If You Still Dream About Schoolwork as an Adult, You’re Not Alone

What can we glean from those unfortunate math test nightmares?

A chalkboard with intricate math equations. If you still dream about school and schoolwork like this, you're not alone according to science.
This is your brain on dreams. Sometimes.
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I texted a few old college group chats this morning asking them all the same question: Have any of you had dreams about schoolwork/class presentations/finals in the years since graduation? The response was instantaneous and unanimous:

  • “Yep. Once a month.”
  • “Five times a year I dream I signed up for a class in college but had no idea until the day of the final…so I didn’t graduate in time.”
  • “I have a recurring dream about a macroeconomics exam (or something like that), which I have not prepared for.”
  • “All the time. General dread about not being prepared, bad grades, etc.”
  • “There’s a classic one where it’s 3/4 of the way through the first semester and I go to class for the first time.”
  • “Funny you mention it because I had one literally last night. I couldn’t figure out my schedule. I was at school in the morning, but I had no idea what class I was supposed to be going to 1st period (or any period) that day. And I was looking online, and through my phone and backpack, but couldn’t find anything to help.”

As someone who regularly suffers through the “didn’t prepare for the test” iteration (it’s always math), I was mollified to read these responses and see that I’m not the only adult forced to re-bubble multiple choice exams I took a decade ago. But while there’s comfort in camaraderie, is there any point to this phenomenon? And what does it suggest about our present-day adult lives?

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Kelly Conaboy spoke to a published dream analyst and a dream researcher at Harvard, whose combined oneirological expertise pointed to a conclusion you probably could reach on your own: “school dreams” (more like nightmares, for some) are a sure-fire sign that you’re stressed.

They function as a sort of allegorical autofiction, which your brain sources to comment on whatever related stressor is now appearing in your professional career.

Consider: If you have to present in front of a team, lead a call, write a report or finish something in the morning that you probably should’ve completed the night before, it’s likely that you’ll carry that sense of harried duty into your deep sleep. And as that’s where your brain processes, interpolates and conjures memories (often in fantastical ways, with head-scratching plots), it isn’t far-fetched that it might revert back to a setting where what you’re now feeling was once rote and familiar.

It isn’t just the stress, though, or the similarity in situations (re: the need to focus and hit a deadline). School was also the time at which many of us felt most vulnerable, most anxious and most wary of authority. Every reputable dream interpretation journal associates school dreams with anxiety, and there’s a pretty decent sample size of dreams to sift through — according to one study, “being in school typically ranks among the top five dream categories in frequency, even among adults who have been out of school for decades.”

In other words, pressure-filled brushes with authority never go away. School is the primary memory repository our brains return to in order to make sense of whatever nerves and inadequacies we’re feeling.

What can you do about it? First, recognize that you’re not alone. Stressing about grades years after the fact doesn’t make you a loser. It makes you normal. Second, try to embrace the message the dream is conveying, while discarding however it’s trying to put you down.

For instance: I know I finished that math test. I was there. It happened. Better yet, it has absolutely no bearing on my life anymore (if it ever even had any). If I keep revisiting that dream, or instances where I couldn’t croak out a speech in front of my class, or was disorganized for the first day, it’s helpful for me, after shaking it off, to entertain how the details relate to what I have to accomplish today or this week. If the connection is tenuous and silly, then great. Let’s move on. If there’s something there, then okay. I can meet that head on, in my own time.

If there’s one positive to having school reunions in dreamland all the time, it’s that they remind you of how many things you’ve successfully accomplished. (Even if the more applicable phrase is “gotten through.”) It isn’t fun to show up to class wearing only a pair of untied shoes (had that one last month), but there’s a deep solace in waking up and remembering that you did indeed tie your shoes — and wear clothes — on the first day of school those many years ago.

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