Science: Why do I dream that I have an exam that I did not study for?

Science: Why do I dream that I have an exam that I did not study for?

Image credit, BBC/Hazel Shear

Comment on the photo, Oluwatosin says he takes early morning walks to a local park to relax before exams.

Next year, Oluwatosin, 17, will take A-levels at Leeds Sixth Form College.

He knows that as that date approaches, he will have the same recurring nightmare.

Oluwatosin finds himself in an exam room, a maths paper in front of him, but he's mixed up statistics with mechanics reviews and the test is full of questions he didn't prepare for.

He wakes up sweating and with a headache, and is relieved to find it was all a dream.

It is impossible to know how common dreams about exams are because not everyone remembers them.

But why do we do it and is there anything we can do to stop it?

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Colin Espy, professor of sleep medicine at Oxford University, says our brains are awake even when we sleep. It's busy reinforcing things we've learned, building our memories and processing our emotions.

But it also produces “walks,” what we call dreams.

“We tend to get little glimpses that indicate our brain is working on something,” he explains.

Therefore, dreams about exams should “reassure us” that all this learning is happening, without us even knowing it.

“What happens at night is that your mind might be telling you… I know you're worried about this, I know there's content to do. I'm working on it,” he explains.

If our lives are full of events, how come exams are present in our dreams?

“It is common to dream of anything threatening,” says Professor Espey. He points out that just because something is threatening doesn't mean it's bad, but it may mean it's hard — and exams are, almost by definition, hard.

“Most people don't look forward to their exams, do they?”

“We think about it during the day, no wonder we think about it at night.”

Exam dreams are very common, according to Professor Espey. “Almost everyone has dreams, even if they don't remember them.

“For a portion of the population, these [rêves d’examen] It does not enter consciousness, so one is not conscious of it at all.

“For some people, these dreams are more frequent and occasional, while for others it is a problem that occurs every night.

Emotional dreams

Saturn, 19 years old, often dreams that she is late.

“I wake up two or three times before my alarm to check the time,” she says. “I tell myself…I want to sleep for another hour, but I can't.”

For Professor Espey, the explanation is “very simple”.

“You can tell the time, even when you're asleep,” he says, adding that humans didn't have smartphones or even very long clocks and hours in the scheme of things.

Image credit, BBC/Hazel Shear

Comment on the photo, Saturn She also dreamed of questions on exam papers that she did not know how to answer, but this never happened in reality.

Some can last for years, especially those related to exams.

According to Professor Espey, similar feelings and “blocked feelings” can sometimes be “triggered”, although they can occur randomly.

“Our brain categorizes things,” he explains.

When people encounter other difficult situations, they think about it and say: “Yes, I went through something similar when I was at school and taking exams.”

“The dream about an exam later may not be about an exam, but rather a test of some kind.

Reducing working time

So what can we do to try to stop bad exam dreams?

If you have exams to take, Professor Espy recommends creating a good schedule with regular breaks to give you peace of mind that you have a plan and are implementing it.

Avoid crowds late at night

“If you go to sleep with mathematical equations running around in your head, you're likely to wake up with them in your head in the middle of the night,” Professor Espy says.

“Give yourself a break.

You can also try to be “compassionate” with yourself when you wake up from a bad dream.

Anxiety, in general, whether nocturnal or diurnal, tends to take the same form, i.e. “what if…”,” explains Professor Espy, who also specializes in the relationship between dreams and mental health.

Perhaps this is why one may dream of situations such as being late for an exam or not knowing any of the answers.

“We need to think about how we respond to these situations,” he adds.

Rose, 19, doesn't have exam dreams – or remember them – but exams continue to disrupt her sleep. She often finds herself awake at two in the morning.

The only solution she's found so far is to watch Rick and Morty, one of her favorite TV series.

“It calms me down [et m’aide] “To sleep more easily,” she says.

Image credit, BBC/Hazel Shear

Comment on the photo, Rose says she receives support from exam workshops at Leeds Sixth Form College, which also organizes sports and other events to help students take a break from their studies.

Professor Espy says it's impossible to make yourself sleep, all you can do is sleep.

If you find yourself staring at the ceiling at 4 a.m., he recommends changing the way you look at it. Try to feel relieved that you got three extra hours of sleep rather than worrying that you didn't get enough sleep before the test.

If you can't do this, take about 10 minutes (without using your phone or watch) to fall back asleep.

What if you still can't do it?

“Stand for a short while, until you feel sleepy again. Get back into bed and drift off to sleep, reassuring yourself that it's okay to be awake,” says Professor Espy.

“Don't get into a cycle of trying to do too much.

He adds that if it's the middle of the night, you probably still need sleep and that will come.

“Don't overreact to things that happen at night.

“Trust your sleep.

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