When the nightmares are real

July 15, 2015

It was only recently that I realized my dreams might be something to worry about. I started to suspect there was a problem when I read about the recurring stress dreams that people with PTSD sometimes experience. Mine probably aren’t that severe, but they’re similar in nature. Then a friend with chronic illness was talking about his health-related anxiety dreams in a way that assumed everyone knew it was problematic to have them. Hmm. All the little pieces added up, and now I’m thinking my dreams might be a reason for concern.

When I was a kid I was scared of a substitute teacher. There was no real reason for it, there was just something about her that bothered me. I had a recurring dream that she was chasing me down my street. I think she was carrying fire, too. Until recently, that was the only recurring dream I ever had, and I hadn’t had it in 25+ years.

Now I have a recurring dream where I’m desperate to find a toilet, but I can’t find any. Then I finally find some in a public restroom, but they’re built too high up on the wall, and I can’t climb on to them. I finally find others, but there are no walls between the stalls, and no doors, so there’s no privacy, and that absolutely terrifies me. I’m feeling the diarrhea coming on, wondering if I’ll shit my pants, and trying desperately to climb onto a toilet that’s 3 or 4 feet off the ground.

Before I can resolve the dream one way or another, I wake up, my heart racing, terrified that I’m about to have diarrhea in my bed. I run top speed to the bathroom and…. nothing. That’s when I realize it was a dream.

Lately I’ve gotten better at returning to reality quickly, and I usually stop myself before I get all the way to the bathroom and I return to bed. But returning to reality also means acknowledging that there’s a lot of truth in these dreams. When I was a kid, that teacher would never have chased me through the neighborhood streets carrying fire, but now I could easily shit my pants. It’s happened before and it will probably happen again. The other symptoms I dream about are real, too.

For a while I had recurring dreams where I accidentally ate gluten, then had to wait in agony for the onset of symptoms that I knew would come at me. Waiting for the symptoms was horrifying. I’d wake up with my heart pounding, fear coursing through me, usually sweaty and anxious. Thankfully, those dreams disappeared around the time I got rid of the last remains of hidden gluten in my diet. But for some reason, I had that dream again twice recently. I can’t imagine why.

I have other health-related anxiety dreams, too. Some are about pain, some are about my diet, some are about other symptoms, some are about doctors and insurance companies. Sometimes I dream about pain and then wake up to discover I’m actually in pain. There was one time I dreamed someone was screaming, then woke up to discover that I was screaming because the pain was so bad. My own screams woke me up that night.

What does all of this mean? I don’t have the answer. I don’t need an answer right now, but what I’d love would be to know if others experience similar dreams.

Have you ever had a health-related anxiety dream? Does it happen often? What do you do about it? Does it concern you? Please comment below, anonymously if you prefer, and share your experience. I think that it helps us all to learn from each others’ experiences. Thanks!

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