Repeating work nightmares? Experts: dreams can be tools

Dream Photomontage Worker at Computer and Sunset at Beach

Photo illustrations and article by Patricia Bouweraerts

Madcap dreams — the one about two folding computer screens eating you alive or a repeating nightmare about erring during a presentation — nighttime stories can be resources; a kind of rehearsal to prevent mistakes, a way to work through conflicts, or a brainstorm of insights to move a project forward.

Sleep scientists say that everyone dreams, whether or not the narratives are remembered. A substantial number of working people describe job symbols and workmates appearing on their midnight stage.

“We surveyed 1,750 working American adults about their dreams, and found that for most people, work isn’t left at the office — it’s invading our dreams and making us more stressed out,” according to, an independent website that reports on sleep research and technology, and posts reviews of sleep products.

SleepZoo found that 64 percent of the survey participants experienced a nightmare about work and woke up concerned or worried.

In the SleepZoo study, stressors were listed across a broad range of fields, with similar topics being reported. Issues named most often were overwhelming workload, issues with supervisor or co-workers, work-life balance, low pay, and job security.

People dream about the most important parts of their lives, said Harvard Medical School psychologist Deirdre Leigh Barrett in a June post by A. Pawlowski.

Understanding more about dreams and nightmares may help us lessen the stress about unsettling plots and pictures, and be better able to use dreams productively to run through skills and bring creative ideas to the surface.

Most common theme, being naked

Pawlowski wrote that a nightmare about being naked at work is one of the most common themes.

Being unclothed may indicate someone feels as though he or she is hiding something, or is not prepared for a task and will be revealed, wrote Lee Ann Obringer on

“If we’re naked but no one notices, then the interpretation is that whatever we’re afraid of is unfounded,” Obringer added.

Other regularly occurring work dream topics listed in Pawlowski’s article include:

  • Being late to work
  • Having sex with a co-worker
  • Making a mistake on a project
  • Getting lost in the building
  • Fighting or arguing

Additional themes included in a article by Jenna Goudreau on the topic of workplace anxiety dreams include the following:

  • Being unprepared for a presentation or event
  • An elevator stalling or dropping
  • Not being able to find the bathroom
  • Driving to work

Dreaming 101

There are five stages of sleep — one is known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM), and four are non-REM stages.

“We start out with non-REM sleep, beginning with stage 1, light sleep,” according to the transcript of Nova’s “What Are Dreams?” aired in 2011. “As we pass into deep sleep, stages 3 and 4, our brainwaves grow increasingly long and slow. Then we begin a return journey, but don’t quite make it. Just short of waking comes REM sleep, after which we repeat the cycle, four or five times in a night.”

While dreams can occur during both REM and non-REM sleep, REM stage dreams were discovered first because of the more obvious flittering of the eyes underneath closed eyelids.

At the University of Chicago, graduate student Eugene Aserinsky with the mentorship of his teacher, physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman began recording sleepers’ brainwaves starting in 1951.

“The REM state is so important that some scientists have designated it a ‘third state of being’ (after wakefulness and sleep), yet the phenomenon itself remained hidden in plain sight until September 1953, when the experiments conducted in Chicago by Aserinsky were published,” wrote Chip Brown in Smithsonian Magazine.

The paper was co-authored by Kleitman, considered the ‘father of modern sleep research.’

“After REM (was discovered), scientists saw that the sleeping brain actually cycled between two distinct electrical and biochemical climates — one characterized by deep, slow-wave sleep, which is sometimes called ‘quiet sleep’ and is now known as non-REM or NREM sleep, and the other characterized by REM sleep, also sometimes called ‘active’ or ‘paradoxical’ sleep,” Brown added. “The mind in REM sleep teems with vivid dreams; some brain structures consume oxygen and glucose at rates equal to or higher than in waking.”

Alternatively, dreams may happen during what could be called a type of brain self-diagnostics.

“A wide variety of neural activity takes place as we slumber,” wrote Kendra Cherry in a peer-reviewed post on “Part of this is because sleep helps the brain perform a number of activities including cleaning up the brain and consolidating memories from the previous day.”

Scientists theorize several purposes for dreaming and disagree whether dreams are based on random brainstem impulses for which the thinking brain tries to make sense, the physiological model — or messages from the unconscious that help humans learn, remember, and cope, the psychological concept.

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung formally began the psychological approach to dreaming, while Harvard University researchers Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley established theories in 1977 to begin forming physiological dream theory.

“With so much of the sleeping body and brain apparently colluding to allow us to wander safely through an ominous dreamscape of extravagant characters, most sleep scientists are convinced that dreaming serves an essential, possibly evolutionarily adaptive, purpose,” wrote Natalie Angier in the New York Times.


It is possible that early humans rehearsed in dreams their reactions to scary, possibly fatal dangers, such as flights from predators or ways to cope with natural disasters. In the nightmares, fears were faced and different scenarios played out. The dreams served as a kind of training for response to terrifying events.

“Bad dreams and nightmares are a good thing,” said University of Turku psychology professor Antti Revonsuo during the Nova program. “They force us to be prepared for similar events in the waking world. Without nightmares and bad dreams, there is a good chance that humanity wouldn’t be here.”

What distinguishes bad dreams from nightmares?

“By all evidence, outrageously bad dreams are a universal human experience,” Angier wrote. “Sometimes the dreams are scary enough to jolt the slumberer awake, in which case they meet the formal definition of nightmares — bad dreams that wake you up. At other times, they are even worse. The sleeper thinks the nightmare is over, only to step into Your Nested Nightmare, Chapter II.”

Night terror, or sleep terror, is another type of sleep disruption. It happens in non-REM sleep, lasts from five to 20 minutes, and occurs more often in children.

About 33 percent of dreams revolve around unhappy subjects, according to scientists appearing on the Nova program.

Some researchers say that nightmares work out troubling memories and feelings. Conversely, a couple of studies in Canada and Australia showed that bad dreams increased conscious anxiety after waking.

“In other words, having nightmares did not make dreamers more resilient in waking life — just the opposite,” wrote Frederik Joelving on “What is not clear from these studies is whether nightmares play a causal role in anxiety or are merely an expression of an underlying problem. Most researchers agree that having an occasional nightmare is normal and not problematic. But if the dreams give rise to persistent anxiety and concern, something more serious could be going on — and it may be a good idea to talk to a mental health professional about it.”

Dream Photomontage Worker Packing Items Into Box at Desk and Kite Surfing on Lake

Recurring bad dreams

For, Goudreau interviewed Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, dream expert and author, and Layne Dalfen, founder of the Dream Interpretation Center in Montreal, Quebec.

At times when a person is not consciously aware of a bothersome underlying issue, recurring nightmares indicate that the problem needs to be realized and addressed, said Dalfen in Goudreau’s article. When a project presentation, solo performance, work event, or challenging task is coming up, people may also have repeating bad dreams about being unprepared and fearing the resulting negative feedback or judgment.

“If it’s recurring and not tied to anything specific, Loewenberg says it may suggest a lack of confidence,” Goudreau wrote.

Repeating dreams sometimes diminish or stop when an individual confronts the issue at hand.

“Recurring dreams usually mean there is something in your life you’ve not acknowledged that is causing stress of some sort,” Obringer wrote. “The dream repeats because you have not corrected the problem. Another theory is that people who experience recurring dreams have some sort of trauma in their past they are trying to deal with. In this case, the dreams tend to lessen with time.”

One story about a repeating dream can be found in an article by David Graham in the Toronto Star. For about one year, a bank employee kept having similar nightmares representing his negative boss.

“The dream was always the same,” Graham wrote. “He was in a dense fog, alone, walking the streets in despair. ‘I had lost everything. I would wake up in a cold sweat,’ he says, worried that no matter how hard he worked he could not please an overly critical supervisor. Remarkably, the banker learned something from those worrisome dreams: that he relies, perhaps too much, on the opinions of others. … He’s left that toxic boss, works in another department of the same institution and the nightmares have stopped.”

Difference in mood and purpose, REM and non-REM

The mood and purpose of REM and non-REM dreams appears to be distinct.

Researchers have found that non-REM dreams have a lighter, positive, rehearsal-oriented, and social quality. Conversely, REM dreams can have a more bizarre, creative, vivid and sometimes aggressive plot.

In studies of non-REM where participants were learning to play a video game, they improved after experiencing “rehearsal” dreams.

“We know that they are getting better when they play again,” said Harvard Associate Professor of Psychiatry Robert Stickgold on Nova. “And in other studies we have evidence that when they dream about it, those people who dream about it actually end up performing better the next time.”

REM is a remarkable state of being. Aserinsky found that heart rate and respiration increased during REM.

“Today it’s well established that normal sleep in human adults includes between four and six REM periods a night,” Brown added. “The first starts about 90 minutes after sleep begins; it usually lasts several minutes. Each subsequent REM period is longer. REM sleep is characterized by not only brain wave activity typical of waking but also a sort of muscle paralysis, which renders one incapable of acting on motor impulses.”

REM and non-REM (NREM) may each have a unique function.

“It is a remarkable and now fairly well-established fact that REM dreams appear to specialize in simulation of aggressive interactions while N2/N3 (non-REM stage 2 and 3) dreams specialize in simulation of non-aggressive and friendly interactions,” wrote Patrick McNamara Ph.D. on

Other researchers agree.

Educational psychologist R.J. (Bob) Cole has written two books on the topic of dreaming; The Archipelago of Dreams: The Island of the Dream Healer, and The Dragon’s Treasure: A Dreamer’s Guide to Inner Discovery Through Dream Interpretation.

“Those who are awakened during a non-REM episode report generally positive dreams while those who are awakened from REM report mostly negative,” he wrote on “What’s that about? Well, during REM sleep the amygdala (located deep within the medial temporal lobes of our brain) that deals with unpleasant emotions, aggression, and fear and modulates REM sleep, hence the negative vibes.”

While non-REM dreams help relate past skill learning to the present and future, REM dreams look to the future more deeply, allowing various scenarios to be tested and practiced, Cole added.

University of California, San Diego researcher Sara Mednick conducted a study measuring the creativity of participants at various stages of sleep, and those in a control group. She used games that involved remote associations between word groups.

“I was looking for a REM result for creativity,” Mednick said in the Nova program. “I definitely thought we’d be able to find it. I was surprised by the magnitude.”

Participants in the REM group scored higher by 40 percent while the quiet rest group and the non-REM sleepers showed no increase in the ability to come up with unique word pairings. She attributes the results to the intuitive nature of REM experiences.

“They’re clearly the brain having a period of loose associations, where you are able to put connections together between new and old ideas, finding new solutions to new problems,” Mednick added.

So, dreams provide a fluidic and inventive perspective that contrasts with the reasoned and ordered ways of thinking during the waking hours.

“What seem to be intractable problems in one’s waking life can be overcome through the highly creative, free-associating content of dreams,” Cole wrote.

Interpreting dreams

Many psychologists view dreamed symbols and characters as representing traits of the dreamer, not bringing in any outside elements or individuals.

A dream about a boss may stand for the emotionally intelligent and strong part of the dreamer if the individual sees the boss as a positive authority figure. If the boss is a hard worker, the dreamer is connecting this character quality to that part of him or herself.

The bad dream or aggressive nightmare about a co-worker or boss may represent what the dreamer views as a similar personality trait in the self that he or she would like to recognize and change or improve.

When a bad dream involves an argument with the boss, the dreamer is really having an internal discussion about the topic — they may be angry with themselves about something, said Loewenberg in Pawlowski’s post.

“Sometimes the symbolism is obvious — like the businessman who had recurring dreams about his dirty hands,” wrote David Graham in the Toronto Star. “The dream was telling him to distance himself from a business deal he thought might be shady, explains (psychotherapist Christina) Becker.”

People are not the only symbols — pets, wild animals, and even objects may serve as representative emblems.

“A dog might signal unconditional love to someone who has positive feelings toward canines; someone else with a fear of dogs might dream about them as a reflection of trauma,” wrote Elizabeth Landau on

Writing out a dream as the voice of each object in the setting may present surprising clues.

In a dream featuring a telephone, one dreamer said, “They only pick me up when they want to use me.”

In addition, notice the unusual.

“’Any time you respond differently in the dream than you would awake — pay attention to what that might be telling you,’ Barrett said,” wrote Pawlowski in the story.

Expert tips to benefit from dreams

Jack Nicklaus, the golf professional credited dreams with helping him find a better way to hold his golf club, Obringer wrote.

One of the ways to use dreams productively is to write them down in a journal immediately after awakening. It helps to go over the dream several times before the slightest muscle movement and write it out immediately, (dream expert Kelly) Sullivan Walden said in an article on by Stephanie Vozza.

Obringer agrees.

“It is said that five minutes after the end of a dream, we have forgotten 50 percent of the dream’s content,” she wrote. “Ten minutes later, we’ve forgotten 90 percent of its content. …When you go to bed, tell yourself you will remember your dreams. …Try to wake up slowly to remain within the ‘mood’ of your last dream.”

There are also apps — such as DreamsCloud — to record a dream theme on a smart device.

Sometimes dreams are a gentle nudge to start getting ready for a task.

“When you have a dream where you worry you won’t be able to figure something out, it usually means you will, says Sullivan Walden,” Vozza wrote on

Sullivan Walden also recommends writing out a gratitude list about work accomplishments. This exercise reminds the subconscious not to overstress. In addition, writing out a to-do list in the evening lets the dreaming mind know ahead of time that the conscious mind has things taken care of.

Sleepers may be able to encourage dreams about a problem for which they would like an innovative idea — this is known as dream incubation.

“For example, in a study at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Diedre Barrett had her students focus on a problem before going to sleep and found that it was certainly possible to come up with novel solutions in dreams that are both personally satisfying and reasonable to an outside observer,” Obringer wrote. “In her studies, two-thirds of participants had dreams that addressed their chosen problem, while one-third actually came up with solutions in their dreams.”

Judith Orloff, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, also suggests asking a question and finding out what your unconscious says through dreams.

“One patient of Orloff’s had to make a difficult decision about whether to take a new job and dreamed that she was in the new position but had a negative experience,” Landau wrote. “This helped her realize that she did not get along with the boss, and she decided against the job, Orloff said.”

Toronto psychotherapist Christina Becker suggests documenting dreams in a journal no matter how “kooky” or negative they are — and that a bad dream can be turned around by writing an alternate positive ending, re-imagining the story, Graham wrote.

Lucid dreaming

Lucid dreaming is a skill that some can develop — it is when the individual realizes that he or she is asleep dreaming, and direct what happens next in the dream.

It is challenging to develop this skill, but once achieved the dreamer can perform impossible or superhuman feats, such as sensing what it might feel like to travel to the sun.

Lucid dreaming can also be the experience of turning around and facing your attacker.

Stephen LaBerge at Stanford University is founder of The Lucidity Institute.

“While lucid dreaming may just seem like a cool way to enter fantasy land, it also has several applications outside of recreation,” Obringer wrote. “According to LaBerge, for instance, lucid dreaming can help in personal development, enhancing self-confidence, overcoming nightmares, improving mental (and perhaps physical) health and facilitating creative problem solving.”

Dreams stimulate professional development in several ways

Non-REM can improve skills involving coordination, as was shown in the video game performance study. REM may help both creatives and analytical problem-solvers.

“In a REM sleep is where our ideas crystallize and recombine into new, creative thoughts,” wrote Junaid Mubeen on “The link between sleep and inspiration is so pervasive that the phrase ‘sleep on it’ exists in most languages.”

Finally, remember and relish positive dreamed sensations about being able to fly.

Flying dreams reveal feelings of success and mastery, said Sullivan Walden in the FastCompany article. Think about how great the dream felt, especially when approaching new challenges or reaffirming past triumphs, she added.

Images of soaring in the air, unusual fantasies, or scary nightmares can be an additional tool to use for professional stretching and advancement … maybe even the dream that involves a psychedelic wrench that talks.


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