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Decoding the Psychological Landscape of College Students’ Nightmares

Gabriele Barrocas | January 25th, 2024

I felt a sense of urgency as I ran through the narrow alleys, filled with sensations of unease. I felt this presence following me and I could only keep sprinting faster to keep up with my racing adrenaline. My surroundings felt like a never-ending maze as I dashed to yet another dead-end. I was trapped. I saw a shadow creeping the corner and my heartbeat pounded in my ears. 

I jolted awake, sweating, and breathless. Thank goodness. It was just a nightmare. Nothing was chasing me. 

Psychologically speaking, dreams are understood to be autobiographical episodes that are a byproduct of the brain during sleep. Nightmares fall under this category but can elicit unpleasant emotional responses. 

Nightmares about being chased can obviously be unsettling, symbolizing heightened anxiety in conscious life. Though this nightmare isn’t as common in college students as in children, a 2015 study by Schlarb et al. showed that 24.3% of surveyed undergraduate students suffer from nightmares, an indicator of inadequate coping strategies and stressors. The National Sleep Foundation establishes five main reasons for nightmare occurrences: eating before bed, lack of sleep, sleeping disorders, medication, and stress. In undergraduates, nightmares often stem from the pressures of the college experience: social adjustments, academic challenges, the list could go on. 

Some students may dream of wandering around campus. This may symbolize how overwhelmed the student may be in their new college environment. Dreams of social embarrassment and rejection can be common too, reflecting possible fears of not fitting in. 

Neurologist Judy Willis talks about “the Dream” in Psychology Today. This dream occurs the day before the final exam. Rows of desks stretch before you. You flip through the exam booklet and feel a pit form in your stomach. The letters on the paper morph into hieroglyphs and you begin to panic. You suddenly forget everything you’ve spent weeks studying for. There are many common components to this dream. The dreamer most likely finds this subject difficult in their conscious life. There may be an added issue of not being able to find the exam room. The dreamer may even be taking the test in pajamas or naked. 

Dream expert Delphi Ellis said that dreams about exams are most connected to stress. This is usually common in those who put themselves under significant pressure. This dream also can include a reflection of lack of confidence and may influence people to take a more active role in their academic fate. 

All dreams try to tell us something. They arise from the subconscious and most times, your subconscious may know more about what you are thinking then you do. Take this quote from a Vanderbilt freshman student:

“I often dream about things I think about. Usually I dream about things that I tend to worry about like finals and my grades.” 

She recalls one dream that she had a night before an economics test where she dreamt about failing the exam (though, she performed well after sorting her emotion the next morning).

Psychologist Ian Wallace said, “Everyone dreams. It’s a biological necessity,” and we in fact spend 1/12 of our lives dreaming. It helps us to process our emotions and understand who we are and our needs. If you are experiencing disturbing dreams, try to think about what it means. It’s a message from your brain, possibly telling you to slow down and to approach your goals and actions differently.


Chipman, A. (2022, June 21). What Does It Mean When You Dream You Haven’t Studied for a Big Test? Newsweek.

Schlarb, A., Bihlmaier, I., Hautzinger, M., Gulewitsch, M., & Schwerdtle, B. (2015). Nightmares and Associations with Sleep Quality and Self-Efficacy among University Students. Journal of Sleep Disorders and Management, 1(1).

Vancampen, M. (2019, November 12). Nightmares plaguing college students could be a sign of too many all-nighters. The Louisville Cardinal., J. (2009, September 7). Recurring Final Exam Dream? Psychology Today.,reluctant%20to%20do%20the%20act.