Opinion

OPINION | Gwen Rockwood: Not anxious? Your brain might reveal otherwise

Last night, my 16-year-old daughter and I had a "stress dream." Do you have them, too? If not, you're lucky. Most people have repetitive dreams when stress is higher than usual or when a big event is on the horizon.

My most common stress dream is the one where I'm back in college, running late for a class, but can't figure out where the class is being held. I search the campus for what feels like hours, turning one way and then the other. So much walking. So much searching. And then it hits me that not only am I lost and late, there's also a final exam happening in this class, and I haven't studied at all. Then at daybreak, I wake up tired from all that freaking out.

Other common stress dreams involve falling down or being chased. Natural disasters often make guest appearances in stress dreams (like when I dreamed a tornado was about to hit me while on a waterslide.)

Some people dream about discovering an affair or having their teeth fall out. And if I had a nickel for every stress dream that includes accidental nudity while in public, I'd start paying for Chick-fil-A teas with buckets full of nickels. (Why is it so hard for my dream self to remember to put on pants?)

Experts say people often have stress dreams when something important is creeping up on the calendar, and we feel anxious about it – whether we realize it or not. That happened to me and my teenage daughter on the same night.

Kate: "I had a stress dream last night."

Me: "Me, too! I can't believe we both had one at the same time. What happened in yours?"

Her: "It was the first day of school, but I couldn't find any of the classes where I was supposed to go. The whole high school had been rearranged. I looked for the right classroom all night but couldn't find it."

Me: "Yep, I've had that one before. It's a common stress dream to have the week before school starts."

Her: "What was your dream about?"

Me: "Mine was a little... weirder. It was just a boring, middle-aged stress dream."

Her: "Tell me anyway."

Me: "Okay, I was lying on a hospital bed wearing this paper-thin gown, and a doctor and nurses were gathered around the bed, looking down at me while saying I had to have a colonoscopy right now."

Her: "But you said you're already scheduled for a colonoscopy in a few months, so why is that dream strange?"

Me: "Because all my friends from college were in the room and about to watch it happen."

Her: "Yeah, yours is weirder."

Sometimes, even when you think you're not anxious, a dream disagrees, showing how much brain space that upcoming event occupies. Apparently, my brain worries that my colon will be judged by everyone I knew from English class more than 20 years ago. It's vulnerability on steroids.

Thankfully, the same brain that invents all these bizarre scenarios also has the wisdom to paralyze our bodies during REM dream sleep. It's a safety feature designed to keep us from physically acting out what we dream about.

And that temporary paralysis is good because, otherwise, we'd all be roaming the streets at 2 a.m. while looking for a class, scooping our teeth off the ground, running from tornadoes, falling down, yelling at cheaters and covering our naked nether regions while hiding behind a tree.

Now that, my friends, would be a nightmare.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at [email protected]. Her book is available on Amazon.

Upcoming Events