I used to dream about planes crashing. Sometimes I am on the plane itself, feeling it pitch and heave ominously, seeing the city below -- there was always a city below -- twisting up toward me, realizing with a cold horror that soon we two would meet and the union would not go well.
Sometimes I am on the ground, watching the plane come down in slow motion. In this variation, I am rarely in any danger personally, but the fear and helplessness (or the fear OF helplessness) is overwhelming; I wake up and go to the kitchen, drink some water, move around a bit -- I read somewhere once that speed with which we forget our dreams is connected to the amount of physical movement we engage in upon waking. Stay still to remember, it said, or move to forget. I don’t know if it’s true, but I pace in circles around the house, impatient for my mind to quit lingering in dreams and catch up to my dull, repetitive striding.
Though I admit to a fondness for Jung and his collective unconscious, I’ve never been one for dream dictionaries, thinking of them mostly as pretty impulse purchases strategically placed near the bookstore cash register, not so bad as a cute gift for someone you don’t know well, but not useful for much else. I tend to think that dream symbolism is individual and connected to our unique experiences, not universal definitions one can look up in a book.
Freud thought dreams about flying were exclusively about the desire to have sex; he didn’t say what it meant if the flying happens in a plane, and you crash.
My recurring plane-crash dreams were always anxiety-driven, that much I know, but unlike most of my other recurring dreams, I’ve never fully worked out what they represent. While I am prone to travel nerves, they are not specific to flying, and I fly several times a year without really thinking about it, but somehow in dreams that mundane experience took on a profound significance I’ve yet to unravel.
I don’t have the plane crash dreams much anymore -- for the past few years, my primary recurring anxiety dream has been about my cats. In it, one of my cats is lost, having either run away or been separated from me somehow, and I have to find him or her. The setting varies, happening in locations as varied as a rugged mountain wilderness, and a postapocalyptic urban megacity sometime in the distant future. The thing they have in common is my icy panic as I catch glimpses of a tail or a whisker and come so close to getting my cat back, only to be foiled by some interruption.
Not everyone has recurring anxiety dreams, although many of us do, and the explanation for the repetition is largely considered to be psychological -- dreams recur when we have powerful emotions that are going unaddressed, and it seems like anxiety is one of those things nobody wants to deal with until we have no other choice, so it manifests as we sleep, when our resistance is lower.
Given the stress of nursing my sick cat (who is, amazingly, finally doing a bit better!) for the past six weeks, plus trying to keep up my actual life and work and stuff, I’ve been having my lost-cat dream at least a couple of times a week, now with the added benefit of knowing that the cat is somehow horribly injured and will shortly die if I can’t reach him. This seems to be a rare instance in which my anxiety dream and the thing I am actually stressing over connect in a 1:1 ratio.
But often, these dreams remain a mystery to me, and so out of morbid curiosity and the belief that misery really does love company, I asked the xoJane crew to share their recurring anxiety dreams with me, so that I can share them with you. And so you can probably psychoanalyze us all if you want.
Julieanne: I'm always in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight, treading water, when these huge, school-bus-sized THINGS start passing underneath me and occaaaaaaaaaaaaasionally brushing my leg. It doesn't sound scary but it's so, so horrible. (Fear of whales is apparently called cetaphobia. And yes, I know they just eat krill but it doesn't mean they aren't scary as fuck.)
Kate Conway: I was a competitive soccer goalie for seven years, which isn't the best position for an anxious, people-pleasing perfectionist in the first place. I haven't played since I was 17, but I still have dreams that my old coach, whom I idolized, calls me for a competitive game and that I can't save any of the shots to a truly absurd degree.
The whole dream turns into a scene from the beginning of an inspirational sports movie -- think me kicking the ball into the goal myself, tripping over my own feet, that sort of thing -- which would be funny except that it totally freaks me out. I always wake up drenched in sweat.
Rebecca: I used to have a recurring dream that my mother used to smother me with a duvet. She was always wearing a really fancy silk dressing gown thing and had loads of makeup on when she did it, so that was strange.
Now, whenever I'm worried about the future or not having plans set in stone, I dream that I'm pregnant, and then right near the end of the dream, I realize that I wasn't actually pregnant at all, and am really embarrassed because I'm going to have to tell people I got it wrong.
I've had it so many times now that even in my dream I'm like 'I can't believe I've done that AGAIN.' I started getting that one a lot when I was trying to decide which university to go to and it's never really gone away....
Erm, that's it. Clearly I'm a bit mental.
Somer: I have dreams where my kid is lost and I can't find him, but those go way beyond anxiety. Most of my anxiety dreams are about being late for school. I'm in 7th grade and I'm not wearing a bra (why is everything always about my boobs?). Most of the time in these dreams I have tunnel vision, and it's like I can only see the floor; I can't look up.
A couple of weeks ago I had my first teeth-falling-out dream and it was HORRIFYING. They were all rotty and I tried to floss them to get them clean, but they just fell out as I was flossing.
Marianne: I've got two flavors of anxiety dreams. The Ed dreams feature the worst version of Ed ever -- they vary but the script always involves him saying horribly mean things to me and refusing to actually talk to me. I generally have to wake him up to make sure he's not actually that guy.
The second kind -- I've had a handful of recurrent dreams since childhood. There's the dream where I'm running across a mesa, being chased by herbivorous dinos, and then I have to cross what are basically the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings. There's the dream where Gizmo and Spike (from Gremlins) merge into each other in a kaleidoscope pattern. Then there's the one where a skeleton is waiting behind a tree with a knife to stab some children walking by a cemetery -- this one I can trace directly to a Halloween poster I saw when I was in kindergarten.
My anxiety dreams tend to be super vivid, and I fall into back into them if I don't get up and do something before trying to go back to sleep.
(Then there's the dreams with the wolves with human fingers -- those suck too.)
Corynne: About once a month I dream that I am short a few credits from NYU and that I never actually graduated. In the dreams, I have to quit my job, leave my apartment, move back to NYU dorms and enroll in school full time in order to complete my degree.
Hmm ... as I write this, I realize this dream sounds kind of fun. But while I'm having it, it's always very anxiety-filled!
Emily: I have the classic "teeth falling out" dream, which is extra scary because I do have really bad teeth due to years of on-again off-again bulimia. In my dream, instead of just requiring expensive root canals, they literally crumble in my mouth and I try to stop them but they dissolve into nothing.
I also have a lot of dreams where someone important in my life (my fiance, my therapist) does something wrong and then is just really cruel and uncaring when I try to express my feelings about it. It's so frustrating!! They just won't admit they've done something wrong.
Daisy: I am an incredibly vivid dreamer -- 3-7 dreams every night that I can recall in extensive detail. Unfortunately, about 50% of those are usually anxiety dreams. Yay!
The one I've had for the most years (15) most often recurring anxiety dream involves a variation of the following:
I am taking a trip -- usually trying to get home from somewhere else. My flight leaves soon and I need to pack up all of my belongings and get them in a suitcase. For whatever reason -- I can't find something or I just have piles and piles of stuff to pack -- I cannot get my bags packed in time and I'm going to miss the flight. (And only once or twice have I been able to figure out that I can call the airline. Sometimes I make it to the airport, but once there, more things go wrong.)
I had one therapist who said that was because I am literally carrying all of my "baggage" around with me and another who thinks it may have something to do with the fact that we moved every year when I was a kid. (One time Snoop Dogg made an appearance though, so that was fun.)
Your turn, xoJaners! Have you ever had a recurring anxiety dream? Give us the details in comments, and let’s all be creeped out together.