What Causes Vivid Dreams?

These dreams can feel especially intense and memorable

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Vivid dreams are more likely than other dreams to stick in your memory. They're also more likely to happen in the morning. Some people find them distressing.

Experts think morning dreams are easier to remember because they happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which usually occurs soon before you wake up.

During REM sleep, your brain processes your emotions and experiences and organizes them into long-term memories. This may be why these turbulent dreams occur.

While vivid dreams are normal, they shouldn't affect how you feel during the day. This article looks at why vivid dreams occur and how poor-quality sleep can make you have more of them.

Woman asleep in bed

Adam Kuylenstierna / Getty Images

What Are Vivid Dreams?

You are most likely to have vivid dreams during REM sleep. While you can dream at any time at night, REM sleep is when certain structures in your brain become more active.

During REM sleep, the thalamus, a brain region that deals with sensory information, lights up. It sends images and thoughts collected during the day to the cerebral cortex for processing.

Dreams happen during this time. Some dreams can be so vivid you wonder if they really happened. Other dreams seem random or just slip from your memory.

Some people think symbols in your dreams can provide insight into your mental health, but there is no evidence to support this. Scientists do, however, recognize that emotions can express themselves in dreams.

Emotions and Dreams

If you have a lot of anxiety during the day, you're more likely to have a distressing dream. If you mostly feel peace of mind, you're more likely to have positive dreams.

Sleep Stages and Dreaming

When you're asleep, your brain goes through four to six cycles called sleep stages. In each cycle, there are periods of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. These are followed by short intervals of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Fragmented dreams that consist of simple ideas and images can happen during NREM sleep, but the most elaborate dreams occur during REM.

Each of the sleep cycles lasts about 90 minutes. As morning gets closer, the NREM periods become shorter and the REM periods become longer.

Most REM occurs in the last third of the night. Many people recall a dream when they wake during their last REM period.

Morning REM Sleep and Dream Recall

Close to morning, you spend more time in REM sleep and you have more dreams. You're most likely to remember vivid dreams when REM sleep is interrupted.

Your sleep drive, or desire to sleep, also lessens the longer you sleep. This makes you more likely to become restless and wake up toward morning. That increases the chance you'll wake during an REM period.

Sleep apnea is also more likely during REM sleep. This may be because your muscles relax to stop you from acting out your dreams.

When the muscles in your airway relax, it can interrupt breathing and wake you up. When this happens, you're more likely to remember what you were dreaming about.

What Causes Vivid Dreams?

Many things can cause you to have vivid dreams, including medications, drug use, certain physical conditions, and your mental health.


A couple of classes of medication can cause vivid dreams and nightmares in some people.

Certain antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most likely to do this. One such drug is Prozac (fluoxetine), which also makes you more likely to recall your dreams.

Beta-blockers have been linked to vivid dreams, as well. These medications are commonly used to treat cardiovascular disease.

Two beta-blockers closely associated with vivid dreams and sleep disturbances are:

  • Lopressor (metoprolol)
  • Toprol XL (metoprolol succinate)

This side effect isn't typically a problem. If your vivid dreams have a negative impact on you, though, talk to your healthcare provider about it. It might be worth switching to a different medication.

Sleep Disorders

When you wake up often, you're more likely to recall having vivid dreams. Sleep disorders may cause you to wake up several times overnight.

Sleep disorders heighten your body's response to stress and increase your risk of serious health conditions, such as:

Sleep disorders that may cause you to wake often include:

Experts think waking up frequently during the night is harmful to the body and brain. In fact, it may even be just as harmful as not getting any sleep at all.


People in the third trimester of pregnancy may have frequent vivid dreams and nightmares.

One study compared 57 pregnant females in the third trimester to 59 non-pregnant females. There was no difference in how often subjects in each group could recall dreams.

However, 21% of the pregnant subjects reported bad dreams compared to 7% of those who weren't pregnant. The pregnant subjects also reported poorer sleep quality.

Researchers think the hormonal and physical changes that happen during pregnancy may make you more prone to:

  • Insomnia
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Recalling bad dreams

Substance Abuse

Nightmares are common in people who have a substance abuse disorder. Severe psychological stress is more common, as well.

This is often due to childhood abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Experts think this explains why people with substance abuse disorders have frequent nightmares.

People who are in withdrawal or who have become sober may dream about using the substance again. Experts view these dreams as markers of the switch from psychological to physical addiction.

Mental Health Conditions

Nightmares are common in several mental health conditions, including:

People with these conditions may have nightmares regularly or in clusters.

In people with bipolar disorder, nightmares can signal that a manic or depressive episode is about to begin. Some people report a cluster of nightmares one or more years before the onset of bipolar disorder.

People with PTSD or C-PTSD may relive traumatic events in their dreams. These are known as intrusive dreams. They can often result in insomnia, especially if you develop a fear of falling asleep.

Intrusive dreams can make it hard to cope with past trauma. If you are struggling with frequent intrusive dreams, consider reaching out to a psychotherapist.

Physical Illness

The relationship between sleep and immunity is well known. While you sleep, your immune system works to repair tissues and combat illness. You need consistent, quality sleep to stay healthy.

Several studies show that people with certain medical conditions are more likely to have nightmares and vivid dreams.

In one, researchers looked at 1,233 people with cardiovascular (CV) disease. They found that 19% had depression, 17% had anxiety, and 15% recalled at least one nightmare per month.

People with cancer are more prone to nightmares and insomnia as a result of the distress their illness causes.


Vivid dreams cause consequences when they interfere with your sleep. When this happens, you may have:

The underlying cause of your vivid dreams may also cause symptoms. Getting treatment for sleep apnea, a mood disorder, or other problems linked to your vivid dreams can help you feel better overall.

How to Stop Having Vivid Dreams

If you want to stop having vivid dreams, you have a few options. Start by adjusting your bedtime habits and schedule. You can try:

  • Going to sleep at the same time each night
  • Making sure you get at least seven hours of sleep
  • Turning off screens once you get in bed
  • Eating dinner earlier in the evening and avoiding late-night snacks
  • Cutting out caffeine at least four to six hours before bedtime
  • Limiting daytime naps to only when absolutely necessary
  • Exercising regularly during the day
  • Getting blackout curtains to keep your room darker for longer

If you've tried these things and your dreams are still affecting you, it's time to look into other possible causes. One the cause is found, you're more likely to stop having disruptive dreams.


Sleep quality affects your physical and mental health. If you aren't sleeping well or if your sleep is often interrupted, you may be more likely to have vivid dreams that you remember when you wake up.

People who are pregnant or have a physical illness, anxiety, or a mood disorder like depression may also be more prone to recalling vivid dreams. If your dreams are affecting your quality of life, reach out to your healthcare provider or mental health therapist.

A Word From Verywell

Dwelling on your dreams can distract you from your day and cause distress. You may find it helpful to keep a dream journal. Use it to track how your waking emotions express themselves in your dreams.

Just keep in mind that there is no scientific evidence that the symbols in your dreams have any profound meaning. Rather than focusing on the symbolism, try to hone in on what seems to contribute to your vivid dreams.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it normal to have vivid dreams every night?

    No, it's normal to have vivid dreams just now and then. You may have them more frequently if you're under a lot of stress or going through a major life change.

    If your dreams are causing anxiety, keeping you awake at night, or won't let up, contact your healthcare provider to determine whether an underlying condition is causing them.

  • Are vivid dreams related to deja vu?

    Experts have found no evidence that vivid dreams are related to deja vu or that they're more likely to come true.

    The sense of deja vu may have to do with electrical patterns in the brain that cause a false sense of familiarity rather than any ability to predict the future through dreaming.

  • What is a fever dream?

    Fever dreams are bizarre and often intense dreams that you may have when sick with a fever. They're often negative and may be nightmares. 

    Fever dreams typically occur during REM sleep. You may talk or thrash in your sleep or even appear to be hallucinating. 

    Common features include spacial distortions, a feeling of being threatened or in danger, and dreaming about symptoms, such as respiratory distress or vertigo. 

17 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Brain basics: understanding sleep.

  2. Sikka P, Pesonen H, Revonsuo A. Peace of mind and anxiety in the waking state are related to the affective content of dreamsSci Rep. 2018;8(1):12762. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-30721-1

  3. Siclari F, Baird B, Perogamvros L, et al. The neural correlates of dreaming. Nat Neurosci. 2017;20(6):872-878. doi:10.1038/nn.4545

  4. Alzoubaidi M, Mokhlesi B. Obstructive sleep apnea during rapid eye movement sleep: clinical relevance and therapeutic implications. Curr Opin Pulm Med. 2016;22(6):545-54. doi:10.1097/MCP.0000000000000319

  5. Nicolas A, Ruby P. Dreams, sleep, and psychotropic drugs. Front Neurol. 2020;11(1):1-8. doi:10.3389/fneur.2020.507495

  6. Shah R, Babar A, Patel A, Dortonne R, Jordan J. Metoprolol-associated central nervous system complicationsCureus. 2020;12(5):1-5. doi:10.7759/cureus.8236

  7. Medic G, Wille M, Hemels ME. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruptionNat Sci Sleep. 2017;9(1):151-161. doi:10.2147/NSS.S134864

  8. Lara-Carrasco J, Simard V, Saint-Onge K, Lamoureux-Tremblay V, Nielsen T. Disturbed dreaming during the third trimester of pregnancy. Sleep Med. 2014;15(6):694-700. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2014.01.026

  9. Sleep Foundation. Vivid dreams.

  10. Johnson B. Drug abuse, dreams, and nightmares. APA. 2012;1(1):385-392. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-3375-0_31

  11. Sleep Foundation. Nightmares.

  12. Pancheri C, Verdolini N, Pacchiarotti I, et al. A systematic review on sleep alterations anticipating the onset of bipolar disorder. Euro Psych. 2019;58(1):45-53. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2019.02.003

  13. Horie H, Kohno T, Kohsaka S, et al. Frequent nightmares and its association with psychological and sleep disturbances in hospitalized patients with cardiovascular diseases. Euro J Cardio Nurs. 2021;20(5):421-427. doi:10.1093/eurjcn/zvaa016

  14. Sleep Foundation. Cancer and sleep.

  15. Sleep Foundation. Sleep deprivation.

  16. Sleep Foundation. Healthy sleep tips.

  17. Nigro S, Cavalli SM, Cerasa A, et al. Functional activity changes in memory and emotional systems of healthy subjects with deja vu. Epilepsy Behav. 2019;97:8-14. doi:10.1016/j.yebeh.2019.05.018

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.