Why you have workplace anxiety dreams — and what you can do to stop them

Ever wake up feeling panicked that you missed an important deadline at work — only to realise you didn’t? Do you dream of making out with your boss, even though you’re happily married and not even remotely attracted to him or her?

You’re not alone.

Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D., a dream researcher and author of “An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming” and “Big Dreams,” says research shows that a lot of people have work-related dreams.

“Many of these types of dreams are rather stressful and negative in tone,” he tells Business Insider.

The most common workplace dreams, he says, are “anxiety scenarios” in which there are too many customers, the phones don’t work, or your boss is furious about something. “For many people, it’s the tenuousness of their work that’s stressful — they have a part-time or limited job, and they worry it’s not enough to get by.”

Bulkeley explains that dreams reflect the mind’s imaginative activities in sleep. “We dream because our minds do not entirely shut off while we sleep, but enter into a different mode of operation that helps us process daily experiences, balance our emotions, and anticipate challenges ahead. I regard dreaming as a kind of play — creative, spontaneous, open-ended, and helping prepare for all possibilities in the non-play world.”

Every dream has many dimensions of meaning, he says. “Some dreams are overflowing with multiple layers, while other dreams are fairly trivial and insignificant.”

Bulkeley, who earned a doctorate in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from Stanford University, adds that dreams tend to reflect our most important emotional concerns in waking life, “so these work-related dreams certainly fit that bill.”

When people are particularly worried about something in waking life, it’s almost certain to show up in their dreams.

“These work-related dreams seem to indicate a painful feeling of financial vulnerability: Whether or not you have a job, there’s always a dark cloud of worry that you’re just a step away from catastrophe,” he says.

“The tragic thing about such dreams is that they threaten to smother the playful element that defines healthy dreaming. PTSD nightmares are the extreme case where all playfulness has been extinguished and the dream space is dominated by the external trauma. Some of these work-related dreams are like mini-PTSD nightmares. The pressure of the workplace is oppressing people in their dreams, trapping them in an dehumanising loop of working and worrying, working and worrying.”

Bulkeley says it can be hard to stop yourself from having these types of dreams, but he suggests that you do whatever you can to “preserve some experiences of playfulness in life,” whether that’s painting, or making music, or anything else that allows some creative energies to flow.

“Humans have amazing problem-solving abilities, but they depend on having a flexible and open-ended mind, and that’s exactly what can get lost when people fall into deep work-related anxiety. Dreaming and other forms of play help our minds function at their best, so we can deal more effectively with the challenges we face in the ‘real’ world,” he concludes.

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