You're late for your exam. You enter the exam hall and the teacher is already distributing the question papers. You suddenly realise you're not only tardy but also have forgotten to finish studying the syllabus. Your report card is in grave peril. How did you let this happen? You panic. And then, you wake up – only to realise you graduated school years ago.
Do you, too, continue to have nightmares about exams even though you're a full-blown adult?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many adults continue to dream about exams even years after they graduate from school and college.
"I sometimes dream that I'm back in college and have a practical where I have to dissect a frog. In the dream, I feel feverish and unable to perform. I used to hate these practicals when I was doing my MBBS," says Rati Makkar, 56, who works as a dermatologist.
Anmol Gupta, 23, who works as a software engineer in Hyderabad, shares:
"In my nightmares, I'm usually late for the math exam. The cab is late, or something is wrong. The dreams don't usually make sense, because we didn't even have cabs when I went to school. Then, I have to run to school and when I get there, I don't know anything on the test. I usually wake up grateful that I don't have to go through exams anymore."
Most people wake up without ever seeing the exam in their dream, or having any outcome, yet with the sense that the result will be quite bad.
But Why Am I Having These Dreams?
"I started noticing these dreams when my children had exams. They used to be stressed, and that used to make me anxious too," says Makkar.
Anmol Gupta recalls that he had a lot of exam-related nightmares when he was preparing to apply for his current job. "I used to study till late at night in those days; it was a stressful period."
Dr Ruksheda Syeda, a psychotherapist in Mumbai, notes, "75 percent of the population has recurrent dreams, and of those, 75 percent have recurrent bad dreams. It is a normal physiological process. These dreams, especially the bad ones, are reflective of bad days – which were stressful or challenging, or some event in that is causing anxiety."
"If there is a similar situation in your life where you want to excel, and are experiencing similar stress, it can also lead to these dreams," she adds.
Is It Also Connected With Academic Pressure?
These nightmares may also be indicative of the high academic pressure that the adult dreamer felt during their education years.
Ahamad Fuwad, 33, who works at The Quint, shares, "In my dreams, it is usually a school setting, and not college. Probably because I used to care more about marks and exams in school."
"Such nightmares may arise if exams were a salient feature of your life while you were growing up. When we are in the dream state, the threshold of pushing away things that cause anxiety to us gets lowered. This is why nightmares often feature events or thoughts which, if we were to think about them in conscious state, would cause us distress or anxiety."Dr Kamna Chhibber, Head - Mental Health, Department of Mental Health, Fortis Healthcare
Wait, dreams? past? stress? Is it like PTSD?
Not at all, say psychologists.
"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is when a person gets flashbacks and nightmares from a particular terrifying event which was intensely traumatic," explains Dr Chhibber.
Okay, But What Do I Do About These Dreams?
"Don't think about these dreams too much," Dr Chhibber recommends.
"These dreams are from a past phase of life and carry no consequence. Instead of pondering on them, actively try to look forward in your life. Relaxing before sleeping can also help prevent nightmares," she advises.
Building on the same thought, Dr Syeda warns against interpreting these dreams very literally, and suggests stress management to combat nightmares.
"To have a good day, you need to have a good night's sleep, and to have a good night's sleep, you need to have a good day. You can do this by focusing on a balanced diet, self-care, stress management techniques. This will improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, and help reduce distressing dreams."Dr Ruksheda Syeda
"If these nightmares are more frequent and cause disturbance, then they may be indicative of anxiety or depressive disorders. In such cases, one can seek professional help," she adds.
(This was first published o 12 December 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of CBSE Board Exams.)