You typically spend about two hours each night dreaming. Although you may not often remember much or any of your dreams, more likely than not, you’ve had a vivid dream at some point. These are vibrant, realistic, and sometimes intense dreams that can stay with someone long after they wake up.
Vivid dreams can be pleasurable and satisfying, such as when they fulfill a desire or replay a treasured experience. But they can also be unsettling in their strangeness or in the emotions they involve. Having frequent, unpleasant vivid dreams can interfere with getting a good night’s sleep.
Learn more about the contents of vivid dreams, their causes and meanings, and what to do to manage vivid dreams if they are becoming a problem.
What Is Vivid Dreaming?
Vivid dreams are dreams that people remember in detail when they wake up. This dream recall is greatest when people awaken from a dream during the rapid eye-movement (REM) stage of sleep.
When people sleep, their brains remain somewhat active, even though their minds are largely unconscious. During REM sleep, the brain is almost as active as when it is awake. In fact, similarities between wakeful states and dreaming can be so strong that a dreamer cannot always tell the difference between being awake and being asleep.
Dreams often reflect your waking life. Sensory experiences from conscious states are woven into vivid dreams, filling them with familiar faces, sounds, landscapes, and other features.
But vivid dreams may also be markedly different from waking life, full of fantastic sights and encounters, or episodes that are disorienting or even frightening.
Vivid dreams can be categorized into different types, depending on their content and what happens to a person during the dream state.
During lucid dreaming, the sleeper is aware that they are experiencing a dream. Around 50% of people have had at least one lucid dream, and about 20% have at least one lucid dream per month. These dreams may be linked to frequent waking during the REM cycle of sleep.
Lucid dreams can have positive or negative themes. Some lucid dreamers are able to influence the content of their dreams. This can be beneficial and can lead to fun, creative insights and problem solving within the dream state.
During an illness that includes a fever, dreams can be more bizarre, more intense emotionally, and can contain more negative content. Fever dreams are also more likely to include themes about temperature or health.
Higher body temperatures and uncomfortable symptoms at night can increase wake time and reduce the amount of time spent in REM sleep. Thus, dream recall is lower for these types of vivid dreams. Fevers and illness can also impact a person’s thinking and mood, leading to stranger, more negative dreams.
Nightmares are disturbing dreams with scary, vivid content often concerning survival or safety. Nightmares are normal, and 85% of adults experience at least one per year. Between 2% and 6% of adults have nightmares every week.
Nightmares can be brought on by stress, difficult life events, trauma, some mental health conditions, and certain medications. Nightmares in turn can lead to disturbed and fragmented sleep. They also activate the nervous system, increasing blood pressure and heart rate and sometimes causing anxiety and panic when a person wakes up.
When nightmares are so frequent or intense that they disrupt a person’s day-to-day life, they may be classified as a nightmare disorder, and treatment may be recommended.
Normally, during REM sleep, a person’s arms and legs are paralyzed. This keeps people from possibly injuring themselves by acting out their dreams.
In dream enactment, however, the normal paralysis of REM sleep is suspended. Activities and events taking place in dreams, such as talking or body movements, are acted out physically in real time.
Dream enactment is usually considered normal, but it can also indicate an underlying sleep disorder, mental health condition, or neurological condition.
What Causes Vivid Dreams?
Although dreaming occurs during all phases of sleep, the most intense, complex, and vivid dreams occur during REM sleep. This is likely because brain activity is highest during the REM stage of sleep and because you’re more likely to remember your dreams when awakened from REM sleep.
A sleeper usually reaches the REM stage after about 90 minutes of sleep, returning to this stage multiple times throughout a sleep session. The purpose of REM sleep is still uncertain, but some sleep researchers believe it is important for forming memories. In this state, events of the day may be replayed by the brain and can seep into our sleep in the form of dreams.
Many experiences and conditions are linked to vivid dreams.
Stress and Mental Health
People who are stressed or anxious during the day are more likely to have distressing dreams, since waking experiences are likely to be reflected in dreams. Nightmares and vivid dreams may also be provoked by negative and traumatic events in a person’s life.
Mental health conditions linked to nightmares include:
Nightmares and PTSD seem to be particularly correlated. The dreams of individuals with PTSD can involve themes related to their trauma. These nightmares can also occur in stages of sleep other than REM, leading to insomnia and frequent awakenings.
A tendency to have nightmares may be associated with a higher risk of developing PTSD. One study showed that combat veterans who’d had nightmares before their deployment were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms after six months of active duty.
Medication Side Effects
A number of medications are known to increase the rate or intensity of a sleeper’s dreams. These include some prescription sleep aids, stimulants, psychiatric medicines, and certain blood pressure medications.
If you are concerned that medications you take may be causing vivid dreams, it’s important to discuss these side effects with your doctor.
People who are pregnant can have difficulty sleeping and may have negative or disturbing dreams, especially later in pregnancy. One possible factor is the stress that pregnant people commonly face, brought on by hormone and mood changes and concerns about becoming a parent.
Talk to your clinician if you are experiencing high levels of stress or sadness during pregnancy, especially if either is negatively affecting your sleep or waking life.
Several types of sleep disorders involve vivid dreams alongside the sleep disruptions or unusual behaviors they can cause.
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): OSA causes a sleeper’s breathing to stop frequently during the night, leading to sleep that is fragmented and unrefreshing. The sleep disruption and lower blood oxygen levels that occur with OSA may cause more nightmares in people with this condition
- REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD): RBD involves dream enactment, at times extreme or violent. This disorder is more common in older adults and among men. It can lead to injury to the individual experiencing it or to those in their physical vicinity.
- Narcolepsy: Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that often features vivid, dreamlike hallucinations during the first moments of sleep. About half of people with narcolepsy also have RBD.
- Sleep-related eating disorder: This sleep disorder is a type of sleepwalking. It involves binging in a hurried and out-of-control way, while fully asleep. An episode may be triggered by a vivid dream featuring themes of food and eating, which is then enacted in real time.
Withdrawal From Substances
Transitioning off of substances like medication, drugs, or alcohol can increase the frequency of nightmares. For example, cocaine withdrawal is sometimes accompanied by vivid, unpleasant dreams.
Meanings of Vivid Dreams
Dreams can offer a window into the conscious mind, subconscious mind, or even our physical health.
Several themes are most common to all people who dream vividly. Universal storylines include falling, flying, being chased or attacked, an erotic experience, the death of a loved one, and school-related events like failing a test.
While dreams can sometimes be realistic representations of waking life, dreams with bizarre or creative content can be more difficult to make sense of logically. It’s no wonder, then, that many people find it fascinating to explore the meaning of dreams.
The psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both proposed that dreams reveal a person’s unconscious mind. Freud thought that dreams communicated hidden wishes and desires, while Jung believed that the symbolic characters that appear in dreams present unconscious information about a dreamer, open to interpretation and analysis.
In some cases, vivid dreams may give clues about health conditions. For people with bipolar disorder, dreams about death and bodily harm may predict a shift to a manic phase, while decreased dreaming can precede a depressive phase. Also, REM sleep behavior disorder may point to the onset of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease.
What Are the Effects of Vivid Dreams?
Wake and sleep states affect one another. Events of the day affect the dreams you have at night, while intense dreams may disrupt your sleep. This can lead to additional problems.
- Daytime sleepiness: If vivid dreams cause fragmented sleep, they can contribute to daytime sleepiness, which can affect alertness and the ability to function.
- Social and professional disruption: Persistent or especially disturbing dreams can lead to distraction and distress, affecting a person’s performance in social or occupational activities.
- Difficulty falling asleep: The fear of nightmares can make it harder for a person to fall asleep and might even cause them to be afraid of sleeping.
How to Treat Vivid Dreams
Several treatment and therapy options can help to reduce the frequency or severity of vivid dreams. If vivid dreaming disrupts your sleep, you may wish to discuss your options with a health professional.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is commonly used to treat PTSD and can reduce nightmares in people with this diagnosis. In particular, guided remembering and reimaging of the traumatic event may help to lower the frequency of recurring nightmares.
Imagery Rehearsal Therapy
Imagery rehearsal therapy is an approach that can help people process frequent disturbing dreams. This treatment shifts the way a person views their nightmares by rewriting the nightmare narrative and making it more positive. The person then rehearses the new script in their imagination every night before falling asleep.
A number of prescription medications are currently available to treat PTSD-related nightmare disorder, including certain antidepressants, antipsychotics, and blood pressure medicines. It is best to speak with a health care professional for guidance on the best medical approach for any sleep difficulties.
Stress and other waking-life issues can bleed into our sleep time. Seeking solutions or treatment for root causes can help to address stress-induced nightmares.
Some proven practices for helping to reduce stress and anxiety include:
- Mindfulness practices like meditation and centering prayer
- Tai chi
- Physical exercise
- Breathing exercises
Getting better, deeper sleep might not necessarily make dreams less vivid or less frequent. But for those whose vivid dreams cause frequent sleep disruption, it is important to get quality sleep whenever possible.
Improve your sleep hygiene and get more restful sleep by:
- Keeping your sleeping space cool, quiet, and dark
- Going to sleep at the same time every night
- Allowing yourself some quiet time before turning in
Frequently Asked Questions About Vivid Dreams
It’s still unclear why some people have more vivid dreams or remember more of their dreams. This ability does not seem to be related to any particular personality traits, gender, or age. But there is some evidence of slight differences in brain activity and brain structure between people who do and do not recall their dreams.
While dreaming is nearly a universally shared human experience, the exact purpose of dreaming is not understood. But it is thought that dreaming, including vivid dreaming, helps to process ideas and feelings.
Some researchers also believe that, during the REM stage of sleep, long-term memories are “stored” in designated areas of the brain. Vivid dreams, therefore, might simply be a side effect of this storage process.
You might try writing your dreams down as soon as you wake up. While this may not work for everyone, some studies show that keeping a dream journal may help those who usually have trouble remembering their dreams.
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