How to Reduce Anxiety from Negative Dreams with Journaling

A guest post by Ryan Rivera.

The way we perceive what happens in a dream is not the same as our perception after the dream is over. Think about that. It’s possible to have a dream where the entire dream is sitting and watching a parade, and suddenly you wake up in a cold sweat, as though you suffered through a nightmare. It’s also possible to have a terrible, frightening dream that for some reason causes you to wake up refreshed and well rested.

Our mind’s interpretation of previous dreams often affects how we feel not only during the day, but also in future dreams. Therefore, it’s possible that if one wants to have more positive dreams, one needs to train the mind to change its pattern of interpretation.

Get a Dream Journal

It starts with dream journaling, which is one of the best tools for improving your own dream memory. In the past, I used to simply forget dreams right away (often within minutes of waking up) and I would never come close to remembering them again.

If I did remember anything about the dream, it would almost always be the very last thing that occurred. For example, I could have an amazing dream about rainbows and a high school ex-girlfriend and my favorite baseball team winning the world series, but then suddenly I fall off a cliff and wake up fearful.

Outcome? My entire memory of the dream is erased except for the cliff falling.

Using a dream journal is how I trained my brain to remember my dreams more clearly–-not just the end, but also the beginning and middle. The more I wrote down my dreams immediately after I woke up, the more memory I had for them in the future, until eventually I could remember a considerable amount of my dreams.

From here, though, I had an issue-–not all of my dreams were positive.

Yet I’m a firm believer that the mind’s reactions to the dreams aren’t as important as simply the thought process that lead to the dream. For this reason, I believe that all dreams are inherently positive. Even nightmares are there for a positive reason – to make you think about something in your life.

With that in mind, I started positive journaling.

Rescripting mental habits with Positivity

Positive journaling is the act of only writing down genuinely positive aspects of a given event. Normally it’s done to provide you with a positive mindset in general. Most people use journals to rant about their days, which can leave them feeling someone negative and increase negativity in the future.

Positive journaling is about pointing out only the great things about your day, in order to change your mindset into one that looks for more of the positive things that occur in life.

Here’s how I did this for my dreams:

  • As soon as I woke up, I’d describe the dream as emotion free as I could.
  • At the end I would list out all of the positive reasons that I could have had the dream.
  • Once completed, I would write down all of the positive things I’m going to take away from the dream.

It didn’t matter what my emotions were when I woke up or whether the dream was frightening. I did this for every dream, so that every dream was seen as a positive.

Over time, I found that my dreams started to become more positive as a result, because my brain stopped interpreting my dreams as frightening, even when arguably frightening things happened. Furthermore, since my dreams were less frightening, my days would be better too, because I was waking up feeling positive nearly every time.

As someone that specializes in anxiety and anxiety treatments, I realized that for those highly effected by their dreams, this could be a potential way to control their anxiety. Positive dream journaling may not work for everyone, but is worth considering when you often find yourself with dreams that are increasing your stress.


About the Author

Besides transforming his own stress and anxiety about negative dreams by using this dream desensitization technique, Ryan Rivera is an anxiety expert and editor of the popular website, which provides self-help resources, education and tests for anxiety conditions.

 First Image CC: Day 017 by Holly


  1. polly says

    Thanks for this–I have been working w/dreams for 30 years–the vast majority negative in my interpretation–for the past few years I have been working determinedly-but w/lots of resistance-to interpret them more positively–it’s been difficult to break the habit–
    this gives me both support in believing it can be done and guidance in how to do it–therefore HOPE for a process that I believe in, love doing but often feels like an abusive relationship
    so thanks to both Ryans for getting this to me

    • Ryan Hurd says

      good to hear Polly that the article inspired you! this approach has a lot of merit — it’s essentially what clinical researchers are doing with PTSD nightmare sufferers too, along with desensitization techniques. Its about changing the mindset. Ryan sums it with his line “Even nightmares are there for a positive reason–-to make you think about something in your life.” the goal isn’t to whitewash our dreams into a false positivity, but become more courageous and hopeful when dealing with the conflicts that the dreams naturally bring up.

    • Mir says

      Hi Petrea! I already reivcee your newsletter, so I entered by joining your FB page I think that the Dream Dialogs course is for me because, after 2 years of sleep disturbances due to my fibromyalgia, I’ve been able to nurture myself back to a normal sleep habit (without medications!) complete with dreams.I’ve also been doing some art journaling while working with my inner child and the symbolism that I’ve used has come to me via my dreams, which I find totally intriquing.My muse tells me that going deeper into my dreams will help me in many ways in healing myself, in my art and art journaling, and in my work with others. And I trust my muse!

  2. says

    Because I deal with insomnia all the time, nobody ever talks about their dreams – ever. For the most part, they tend to be very shallow and brief – often not even realizing that you’re asleep. Do you guys (Ryan/Ryan) think that adding a “dreams” section to a traditional sleep log might be a benefit to all of us that stare at the ceiling all night??? I know I dream, therefore I slept, but reinforcing it might be a real benefit.

    • Ryan Hurd says

      Hey Doug, I would definitely encourage you to start journaling what you do remember about your dreams. This is a great activity for middle-of-the-night insomnia, as it takes your head out of the worrying-place, and instead builds cognitive bridges between your waking self and your dreaming landscape. You may find (as I do) that dreams (even older dreams from long ago) are easier to remember in the middle of the night than, say, at lunch. You could also use your middle of the night awakenings to try journaling some intentions to have a specific kind of dream (such as lucid dreaming or a healing dream) or to engage in meditation or some other relaxing activity. I recommend the work of sleep doctor Rubin Naiman — his book Healing Night is great and addresses insomnia from a holistic perspective that is very effective as well.

  3. says

    I designed a dream journal application called Lightened Dream that I made open source just last week. It automatically organizes the entries by year and month, links them through categories and finds common dream signs.

    I have found that changing the ending of a dream works just as well as positive journaling. This can also be applied to lucid dreaming – take the dream where you were falling off the cliff, for example, and write a different outcome; “the absence of wind could have helped me realize that I was dreaming and I floated back up and soared over the mountains”.