Stress Dreams vs. Nightmares

What is the difference and what you can do about them

Most people tend to assume that any “bad dream” is a nightmare. It’s a little bit more complicated. Stress dreams and nightmares are both the result of an excessive degree of stress. They both manifest based on negative emotions such as grief, fear, loss, stress, and helplessness.

What separates a nightmare from a stress dream? Nightmares are more emotionally distressing and vivid versions of stress dreams, a more extreme manifestation of the same stress. It’s easy to conflate these two variants of dreams, but here we will break down the differences between them and how to address your nighttime stressors.

Late to Class…Again

Stress dreams are related to taxing events or sometimes illnesses. These are upsetting dreams and we tend to remember them, but they don’t fully wake us up. They can disturb us once we have awoken, but then we forget about them. An example of this type of stress dream is showing up to take an exam but being unprepared.

Different Types of Nightmares

Stress dreams can be bad enough, but consistently wrestling with nightmares can take a serious toll on your mental and physical health. Most nightmares generally fall into two categories: REM nightmares aka idiopathic nightmares and trauma nightmares.

REM nightmares or idiopathic nightmares are common in the teenage years, especially for girls. Like stress dreams, they tend to reflect an increase in stress, but can also reflect trauma. Unlike true trauma nightmares, you tend to be able to orient quickly when you wake up. They typically take place in the last third of the sleep cycle.

Trauma nightmares are common with PTSD or any trauma. They tend to happen more in the first half of the sleep cycle. With this type of nightmare, people wake up feeling panicked and often cannot fall back to sleep. These can be very intrusive and disruptive for people. 

How to Sleep Restfully

For both nightmares and stress dreams, doing progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, autogenic training, or some type of relaxation before bed is crucial. These techniques help your brain unwind into the process of sleep from a more relaxed place.

For nightmares, therapy like Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) or Exposure, Relaxation, and Rescripting Therapy (ERRT) are very helpful. Both methods focus on rewriting nightmares to have a different outcome.

Now is the time to start practicing good habits to help you improve your sleep. If you are ready to take control of your sleep, contact us for a free consultation.