies, take this as a sign that you better get your act together and accomplish whatever is up in the air.
Sullivan Walden also says that if you have a dream where you are struggling to solve a problem, you probably will. Take Ebony Anderson, owner of a cannabis speakeasy, for instance. She tells the Wall Street Journal of her work dream epiphany: “I felt the vibe of what it was supposed to be, the music, the smells,” she says. She revised her previous vision and incorporated custom scents and a herringbone floor into her design. Who knows if, without the intrusion of this particular work dream, Anderson would have come to the same conclusion?
Anderson’s work dream is probably the one we would all like to have — but, unfortunately, work is often riddled with missteps. In the words of WSJ’s Rachel Feintzeig, “Many of our dreams are about our deepest insecurities and fears, and the ways in which we think we’re falling short in our careers.” Andrew S.’s signature work dream has to do with losing control as an IT project manager, though he hasn’t been in the field for over a decade. “It’s always something like my co-workers are throwing stuff out of my desk drawers,” he says. “I lose it and start calling them ‘stupid assholes’ or something just as bad and the dream ends there.”
Christopher Barnes, a professor at the University of Washington, suggests that the emotional processing we do while dreaming may luckily take the “sting” out of daily mishaps. I suppose this can be a sort of exposure therapy, where our work dreams barrage us with unpleasant reminders of our fears, and then we are desensitized. Perhaps, in this case, the ends justify the (un-asked-for-but-unavoidable) means?
But what if that work dream processing doesn’t take out the “sting?” A study published in Scientific Reports found a reciprocal relationship between daytime anxiety during waking hours and anxiety dreams. “So,” writes Bustle’s Brandi Neal, “If you are anxiety prone to begin with, the stress and anxiety in your dreams fuels your existing stress and anxiety even though that stress and anxiety is what triggered the dream in the first place.” That’s right: it’s a never-ending cycle where work dream anxiety begets daytime anxiety begets work dream anxiety begets….
I think many of us have been on that disquieting emotional carousel before. I’ve dreamt that my husband has dumped me in some humiliating way (there are too many iterations of this dream to detail…). I wake up the next morning unsettled and with an eye towards the knife drawer. “Uh oh,” he routinely comments, “You had one of those dreams again, right?”
The storyline of my nightmares says a lot about me and where my mind is. And work dreams, of course, often operate like this. During the forced-sabbatical of the pandemic, WSJ’s Chip Cutter reports that “…work-life boundaries blurred, then vanished, as waking life came to mean ‘always on’ at work.”
Even so, you don’t have to physically be at work (even if work = your living room table) for your brain to be consumed by your job — and, obviously, you don’t need to be awake. High school Spanish teacher Pat W. sums it up: “I spend the day stressing about test scores and conferences or behavior or whatever, and then I have to dream about that stuff all night?! Most days I wake up in a sour mood and am already stressing about the day before I get out of bed. I don’t get a break.” Too many of our experiences mirror Pat’s.
Because of the mental toll work dreams may take, many of us would like to put the kibosh on them once and for all. Here are a few tips to help us head in that direction:
Pat yourself on the back
Take note of your work successes and record them before bed. “Your subconscious mind will get the message that you don’t have to worry,” says Sullivan Walden. “It will make you feel like you’ve got this, and now you can dream about other things.”
Journal about your daytime anxieties
Certified Dream Analyst Lauri Loewenberg recommends journaling before bed, specifically about things that bothered you or caused you stress during your day; then, address them. “Sometimes we give way too much energy and importance to things that simply don’t matter,” she tells Bustle. “Actively taking steps to correct what is troubling you takes a lot of the stress away because working on it gives you a sense of control.”
Reconsider your bedtime practices
Doctors of Psychology Michelle Drerup and Alexa Kane suggest establishing a “buffer zone,” which they define as a “period of time to allow the activating processes in the brain to wind down and allow your sleep system to take over.” About an hour before bed, turn off the screen and read, listen to music or meditate. In fact, engage in any relaxing activity you enjoy.
Create, in general, better habits and rituals
A lot of us scurry around, trying to complete 150 tasks on a 100-task-long to-do list. If this is your modus operandi, it’s time to sit down and evaluate how you spend your day. Are there chinks you can carve out to incorporate exercise, socializing, or general relaxation? You want to ditch the hamster-wheel lifestyle in favor of a more even-paced one. (Don’t overlook that daytime stress when working to banish that work dream!)
Whether you incorporate journaling or meditation or a “buffer zone,” keep in mind that being realistic is key. If you are like me, you might start by penning a 10,000 bullet point gratitude list, picking up a tai chi class, and throwing a little transcendental meditation into the mix. And then, within a week and a half, you will be burnt out, back to your old anxiety-producing habits. So, go slow, revamp, and commit–and then you might banish those invasive work dreams for good.
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