Those recurring nightmares about school are totally healthy

May 13 2020, 2:07 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Mo Amir, host and producer of the podcast This is VANCOLOUR, based in Vancouver. 

You know the dream.

You’re back in high school (or is it university?). You suddenly discover that you have missed a course all semester. Maybe you were completely unaware that you were even enrolled in the class. Regardless of how it happened, it’s now exam day.

Also, you arrived late to school. Or you can’t even find the class. Or you can’t find your locker or remember the locker combination.

To top it off, you’re in your pyjamas. Maybe all you’re wearing is your underwear.

There are many iterations of this anxiety dream that take place in school, the central setting of our childhood years.

You’re not alone. It is a shared nightmare that expresses our deepest-seated fears, not just about school when we’re young, but about life as we get older: failure, life-altering embarrassment, absolute unpreparedness, the last hope of any salvation fading away faster the more desperately we scramble.

According to dream surveys, this school dream ranks in the top five recurring dreams, even among adults who have been out of school for decades.

But why is this nightmare so common amongst us? For each person who experiences it, why does this dream recur in such frequency even when the years spent out of school far exceed the years spent in school? Why high school?

“It’s a really common dream that I think a lot of people can relate to having at least some of the time, if not recurrently,” explains Joti Samra, founder of Dr. Joti Samra R. Psych. & Associates and the CEO of MyWorkplaceHealth.com. “It is a very familiar dream.”

“Most of what we know about dreams comes from the literature on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). So we know that one of the defining features of post-traumatic stress is that people will often have very vivid and intense dreams or nightmares.”

For many of us, during our formative years, school can be likened to a (much lighter) form of trauma. As our brains develop, school-related deadlines and exams constitute the first major stressor in our lives.

“If we look at kids, school-related anxiety is actually one of the most common, biggest manifestations when we look at anxiety first emerging, barring other traumatic things happening in their environment.”

This stress of school, particularly tied to exams, is totally normal.

However, being the first and formative stress in our lives, this stress effectively leaves an impression in our subconscious, building an association between anxiety and school. “It gets imprinted in our neural pathways.”

The worst-case-scenario (and thus, highest stress-inducing case) of taking an exam is being completely unprepared, akin to having never even taken the class and then writing an exam for it. This common nightmare, in effect, is the worst-case manifestation of our school-related stress.

Since we all experienced school in relatively the same way, this formative stress then manifests itself as a shared nightmare. As a result, this dream is a cultural hallmark.

The frequency of this dream is also linked to our association between stress and school. As Dr. Samra explains, anxiety affects both the vividness and frequency of dreams.

So, if we go to bed with stress, that stress — even though it may be about something else entirely — may trigger the formative stress of school imprinted in our brains, which expresses itself in dreams. “When things occur together, we can fast-forward years down the road and the presence of one can still evoke the other.”

This is why we experience nightmares about school repeatedly for even decades after the fact and despite our rational knowledge that we’re not even in school anymore.

“Whatever’s been imprinted strongly in our neural pathways, rewinds and repeats and comes up again and again.”

As such, dreams are less about the content and more about the emotional feeling. “Contrary to our belief, it’s not always thematically the thing that we’re actually anxious about. It’s just a general anxiety-state that evokes something that’s familiar in our brain.”

This is why school dreams can actually be beneficial to our mental health.

“What we’ve learned is that the brain can start to anticipate other stressors. So if we get (stress) in our head, in our dream at night, it’s somehow helping us process what’s happened and prep for that feeling again.”

The evolutionary reasoning for this type of recurrent, anxiety dream is that it can make us more emotionally resilient when feeling stress. “The theory is that what dreams allow us to do is… get used to the idea of a bad thing happening, but it’s happening when we’re safe (i.e. sleeping). We know that when we expose ourselves to repeat emotions, intense emotions, that this process actually, over time, dilutes the intensity of that emotion.”

So, don’t worry, says Dr. Samra.

School dreams are common because they evoke a developmental experience most of us have had. They are recurrent since our current day-to-day stresses will summon similar, formative emotions embedded in our subconscious. And, they are more relevant to our current emotions, rather than some lingering feeling about school itself.

Ultimately, these nightmares are helpful.

“Our brain and body is doing its job. If we’re stressed or dealing with stressors in the day, it’s letting us process that emotion at night. And processing our emotions is a very good thing for our psychological health.”

Have a listen to the full This is VANCOLOUR podcast with Dr. Joti Samra: