Why do we get exam dreams and how do we stop them?

Image source, BBC/Hazel shaving

Image caption, Oluwatosin says he takes an early morning walk to a local park to relax before his exams

This time next year, Oluwatosin, 17, will complete his A-levels at Leeds Sixth Form College.

And he knows that as that time approaches, he will have the same recurring nightmare.

Oluwatosin is in an exam hall, his math paper in front of him, but he has mixed up his statistics and mechanics revision and the test is full of questions he has not prepared for.

He wakes up sweating and with a headache, relieved to discover that it was indeed all a dream.

There is actually no way to know how common dreams about exams occur because not everyone remembers them.

But why do we get them, and can we do anything to stop them?

Colin Espie, professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford, says our brains are awake even when we sleep. They are consolidating the things we have learned, building on our memories and processing our emotions.

But they also produce ‘output’, or what we call dreams.

“We tend to have little understanding of the fact that our brains work with material,” he says.

Dreaming about exams should therefore help ‘reassure’ us that all that learning is being done – even without us knowing it.

“What happens at night is your brain might tell you… ‘I know it concerns you, I know there’s content that needs to be done. I’m working on it,'” he says.

“That’s not to say we shouldn’t study during the day. The brain can only consolidate things we’re trying to learn.”

There may be a lot going on in our lives, so why can exams stand out in our dreams?

“It’s a common theme to dream about anything threatening,” says Prof. Espie. Just because something is threatening doesn’t mean it’s bad, he says, but it can mean it’s challenging – and exams are almost by definition a challenge.

“Most people don’t look forward to their exams, do they?”

“You think about it during the day, and we shouldn’t be surprised that we think about it at night.”

According to Professor Espie, exam dreams are quite common. “Almost” everyone has dreams, even if they don’t remember them.

“For some people, those (exam dreams) don’t enter consciousness, so you’re not aware of them at all,” he says.

“For some people it will be a little more breaking and it will be intermittent, and for some people it will be an every night problem.”

Emotional dreams

Zuhal, 19, often dreams that she will be late.

“I wake up before my alarm two or three times to check the time,” she says. “I think… I should sleep another hour, but that’s not possible.”

For Prof. Espie, the explanation is “quite simple.”

“You can see the time even when you’re sleeping,” he says, adding that over time, people haven’t had smartphones or even watches and clocks.

Image source, BBC/Hazel shaving

Image caption, Zuhal has also dreamed about questions popping up in exam papers that she has no idea how to answer – but in reality this never happened

Nightmares, he says, are emotional dreams – a sign that our feelings are being processed while we sleep.

Some can linger for years, including those about exams.

They can sometimes be ‘triggered’ by similar emotions and ‘feelings of being stuck’, says Prof Espie – although they can occur randomly.

“Our brains categorize things,” he says.

“When people encounter other difficult situations, they think back and think, ‘Yes, I had the same thing when I was at school and taking exams.’

“An exam dream later may have nothing to do with… an exam, but may have everything to do with being tested in some way.”


So what can we do to stop bad exam dreams?

Well, when exams are actually coming up, Prof Espie recommends having a good study schedule with regular breaks so you can ensure yourself that you have a plan and are putting that plan into action.

And avoid cramming late at night

“If you tumble into bed with maths formulas running through your head, chances are you’ll wake up in the middle of the night with them still on your mind,” says Professor Espie.

“Give yourself a period of relaxation.”

You can also try being compassionate with yourself when you wake up from a bad dream.

“Fear generally speaking – whether it’s our nighttime anxiety or daytime anxiety – tends to take the same form, which is ‘what if?'” says Professor Espie, who also specializes in the relationship between dreams and fear. mental health.

That may be why you can dream about situations like being late for an exam or not knowing the answers.

“We have to think about our response to that,” he says.

“When we ask ourselves that question, we probably just think, ‘Well, then you’re full, aren’t you?’ But you would never say that to anyone else.”

Rose, 19, doesn’t get exam dreams — or remember them — but exams still disrupt her sleep. She is often still awake at two in the morning.

The only solution she has found so far is watching Rick and Morty, one of her favorite TV shows.

“It just calms me down (and helps me) fall asleep easier,” she says.

Image source, BBC/Hazel shaving

Image caption, Rose says she receives support at exam workshops at Leeds Sixth Form College, which also hosts sports and other events to help students take a break from their studies

Professor Espie says it’s impossible to get yourself to sleep; you can only fall asleep.

If you find yourself staring at the ceiling at 4 a.m., he recommends reversing the way you look at it. Try to be relieved that you can get another three hours of sleep, rather than worrying that you won’t get enough sleep for an exam.

If that doesn’t work, take about 10 minutes (without using a phone or watch to tell the time) to let yourself fall back asleep.

“Get up for a short while until you feel sleepy again. Go back to bed and let yourself fall back asleep, reassuring yourself that it’s okay to be awake,” says Prof. Espie.

“Don’t get caught in a vicious cycle of trying too hard.”

He says that if it’s the middle of the night, you probably still need your sleep and it will come.

“Don’t overreact to events that happen at night,” he says.

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