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Sleeping with coworker, naked on the job: What your work nightmares mean

A new survey has some intriguing results.
Office Space
Having nightmares about your boss? Many of us experience bad dreams related to our jobs.Alamy Stock
/ Source: TODAY

There you are, calling your boss a jerk (or worse), missing deadlines or getting caught in a compromising position with a nauseating coworker.

Then the alarm rings and what a relief: It was just a bad dream.

Almost two-thirds of Americans, 64 percent, report having nightmares about their job, according to a new survey of 1,750 working U.S. adults conducted by SleepZoo, a sleep tips website.

The findings aren’t surprising since people dream about what’s important to them, said Deirdre Leigh Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, editor of the journal Dreaming and author of “The Committee of Sleep.”

“Work both occupies a huge chunk of our waking hours, and for most people, it’s pretty emotionally important,” Barrett told TODAY. “For nightmares, it’s things that stress or frighten us… and it’s a rare person whose job doesn’t involve some unpleasant, anxiety-producing things at times.”

Is your work nightmare actually telling you something?

What does it mean if you’re dreaming about messing up a project or making a big presentation in your birthday suit?

Consider dreaming as thinking in a different biochemical state: Just like waking thoughts, our dreams are often circular and repetitive, not very profound and not always processing something in a “big deal way,” Barrett said.

“I don’t feel like all dreams are automatically doing something wise and useful,” she noted. “But sometimes, it’s a new message.”

Dreams can easily show someone that they’re anxious when they weren't aware of it or reveal some new aspects of life that the person wasn’t conscious of, Barrett said. More rarely, they can show a good solution to a problem, she added.

Dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg believes dreams are always helpful.

“Sometimes, dreams will serve as dress rehearsals and put us in a worst-case scenario so we can safely in our head figure out how to work it out,” said Loewenberg, author of “Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life.”

“They’ll also present us with our current issue in a different light so we can better understand it.”

Common work nightmares

While Barrett believes most dream metaphors and symbolism are individual to each person rather than part of a “universal dictionary” of dreams, Loewenberg offered her take on the nightmares most frequently named in the survey:

Sleeping with a coworker — Sex in a dream isn’t actually about a physical union you want, but a psychological connection you need, Loewenberg said. You may be dreaming about that coworker because you need to unite with him or have recently connected on some level, perhaps working on a project together. There may also be something about that coworker — a quality they have, perhaps something they’re very good at — that you need to merge into your own personality, she added.

Being late to work — A very common dream, especially for people who are frequently on deadline, Loewenberg said. These frustrating dreams may be reminding you to manage your time better and get things done.

Messing up on a project — This dream serves as a dress rehearsal: “Our subconscious will put us through the worst-case scenario so we can be prepared for it should it happen, but more importantly so we can work it out so it doesn’t happen,” Loewenberg noted.

Showing up naked at work — That’s the most common work-related nightmare Loewenberg hears about. Dreams are symbolic so it’s not about how you look physically, but how you may look in your job performance when all eyes are on you. In general, dreams about being naked in public are often associated with shame and feeling publicly exposed, Barrett added.

Getting lost in the office — Being lost in a dream is often connected to indecision in real life, Loewenberg said. What’s going on at work that you’re having a hard time making a decision about?

Fighting with the boss — When you’re dreaming about arguing with someone, you may be mad at yourself about something, Loewenberg said. Whatever is said in that dream argument is really a conversation you’re having with yourself about the issue, she noted.

To get the most out of your dreams:

• Write them down upon waking, both experts advised. There are now apps that can help you chronicle your dreams.

• Any time you respond differently in the dream than you would awake — pay attention to what that might be telling you, Barrett said.

• Look at your dreams as a helper, not as a hindrance, Loewenberg added.

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