According to a recent survey conducted by sleep tips website SleepZoo, nearly two-thirds of Americans have work-related stress dreams. “The findings aren’t surprising since people dream about what’s important to them,” Deirdre Leigh Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told Today. “Work both occupies a huge chunk of our waking hours, and for most people, it’s pretty emotionally important.”
Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher and author of An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming and Big Dreams, agrees. “Dreams relating to work that are often stressful and unpleasant are pretty common in contemporary society,” he says. “Good or bad, we dream about the things we care about and are emotionally connected to.”
But since work often involves challenges that cause stress, our work-related dreams most often manifest themselves as nightmares. “What we do know about nightmares is that they’re triggered by feelings of helplessness and vulnerability,” says Bulkeley. “Things that make us feel infantilized or reduced to child status. So when your boss tells you that you need to do something, it reminds you of how little agency you have, which is similar to how kids often feel.”
In other words, your work-stress dreams are basically sequels to your childhood nightmares. Only this time you’re an adult, and instead of them being about your parents grounding you in an underground bunker for getting bad grades, these nightmares could feature your boss ripping you a new one in front of your coworkers.
Like all things dream-related, there are too many individual variables at play to figure out when or who can expect to experience them most often. “Work nightmares are sort of like mini PTSD nightmares,” says Bulkeley. So in that way, the same questions that come up for trauma victims — like why some experience PTSD symptoms while others don’t — applies here. “Trauma for me might not be trauma for you,” adds Bulkeley.
To that end, Bulkeley tells me that when it comes to work-stress dreams, or any other dreams proliferated by traumatic episodes, there’s a gender gap. “Women are more likely to suffer from sexual harassment in the workplace, so that definitely shows up in dreams,” says Bulkeley. (Intriguingly, the same SleepZoo survey found that the most common work-stress dream is related to having sex with a coworker.) Although there hasn’t been much direct research on gender- and work-related nightmares, Bulkeley believes that, since women are most prone to experiencing workplace harassment, it follows that they’re also more likely to have work-related nightmares.
There is at least one upside to work-related stress dreams — the ones about unsolved problems. “Dreaming is a mode of mental function where we engage in problem-solving activities,” says Bulkeley. That means if you have a problem at work that you’ve been struggling to solve, sometimes your unconscious can help inspire a solution.
Still, it’s far more likely that you’d prefer to stop experiencing these dreams altogether, and there are a few tricks to that. “It helps to improve your general sleep habits,” says Bulkeley. “Nightmarish dreams and disrupted sleep go hand-in-hand.” Basically, you’ll diminish the frequency of nightmares and be more resilient and able to deal with bad dreams if the quality of your sleep is better.
Additionally, Bulkeley says that it’s common for sleep deprivation to cause further work stress. “We can function [well enough to perform] basic tasks even if we’re sleep deprived, but what we lose is the creative spark to improvise and think outside the box,” says Bulkeley. In short: You can’t do your job properly because your work nightmares have kept you awake all night, and you’re having work nightmares because you can’t do your job properly.
All of this is why, according to Bulkeley, the current economic system that creates a chronically sleep deprived population also helps pacify them. “Sleeping more is like sticking it to the man!” says Bulkeley. “You’re stronger and more creative.”
Not to mention, less cranky.