Medical Dreams & Nightmares

As medical students, sleep is difficult to come by.  When we finally have the chance to sleep, it is really frustrating when our brains remain in overdrive and won’t allow us to catch a few winks!  Whether it is a result of too much adrenaline, overstimulation, or simply being overly tired, there is nothing like trying to force yourself to sleep when your mind won’t disengage.   I know I even struggle at times with guilt feelings when I put my head on the pillow knowing I still have studying to do!

When I’m fortunate enough to finally get some sleep, I’ve noticed I have been experiencing a series of medically related dreams (and some medical nightmares) for the first time in my life.  I decided to ask a few of my fellow med school classmates if they were experiencing similar changes in their sleep and dream patterns, since they started med school.  It turns out that we all shared similar disruptions to our sleep and dreams.  We anecdotally discussed the kinds of dreams and nightmares they are experiencing, and along with my own, I collected common themes which I then categorized into the following “dream buckets.”

– “The Failure” – as you receive your grade on an exam (probably one that is upcoming) you see a giant red ‘F’.  You proceed to scream NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO . . .  and then you wake up in a cold sweat!  Immediately you are in a panic and have a difficult time deciphering whether you failed that test or not.

– “The Mistake” – making a mistake treating a patient during residency.  Your attending is yelling at you that the patient died and as that message is sinking in you feel like everything is moving in slow motion.  What does it mean?  You’re scared to death your good intentions providing treatment might actually injure, maim or kill a patient.

– “The Study Dream” – you did everything right before you went to bed, but for some reason your brain wasn’t/isn’t ready to turn off yet.  You find yourself dreaming about what you’re learning and you even quiz yourself while you sleep.  When you wake up you feel unrested and are irritated that you wasted a good night’s sleep studying while you snoozed. 

– “Being Chased / Runner” – you’re running somewhere, but not sure where, whether it’s down the halls of university, a street, or through a hospital – wherever you’re going, you’re making time trying to get there.  Sometimes you’re even being chased by a professor – YIKES!

– “Overslept and Missed a Test” – you wake up around noon, fully rested and then yikes!  You realized you missed one or even two exams!!! You try to get out of bed in a hurry, but you feel like you’re in slow motion, as if you’re running through a vat of molasses and aren’t getting anywhere, anytime fast.

– “Missing a plane” – living on a Caribbean island, a lot of students have a fear that they’ll miss a plane connection and not make it to the first day of classes on time.

– “Playbacks” – these type of dreams let you relive class lectures, in great detail.  You are able to see certain PowerPoint slides, hear the teacher and even ask questions that you didn’t during lecture.

They say dreams provide a window into our souls. 

I am certain there are many other med school dreams other than the ones I listed above that I’m sure I’ll experience in the years ahead.  The list above is by no means a clinical or scientific analysis of dreams, but there are some common patterns I identified amongst my med school peers.  I believe med school dreams like the ones I described have deeper symbolism, significance and some common themes.   Layered in these dreams are med school student’s collective fears of failure, fears of inadequacy, fears that we are just not good enough.  These fears drive us every waking hour of every day.  I believe our founded and unfounded fears motivate us and drive us to study harder and to push beyond what we thought we could possibly accomplish.    You might say our med school dreams and nightmares are actually a glimpse into our souls, privately illustrating for each of us individually our level of commitment to succeed!

Bonne Nuit Et Doux Rêves!!

About the writer: Heather Bergdahl is a coffee connoisseur, automotive enthusiast, business woman, and world traveller.  She received her MBA from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.  She is currently a Caribbean medical student attending Saba University in the Dutch Antilles.  Her previous work experience includes:  banking, photography, retail, marketing, sales, financial analysis, investments and medical.  She has relocated 6 times, traveled the world and seen places and things that many people only dream of.  Becoming a doctor is another step on her career success ladder.  She lives her life with the belief, “the best is yet to come!” 

Please visit Heather Bergdahl’s blog at


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