Performance Anxiety


May 25, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Post-It Note Nightmare by Jon Kenn.  See this and other pictures here, and an interview with the artist here.

Post-It Note Nightmare by John Kenn. See this and other pictures here, and an interview with the artist here.

When I was a child I used to call them nightmares.

I had one last week. It ended up in a Facebook post.

Thank God I don’t have to play in the girls’ basketball tournament to graduate from high school. Thank God I can find both my sneakers and my gym shorts are clean. Thank God I know where my cell phone is so that the coach can give me play-by-play instructions via text message. Thank God my father is not so mad at me for being disorganized that he’s staying home and making himself oatmeal. Thank God my mother does not have to drive me to the game in a horse-drawn haywagon.

The details are absurd, I know. But my chest ached for an hour after I woke.

What was bothering me? Performance anxiety.

By this I don’t mean stage fright, though as a storyteller I’ve certainly had my share of that. I mean a whole lot of things, all jumbled up together, about my ability to be an effective, functioning adult in this world.

As a child I remember telling myself that if I didn’t hear the soldiers marching when I put my ear to the pillow, it meant I wouldn’t have a nightmare. Of course the “soldiers marching” were nothing more than the quickened pulse that came from my own accelerated heartbeat. More times than not, it seems, I bring the troops to the field myself.

The earliest nightmare I can remember was about going to kindergarten.

Don't look for me - this is someone else's 1961 kindergarten class

Don’t look for me – this is someone else’s 1961 kindergarten class

I don’t remember much about kindergarten itself. A grey particleboard wagon with oversized wheels. Unfinished wooden blocks, bigger than the blocks at home. Eating ice cream in Dixie cups with a flat wooden spoon on the playground the day before summer vacation.

But I remember the dream. And the giants. Either the giants were the teachers, or they had eaten the teachers. Neither option was good.

Somehow I manage to escape.

I find a pay phone outside of the school. I call my mother to come and rescue me. (With what? My lunch quarter? No, that wouldn’t work. It was only half day kindergarten. And how did I reach the phone?)

My mother rescues me, in an old, old car. I don’t remember that we ever had such an old car. I jump in. The giants see I am getting away, and they start chasing us. One by one they turn into baseball players.

In her haste, my mother makes a wrong turn, into a quicksand swamp. A swamp near the railroad tracks. The car slowly sinks. My dream becomes cinematic, the camera pans out, and I watch my own hand disappear beneath the surface.

I remember nothing about kindergarten as clearly as the terror of that dream.

There is a shard of another nightmare that I remember in which I am being chased by an evil scarecrow.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

For the longest time I thought the impetus of this was watching Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on TV and being frightened by the Headless Horseman. The Great and Powerful Internet tells me that Sleepy Hollow was produced in 1949, and was a favorite movie to broadcast on Halloween. That would allow it to be among my earliest memories, which feels right. The headless horseman scene is pretty scary for a little kid… even if Bing Crosby IS narrating.

But the headless horseman is not a scarecrow, and my memory is not of an animated movie. It’s possible that what really terrified me was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, in which Patrick McGoohan plays Dr. Syn, vicar by day, smuggler by night, who protects his parishioners from Mad King George and the Navy Press Gangs, and ends up on the side of the American revolutionaries. But Scarecrow wasn’t produced until 1964, when I was eight, which doesn’t quite feel right. You can catch the theme song, and a little bit of the action (and the creepy laugh), here.

In the dream I am fleeing first up one flight of stairs, and then another.


The scarecrow is behind me, always behind me, but somehow I have to get up to the top of the house, to the secret room. (We lived in a ranch house until 1964, so score one for Patrick McGoohan.) But when I do get to the secret room, and open the door a crack, the scarecrow is already there. And although he is now just the teeny-tiny scarecrow from the Corn Flakes box, running around in circles and squeaking that he is going to kill me, I shut the door in horror, perfectly sure that he can, and wake up with my heart pounding.

Over the years there are the usual array of anxiety dreams. About being chased. About showing up for school accidentally naked. About classes I was supposed to attend – or teach – that I forgot about until two weeks before they were about to end.

I don’t remember any anxiety dreams when I was divorced.

But I had a doozy two years later when my ex-husband remarried. It seemed like a good idea to have something else to do that weekend, so I had gone out of town with a friend to a storytelling conference. Often I don’t sleep well in hotel rooms, and this was no exception. I tossed and turned a lot, and eventually drifted off into a fitful sleep.

In my dream I return home to find my ex and his new wife having their wedding reception in my house. I decide I need an emergency appointment with my therapist. I go into the kitchen to get her phone number out of my Palm Pilot. Remember Palm Pilots?

Palm Pilot

Over and over again I search for the number, but to no avail. I begin to panic. Am I going to have to ask my ex for help to get my Palm Pilot to work? That is ridiculous. Get ahold of yourself!

I storm back into the main room and confront the newly married couple.

I tell them this is my house; they must move their reception elsewhere. Whereupon one of the relatives of the bride – there are a score of them, all with her beautiful, silvery mane of hair – steps forward and says that actually, she is a lawyer, and she has discovered that I do not in fact own the title to my house, and I am the one who will have to leave.

Again we have the cinematic pan, as I take my toddler by the hand, and the baby in my arms, and we walk out into a snowstorm. (My children were 20 and 18 at the time. It was April.) It is like a scene out of some black and white Dickens movie. The heavy wooden doors slam so hard behind me that I drop the baby in the snow. It’s dead.

I wake up in a cold sweat. Gradually the good news hits me. I do own my house. My baby is not dead. I can still work my @#$% Palm Pilot.

Do you have nightmares or anxiety dreams? Do they ever bear any good news?

31 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety

  1. Diana says:

    yes — my earliest remembered nightmares involved a large cartoony dog (that looked a little bit like Odie from Garfield, only with a very long neck), that would leap out of kitchen cupboards and terrify me. I’m sure this was well before Garfield, so I have no idea where this dream came from.
    Lots of dreams about coming home from somewhere only to discover that home had either changed, or wasn’t there any more. Hated those.
    Used to dream about cleaning my room — only to awake in the morning to discover that the room wasn’t clean. A real waste of energy were those dreams, because I worked hard with no results. Not actual nightmares, however.
    And then the ones similar to your school ones — having to write an exam, but not knowing what course it was for, or where it was to be held. Lots of variations of that one.
    The ones in recent years have been just as terrifying — although they are very rare. No pattern to these ones, however, and occasionally I recognize, even as I am dreaming, that it is a dream.

    Good news? Only when I wake up and realize that the nightmare is simply a dream, and not reality. Such relief!

    On a side note, I once wrote a paper on childrens’ nightmares and night terrors. The thing I remember best about it is the fact that young children aren’t able to (haven’t learned to) differentiate dreams from reality — so everything that happens in a dream is as real to them as things that happen in “real” life. It wasn’t until I understood this that I was able to explain to myself how my earliest memory (of riding an elephant in our local Central Park) could so quickly and thoroughly be dismissed by “it didn’t happen” when I talked about it. I must have dreamed this event.

    And I wonder sometimes if this inability to differentiate between reality and dreams can also explain why some people (like my mother) occasionally remember things — that did not happen — as events they participated in, and are so insistent about this.


    • Strange how cartoon characters can scare us. That’s funny about cleaning your room in a dream and waking up to find it’s still messy. Bummer! And yes, I think the good news is that relief, primarily. Also, I suppose, the biofeedback is helpful. Sometimes you don’t realize how much the stress you are under during the day is wearing on you until you have one of those dreams, and then you can do something about it. What you say about children’s dreams is interesting. I do know that this happens as well with people who have Alzheimer’s and dementia. They can’t always tell the difference between something they dream and something that actually happened; sometimes they even get confused about whether something that happened on TV happened to them. I remember reading about one woman who would get agitated every time Let’s Make a Deal came on because she had no idea how she was going to FEED all those PEOPLE.


  2. heatherjacksonwrites says:

    I too get the one about accidentally not attending a class for a whole semester (I either didn’t know I was in that class or got my schedule mixed up) and then failing school because of it. I hear that’s a common one!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Norah says:

    I’m certainly familiar with those anxiety nightmares you describe: waking up with heart beating, terrified of what’s about to take place and needing quite a few minutes to realise that I’m okay. It’s not a good feeling there for a while. They seem so real. Maybe talking about them the way you have done puts them back in their box with other illusions.


    • It’s interesting that so many of them have to do with school, isn’t it? The other one I have a lot is having to get to catch a plane and I can’t find the things I need to pack and I’m running late and there’s a traffic jam and I can’t communicate with the cab driver, and then the airport isn’t where I left it, DAMN. Or some variation thereof. ;-)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Anne Black says:

    My recent anxiety dream was about being chased. I am walking down my street and everything is fine, but when I look behind me, there are these 2 creatures or spirits chasing me. (I have no clue what they were.) So naturally I start to run real fast to try to get away. However when I look behind me again they are catching up. Then they are right behind me ready to catch me, however just as they reach out for me, I start to fly. and I look back and they are on the ground just looking at me. Then I wake up…………I have had this dream 2 times before. My therapist told me that my dream can be a way to tell myself that I can take control and handle my problem.


    • Flying is generally supposed to be good. ;-) I think almost any dream can be a way of getting a handle on a problem. Even the one I had last week was a way of letting myself know I had too many balls in the air.


  5. Anita says:

    Well told. I’m not sure I can ever look at a scarecrow the same way after this. :) My only real recurring dream is of finding hidden rooms in my house full of treasures and being embarrassed that someone will find out I have it and think I’m stuck up. It’s strange because of how awkward I feel in the dream but nothing as terrifying as what you experience. I have had the school dream where I can’t find my class, or I forgot I had a certain class so I never went etc. An odd one I had as a child was of driving. It was scary because I didn’t know how to do it but I had to none the less. I always dream in color and honestly they’re so vivid I expect credits to roll at the end!


    • The driving one is really interesting. Once you said that I found myself wondering if I had ever had that dream. It feels oddly familiar. On the other hand, I have absolutely no idea whether my dreams are in color or not. I shall endeavor to pay more attention.


  6. TanGental says:

    the one had when I was about 8 involved me not being dressed properly for school – no cap, my tie coming loose, sometimes my trousers falling down.


  7. Gah, that could be MY kindergarten class photo. It looks so familiar! And I absolutely remember that Patrick McGoohan TV show. I thought he was kinda cute in a creepy way. Ha!

    Yes, I have that classic anxiety dream where I can’t remember what class I’m in, so I ask the guidance counselor. The last time I had that dream, the guidance counselor sent me to a therapist, who happened to be Leo Buscaglia (remember him)? And I said, “Why do I keep having this dream Leo?” and he looked at his watch and said, “time’s up.” That was the end of the session. And the dream.


  8. When I was teaching, I always used to get the same nightmare a few days before school wnet back: I was hurrying down a corridor trying to find the class I was meant to be teaching….but I could never find them. Yikes and double yikes! Glad those days are over!


  9. I know this sounds a bit weird to say, but your dreams, and your descriptions of them are delightful. My dreams are full of Escheresque stairways and impossible lock combinations, always with that urgency of a scarecrow-like predator on my heels. I still enjoy them for what they can tell me, and for the sheer creativity of the mind! Also, the colors. Sleep well!


  10. I never had “real life” nightmares until I later in life. Kids? O_o I always had bizarre, surreal nightmares that seemed very real despite the impossibility of them and made perfect sense (while I was asleep). Also, it took me a bit to realize it was a dream. I felt it took a little too long to “wake up” from them. Someone once told me they were not nightmares, but night terrors. Different animal. Now I have the regular nightmares most of us have about things in daily life that cause anxiety and stress. Fun.


  11. lorilschafer says:

    Lately I’ve been having a recurring dream of being unable to breathe. The harder I try in the dream, the harder it is to suck air – a very real, very frightening feeling. However, I often sleep very close to the level of consciousness, and in the dreams I’m able to figure that out and relax so that I can wake myself up. I suspected the dreams had a physical cause, and one day I looked up sleep apnea, even though I don’t think I have it. Well, I ran across an illustration that showed how a sleep apnea sufferer’s throat collapses during sleep, and I realized something. I always used to sleep on my side, but ever since I busted my shoulder I’ve been forced to sleep on my back. I’m in a place where two pillows is too much, and one’s not enough, so I’ve been angling the one pillow up against the wall so that it forms an angle, effectively creating a fold in my neck and my gullet. I flattened out the pillow completely, and haven’t had an incident in the two weeks since.

    Yes, I am definitely a believer in the relationship between reality and dreams!


  12. jan says:

    I think if I had a dream that my ex and his wife had their wedding ceremony in my house I’d never go to sleep again!


  13. elainemansfield says:

    I love dreams and work on understanding them with Jungian tools and practitioners. Dreams often have a better idea of what’s happening than I do. I rarely have straight out nightmares now, and I’m sorry you do. As a kid I had going to school naked dreams and a recurring scary image I first experienced when being knocked out with ether.

    I’m more anxious in dreams than afraid–just like the waking situation. I dream I’m driving and have no headlights. The car is stuck or sliding into a ditch. Or I’ve lost my purse or my wallet or my keys or my cell phone. I have notebooks full of grief dreams from the years after my husband died, but I always loved seeing him in the underworld, even when I knew he was dead.


  14. heal786 says:

    I have dreams like this, but a constant one is falling, dreaming im falling and being absolutely terrified, or knowing that I have no choice but to fall.. I awaken really quickly, but damn, its scary!


  15. Ula says:

    I had a recurring dream for over a decade about stories-high waves. The dreams recurred, but I couldn’t figure out why. Then a few years ago I had the final dream in the series. In it, my subconscious gave me a message that helps me deal. I now believe my subconscious was preparing me for this message. When this dream came, I knew it was a dream (I had dreamt it so many times that I always became lucid when I had it at this point), so I remembered the message much more clearly than usual.


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