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At Age 66, Why Do I Still Have Final Exam Nightmares?

What therapists have to say about anxiety-filled dreams.

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gif illustration of woman having a nightmare of final exams and waking up
Rami Niemi
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How could this be happening? I’m on a college campus, walking into a class I’ve skipped all semester. The room is packed with students, heads down, writing in blue books. It’s the final exam. I’m late and totally unprepared.

I shoot up in bed, hand over my racing heart. Reality enters via the snores of my husband, asleep beside me. There it was again: The Final Exam Nightmare.

How can this still be happening when I’m 66? I haven’t set foot in a college classroom since the Carter administration. And even when I was in college, at Hofstra University in New York, studying for my drama degree, I wasn’t big on skipping classes and never was unprepared for a final exam.

Sure, exam times were stressful, but those dorm room late nights studying the plays of Euripides, Shakespeare and Moliere with friends, huddled together over pots of coffee and bags of cookies, are cherished memories of my college life.

Why can’t I dream about the good times?

Asking around, it’s a relief to hear that friends in my age bracket also have The Final Exam Dream. Each has its own unique version. Paul, who always hated math, has algebra exam nightmares. Helen says she gets completely disoriented and can’t find the classroom. Debbie says she’s always arriving naked. She says the nightmares come when she’s under work stress in waking life, often right before she gives a big presentation and when she feels she’s being tested in her corporate career, and fears she’ll fail.

According to Dr. Deidre Barrett, a psychologist, the Final Exam Dream is common in our Western culture, where there’s pressure to pass written tests, to prove competence and get approval from authority figures.

My dream can be placed in the Anxiety Dreams category, along with other commonly reported ones about falling, being chased, driving a car that can’t be controlled or having travel misadventures.

I know all about the anxiety dreams that come with travel in my current work life. As a travel guide in Italy, I have nightmares of disasters in my sleep before the tours begin. Then there’s the dream where I can’t find our hotel. In another, the bus is missing and I don’t have the driver's phone number, or we walk into a restaurant and the table isn’t even set. Horrors!

Thankfully my tours run smoothly, and I’ve come to know these dreams as a predictable component of the preparation. Sure, I have fears lurking in my subconscious, but I go forward with my work. Perhaps the nightmares come as a way to remind me to keep up my attention to details, so all does go well.

But my Final Exam Dream is different — more baffling and disturbing than the Anxiety Dreams. It comes to me during quieter work times, when I’m home from travel, writing. Wondering about it, I do a quick Internet search that takes you to Dream Dictionaries, a grab-bag of suggestions about the dream’s meanings — from “a desire for a loyal relationship” to an omen for future “unexpected difficulties."

A better source for answers is Carl Jung, a twentieth-century analyst who made major breakthroughs in dream studies. Jung believed that dreams were unique to each person, the way our unconscious communicates with the conscious mind, and that understanding our dreams is the key to wholeness, to truly knowing ourselves, an ongoing process he called “individuation.” In his words: “The dream is a doorway to the soul. Who looks outside dreams, who looks inside awakens.”

When I tell Dr. Heather McMillen, a psychotherapist based in Los Angeles, who uses Jung’s dreamwork in her practice, about my recurring Final Exam Dream, her response is this: “A dream that keeps coming back may be asking for attention, showing the dreamer there is psychic business that needs to, wants to, be taken care of.” Her words inspire a lump in my throat.

I have done, and am grateful for, years in analysis at Jung Institutes in San Francisco in my 20s, and then in Los Angeles in my 40s. Honestly, I tell McMillen, at 66 I thought I had gotten all I could out of therapy — lots of good help I used in relationships and working life.

But the lump in my throat was a reminder that yes, obviously there is unfinished business. Among many things that come to mind is the unfinished manuscript stuffed in the desk drawer, that one creative project I somehow keep putting off.

McMillen tells me that Jung believed that “the afternoon of life” — after age 56 — was when we could do our deepest inner work. And inner work can certainly be helped by understanding our dreams.

There are no set answers when it comes to what a Final Exam Dream means. We each have our own symbols, which come from our unique life experiences. The timing of the dream — how it relates to what is going on in our waking life, the emotional tone it has and how we respond to it upon awakening — are also some key factors in dream analysis, says McMillen. To those who want to remember, and perhaps try and interpret their dreams, she suggests keeping a journal and lighted pen by the bed so you can write down the dream’s details, with words that have emotional resonance.

The words “late” and “unprepared” certainly are triggering for me in The Final Exam Dream. Those are the voices I’d rather keep hidden, the fears that I’m “too old” or “don’t know enough," that block creative exploration.

I’m curious and excited about this new deep-dive phase I’ve found myself in. Who knows what I’ll discover this time around and what new life experiences will follow as I uncover meanings in this mysterious dream, in my ongoing individuation process.

As Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”

Do any of you have the same dream over and over? Let us know in the comments below. 

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