No, Not That High School Dream Again!

At least once, I’ll bet you’ve had a school-related anxiety dream. By this, I mean a dream where you were back in school, at whatever educational level, and you weren’t performing adequately.

Some people have school anxiety dreams involving absurd situations. I regularly have one where, thirteen years after the fact, someone decides I didn’t earn enough credits to graduate from high school, and I have to go back. Others have dreams involving real situations they experienced, such as actual tests they wish they’d done better on. Whatever the imaginary circumstances, school anxiety dreams seem to be a common feature of our dreamscapes.

At first glance, school anxiety dreams seem tiresome. We often wake up from such dreams wondering why we can’t dream about something more pleasant or interesting, and why these dreams have to recur so often. At best, we see school anxiety dreams as mildly refreshing, because it’s such a relief to wake up and realize we’re not actually back in school. However, I’ve come to believe these dreams actually contain very meaningful lessons for us.

I had this realization shortly after waking up from a particularly noxious school anxiety dream. As I’ve dreamed many times before, I had to go back to high school because somehow I hadn’t completed my degree. But this time, the situation in the dream was worse. Final exams rolled around, and I’d forgotten to attend or do any homework for one of my classes. Thus, I was going to take an exam whose subject I knew nothing about. I awoke with an ugly tension in my neck and shoulders, and it took me a few minutes to shake it off and return to reality.

Normally, I do my best to quickly take my mind off my high school dreams after waking up from them. But this time, I was determined to figure out what my mind was trying to teach me by repeatedly sending me this dream. If I did that, I figured, maybe it wouldn’t come back. Thus, I tried focusing my attention on the anxieties I felt in the dream. I asked myself: What was I really afraid would happen if I failed the class? Would I feel ashamed? Would my friends and loved ones disdain me? Would I die?

Surprisingly, asking these questions put me in touch with a reserve of inner strength I didn’t know I had. I realized that, if my nightmare came true—if I actually had to go back to high school, and failed a class by forgetting it even existed—I would survive. I’d find a way to earn my degree, or maybe I wouldn’t, but either way I would still manage to create an enjoyable and fulfilling life for myself. Somehow, everything would turn out okay. And, even more importantly, I’d still be able to love and respect myself.

It was then that I finally understood the lessons of this dream. I didn’t have the dream simply because I had leftover anxiety from high school, or because my unconscious mind wanted to torment me for some reason. In fact, my unconscious mind created the dream to illustrate that I have more strength and ingenuity than I often give myself credit for. Even in circumstances as unpleasant as those in the dream, my mind was showing me, I’d still pull through. And my mind, I saw with sudden clarity, specifically chose to impart this knowledge in a school-related dream to show me I had something to learn about myself.

My recognition that I’d keep loving myself no matter how badly I “screwed up,” and no matter how difficult the situation I found myself in, was perhaps even more important. That certainly wasn’t always how I felt. If an experience like the one in the dream had actually happened to me back in high school, I don’t think I would have been very loving toward myself. At that age, I probably would have gone through a period of seriously doubting whether I had a reason to keep living. My dream actually illustrated how much progress I’ve made in developing unconditional love for myself since I was a teenager.

If you’re plagued by school anxiety dreams, consider the possibility that they aren’t just attempts by your mind to torture or amuse you. Instead, suppose for a moment that your mind is trying to help you understand what a resourceful person you are, and how important it is for you to unconditionally love and appreciate yourself. Your mind is showing you that, no matter how stressful or “bad” your circumstances get, you’ll most likely be able to survive, and you’ll always be worthy of love. The best way to see school anxiety dreams from this perspective is, as I described, to imagine what the consequences would be if the “nightmare scenario” you fear came to pass.

As valuable and educational as my school anxiety dreams have been, I hope I don’t need to have more of them. But if I ever do, I hope I have the presence of mind next time I have this dream to get up, walk out of my imaginary classroom and go enjoy the world—secure in the knowledge that, no matter what happens, I’ll be able to get through it and love myself to boot.