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Your work nightmares may be keeping you up, but they could be good for your career

(by Lisa Skapinker,


Work nightmares can be awful. We are stressed at work and then we finally go to sleep and everything from our day comes back to haunt us. But negative work dreams may actually be helping you with your career more than you thought.


The Wall Street Journal reports that only 42% of 1,5000 Americans polled by the National Sleep foundation reported getting a good night’s sleep every night or almost every night. When I was in high school and college, I used to have intense nightmares about school. I’d often wake up in a sweat, convinced I’d forgotten to show up for an exam or my homework had been stolen. Then, when I started working, these school-related nightmares quickly morphed into work nightmares. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, paralyzed by fear that I’d forgotten about a major project due the next day or I’d accidentally published confidential information. One night before a major product launch, I woke up every hour, seized by nightmares that my employer’s website crashed, no one attended our launch webinar, and the press release was hours too late.


I know my work nightmares increase around periods of escalated stress, but what, more specifically, is triggering these frightful dreams? And what can people who experience work nightmares do to prevent them? “Scientific understanding about dreams and their associated meaning is, on the whole, pretty poor,” psychologist Dr. Joti Samra writes in the Globe and Mail. “The frequency and content of our dreams can be influenced by factors such as what we have eaten on a given day, how much alcohol we have drunk and a myriad of other physiological factors (for example, nightmares can be a side effect of some medications). We also know—most importantly—that our day to-day life situations have a significant impact on the content and intensity of our dreams.”


“Almost all my nightmares are related to deals I’m working on,” says Michael*, a Private Equity Associate from New York. “I’ll wake up and not remember if it was a dream or if it was real, and I have to go through my email to make sure I wasn’t actually asked to do it.”


Erica*, a third-year law student from Toronto, starts to experience nightmares right before her exam periods. “It’s a low-level anxiety, not a violent dream, but it leaves me feeling anxious the next day,” she explains. “Most my nightmares are about being unprepared—like I forgot I was registered for the course and it’s the day before the exam and I didn’t buy the text.”


Dr. Samra explains that stress, predictably, is one of the most significant psychosocial factors that affect our dreams. But nightmares may have an ulterior motive in helping us succeed at work. “Having nightmares can help us to simulate actual or perceived threatening situations in a safe environment, allowing us to be more psychologically and cognitively prepared for the threats when they come up in life,” Dr. Samra explains.


But what can we do to reduce the instance or intensity of work nightmares?


Dr Samra suggests making a list of all the most significant stressors in your life, then coming up with a specific action to reduce each stressor. Furthermore, she suggests having a consistent pre-sleep ritual that includes taking your mind off of work and doing some relaxing like taking a bath or listening to soothing music.


The National Sleep Foundation also advises that you avoid nightcaps or caffeinated beverages, chocolate and tobacco at night. They also suggest you treat your bed as your sanctuary from the stresses of the day. For many working professionals, that means not obsessively checking your Crackberry in bed or taking late-night work calls from your bedroom. Keep work at work or in a designated office area at home. That way, you may actually be able to catch a good night’s sleep.


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