Do Work Nightmares Terrify Anyone Else?
Back in my banking days, I used to spend a lot of time in Excel — like six hours would be a slow day. You could say I stared at screens for a living. Who knows what kind of irreparable damage I did to my eyes, but I got pretty damn good at building and formatting financial models.
Aside from long-term vision problems, my excessive screen-time often induced another unwelcome and debilitating repercussion:
Have you ever had a work nightmare? They’re miserable.
After long, grueling days, I’d finally convince my brain to clock-out and get some sleep — except, instead of rebooting and undergoing routine maintenance, my brain frantically danced around incoherent financial statements and forecasts. I would try to decipher numbers that blurred into hieroglyphics — or that inexplicable wingdings font. Up against imaginary deadlines, I was pressed to solve unsolvable problems. Math evolved from an absolute science to an abstract concept.
Nothing made sense, but I couldn’t escape.
These work nightmares played on a personal, everyday fear: not completing my urgent work assignments adequately or on time.
On top of that, work nightmares don’t have that “trigger” moment that normal nightmares have — the moment when you either recognize you’re in a dream or you’re jolted awake. Like when you’re suddenly surrounded by zombies wearing bunny slippers, you might get a hunch that things are amiss; then you can kind of shake yourself awake. Or when a knife-wielding murderer lunges at you — you’ll exit slumber town.
When I’d dream of glitching projection models and unfixable formula errors, it was hard to distinguish from reality.
There are worse nightmares that play off of scarier scenarios and imagery — falling into shark-infested waters or running from a hell-bent demon — but work dreams seem far more draining. I rarely have nightmares, but even when I do, I don’t feel like I lost sleep over it. That wasn’t the case for my work dreams. Instead of recuperating, my brain pulled an all-nighter. When I’d wake up, I’d feel like I never went to sleep.
While it’s impossible to say why we dream, should we read more into work nightmares? Are they a sign that we’re in the wrong profession?
I think they could be.
Work nightmares are a red flag
I’m not in the business of dream interpretation, but if you continuously wake up panicking at 3:00 am, then I think there’s a problem that needs addressing.
Work nightmares are a sign of real-world stress — and I know this because doctors said so. That’s important to monitor because chronic stress is bad.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.”
That doesn’t mean you should jump ship at the first sign of adversity — but if work-related anxiety erodes your physical and mental health, that’s a major red flag. If you can’t alleviate your stressors, you may want to look into a new role or a different company.
I’m speaking from experience.
I didn’t get nearly enough sleep back in my banking days. I didn’t have enough energy to sustain relationships. I felt like a zombie at times, just going through the motions and trying to keep my head above water.
My spreadsheet dreams vanished once I transitioned to freelance writing full-time, which doesn’t stress me out nearly as much. Work nightmares didn’t drive me to quit, a variety of factors were at play — but, looking back on my banking days, the spreadsheet terrors were an obvious red flag that I was overwhelmed and unhappy.
Listen to your work nightmares, they might be trying to tell you something.