Nightmares about forgotten exams? You're not alone — the science behind academic anxiety dreams

Have you ever dreamed that you're about to fail an exam you didn't study for? You're not alone. This common nightmare is the brain's way of processing stress and anxiety, according to Colin Espie, professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford.

Even though it's been decades since I had to take a college exam, I frequently dream that I have to take an exam for a class I forgot I signed up for. These dreams never fail to jolt me awake, heart pounding, as I scramble to remember if I ever actually missed that class. At this point, I think these anxiety dreams are baked into my nervous system, and I doubt I will ever stop having them.

Espie explained to the BBC that while we sleep, our brains don't just shut off. They're busy cementing our memories and working through our emotions. Dreams, including those anxiety-inducing exam scenarios, are byproducts of this process. They signal that our brain is addressing concerns we have during waking hours.

But why are exams such a common theme in our dreams? Espie suggests it's because they're inherently challenging and often perceived as threatening. This makes them a prime candidate for our brains to chew over at night.

And if you do wake up in a panic and find it hard to fall back asleep? "Get up for a short period of time, until you feel sleepy again. Go back to bed, and allow yourself to fall back to sleep, reassuring yourself that it's OK to have woken up," he says.

I've tried that and it doesn't work. The thing that works for me is to focus on my breathing and try to accept that I feel wired and anxious and that I will be able to get through the day no matter how little sleep I get.

Previously: New theory of why our dreams are so weird