Stress Prompts Graduation Nightmares

Graduation season is a time to celebrate, but also a time of stress. Often that stress prompts bad dreams. Dream studies professor Kelly Bulkeley tells Michele Norris about common graduation nightmares.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In case you haven't noticed, it's graduation season. And for those who will don a cap and gown, it's a very exciting time. After all those final exams and term papers and tuition payments, it's time to say goodbye. Or at least those grads think they're saying a final farewell. You see, in the deep dark of night, when they're fast asleep, their minds might think otherwise.

Mr. VARUM MAZUMDAR(ph): I would wake up and imagine that my professors had not tallied up my marks properly and I really hadn't passed. And so at the end of the day, last minute, as I got up to the podium, they go, oh, you haven't graduated and send me back down.

Ms. KATIA ERDICK(ph): And I had dream that it was the day before graduation and I had gotten an e-mail saying: I'm sorry, you're not graduating for this and this reason. And I was just freaking out in the dream. And then I woke up and thankfully it was not true.

Ms. LOUISA MORGAN(ph): The night before, I dreamt that I had made it to my graduation, and when I go up on stage they tell me that I didn't belong there, and I actually had to go home. And all my friends came up and threw me off the stage. And I had to leave and then watch them all come out in their hats and cloaks while I sat on the side of the road.

NORRIS: In downtown Boston, that was Varun Mazumdar, Katia Erdick and Louisa Morgan sharing graduation dreams. And I should say actually a few of those sounded more like nightmares.

It seems that most of us have had these anxiety dreams, I know I have. In fact, almost every member of the ATC staff has fessed up to waking up in a cold sweat from time to time. So we decided to try to find out why classroom anxiety dreams are so common. And we turn to Kelly Bulkeley. He's a professor of psychology, theology and dream studies. Yes, dream studies.

Thank you for joining us. Dream studies, is there actually such a thing?

Dr KELLY BULKELEY (Graduate Theological Union): There is indeed. Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Well, I'm glad there is because you can answer this question: Why do so many of us wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat about unfinished business, so often having to do with school experiences?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, these kinds of dreams aren't that common in terms of overall frequency, but they tend to be very impactful when they do occur. And so people tend to remember them for longer and more vividly than they do other dreams. And there's - yes, several different reasons why that might be.

NORRIS: And among those reasons?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, it depends on if you're a current student dreaming about school and classes and anxieties about that is kind of a natural part of your current experience. It's a little different when people are having these dreams well after they graduate from school. And then it's - the question is, yeah, why do these emotional echoes keep kind of reverberating around our sleeping minds?

NORRIS: And that seems to happen so often, that years after you've graduated from high school, college, law school, medical school, those experiences still visit you in the middle of the night. What would account for that?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, one way to look at this is to think of what graduations are, and for many people in our society, other than weddings or funerals, a graduation is the most powerful and dramatic ritual experience they ever go through. And graduations in some ways are our society's version of a right of passage, where we make a transition from youth to maturity. And just like other rights of passages in other cultures, graduations have aspects of an ordeal, of a trial by fire. And there's uncertainties and our old self dies in a metaphorical way.

And so for all those reasons, it makes a deep impact on us, so I think it makes sense in that regard that we continue to have dreams about that kind of experience throughout our lives.

NORRIS: Now, this experience is not unique to the States. If we visited another culture, would we find that graduates would have these kinds of dreams in Europe, Asia, Africa, other continents?

Dr. BULKELEY: Yes, there's not a lot of research directly on that, but what we do know is that anywhere there are schools, and you're going to find school dreams and school nightmares, and the most interesting thing I found in research I've done for a historical project is that the earliest exam dreams, the first example of test anxiety nightmare that I can find goes back to early China, when in the 2nd century BCE they instituted a system of civil service exams that allowed people to enter into the government. And lo in behold, they start reporting exam nightmares.

NORRIS: In the 2nd century.

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah, this is definitely - yeah, going as far back in China as they've got written records. So yeah, this is something that we find in - not just in contemporary America, but anywhere people have been taking tests and attending school.

NORRIS: So Mr. Bulkeley, if you're 20 years past graduation, why would you still have that dream? What's the message there?

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah, part of it is that sometimes the ordeal that we go through in school and to graduate creates a kind of a metaphorical template for any time we're going through a transition or a challenge or something difficult. And as we're sleeping and our mind is mulling(ph) over the events of the day, we dream about them. And that sometimes will help us prepare for a comparable, you know, metaphorically similar kind of situation in the present time.

NORRIS: Better freshen up your resume or make that car...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BULKELEY: Perhaps, perhaps.

NORRIS: Get your taxes in on time.

Dr. BULKELEY: Yeah, and there's something too - I mean sometimes there doesn't seem to be a waking life triggered to some of these dreams. They just kind of happen. I mean I'm a religious studies scholar by training, so what I hear with some of those dreams is almost a fear of failure, almost like a secular version of Judgment Day or something, you know, that you're - that higher authorities are examining you and finding you lacking in some way or other. And I think all people have those kinds of existential concerns that these dreams seem to be giving voice to from time to time.

NORRIS: So Kelly Bulkeley, you're a professor of psychology, theology, and as we said, dream studies. You had to spend a lot of time in classrooms in order to attain those titles. What is your anxiety dream?

Dr. BULKELEY: Well, I find myself back in school settings, either high school or college. And I'm confused and I'm uncertain, I don't know where to go for class. And at a certain point, often in my dreams, I realize: wait a minute, I'm done with school, I really - there aren't any more schools I can go to. And so I often wake up with that sense of - I still have this wistful desire to be in school; it was a fun, happy time for me and for many people. But I realized that's not my place anymore. That's not where my life is right now.

NORRIS: Dr. Kelly Bulkeley teaches at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California. Thank you so much, and thanks for clearing this up for us.

Dr. BULKELEY: Thank you for having me. Sweet dreams.

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