What Causes Vivid Dreams?

You may recall morning dreams more vividly and more often than other dreams. Experts think this is because these dreams happen in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. This sleep stage occurs towards the morning.

During REM sleep, your brain processes your emotions and experiences and organizes them into long-term memories.

A lot happens in your brain during REM sleep. This may be why dreams are often so turbulent just before you wake up. Vivid dreams are a normal part of healthy sleep, but they shouldn't make you feel distressed during the day.

This article looks at why vivid dreams occur and how poor-quality sleep may cause you to have them more often.

Woman asleep in bed

Adam Kuylenstierna / Getty Images

What Are Vivid Dreams?

You can dream during any stage of sleep, but you are most likely to have vivid dreams during REM sleep. This is when certain structures in your brain become more active.

During REM sleep, the thalamus 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.

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.

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. It's during REM sleep that your brain actively dreams.

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 will wake out of their last REM period and recall a dream.

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 towards morning, increasing 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.

Recap

Because you spend more time in REM sleep towards morning, you're more likely to recall vivid dreams when you wake up.

What Causes Vivid Dreams?

Anxiety can have a big impact on the content of your dreams. If you're anxious, you can also have trouble sleeping. This can lead to more negative emotions when you're awake. A cycle of anxiety, disrupted sleep, and intense dreams can take a toll on your mental health.

Stress and anxiety aren't the only reasons you may have vivid or upsetting dreams. Here are some other things that may cause you to remember vivid dreams more often.

Medications

Certain antidepressants may cause vivid dreams and nightmares. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most likely to do this. Prozac (fluoxetine), a member of this drug class, has been linked to increased vivid dreams and nightmares. People who take this drug are also more likely to recall their dreams.

Beta-blockers have also been linked to vivid dreams. 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)

Recap

Medication can sometimes cause vivid dreams, especially certain antidepressants and beta-blockers.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders heighten your body's response to stress. They can also affect your ability to recall memories, and reduce your overall quality of life. People with sleep disorders are at higher risk of developing serious health conditions, such as:

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.

Sleep disorders that may cause you to wake often include:

When you wake up often, you're more likely to recall having vivid dreams.

Recap

Sleep disorders may cause you to wake more frequently during the night. This can make you more likely to remember your dreams.

Pregnancy

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 people more prone to:

  • Insomnia
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Recalling bad dreams

Recap

Pregnant people often report having vivid dreams. This is more common during the third trimester.

Substance Abuse

Nightmares are common in people who have a substance abuse disorder. People in this group are also more likely to have severe psychological stress. 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.

Recap

People with substance abuse disorders may also have conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. This is one reason why people in this group may have frequent nightmares.

Mental Health Conditions

Nightmares are common in several mental health conditions, including:

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

In people with bipolar disorder, nightmares can signal that a manic or depressive episode is about to begin. In some cases, an episode of nightmares can occur 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 when the person develops 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 also 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% had at least one nightmare per month.

Some research has also shown that having a sleep disorder may increase your risk of cancer. It could also impact how effective cancer treatment will be. People with cancer are also more prone to nightmares and insomnia as a result of the distress their illness causes.

Recap

Sleep is important for immune function. Studies have shown links between certain illnesses and poor sleep.

Consequences

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, mood disorder, or other problems linked to your vivid dreams can help you feel better overall.

Recap

Vivid dreams that interfere with sleep can cause problems during the day, like sleepiness, slowed reaction time, and trouble focusing.

How to Stop Having Vivid Dreams

There are a few things you can do to help reduce or stop your vivid dreams. Start by adjusting your bedtime habits and schedule. Here are some suggestions:

  • Go to sleep at the same time each night
  • Make sure you get at least seven hours of sleep
  • Turn off screens once you get in bed
  • Eat dinner earlier in the evening and avoid late-night snacks
  • Cut out coffee at least four to six hours before bedtime
  • Limit daytime naps to only when absolutely necessary
  • Exercise regularly during the day
  • Get blackout curtains to keep your room darker, longer

If you've tried these things and your dreams are still affecting you, it's time to look into other possible causes.

If you have chronic pain and you're not sure why, see your doctor. If you have depression, PTSD, chronic stress, or anxiety, a mental health professional can provide medication or counseling to see if they quiet your dreams.

Getting rid of vivid or intrusive dreams starts with uncovering the cause. Only then will your dreams stop disrupting your sleep and affecting your day.

Recap

Start by making changes to your bedtime habits. If this doesn't help, see a doctor. You may have an underlying condition that needs treatment.

Summary

Sleep quality affects your physical and mental health. If you are not 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 doctor or a psychologist.

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. You certainly shouldn't let dream interpretation rule your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it normal to have vivid dreams every night?

    It is normal to have vivid dreams now and then. You may have them more frequently if you're under a lot of stress or going through a major life change. Vivid dreams become a problem when they start to disrupt your sleep and affect your mental health during the day.

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

  • Are vivid dreams related to deja vu?

    Experts have found no evidence that vivid dreams result in the phenomenon of deja vu or are more likely to come true. Still, many people have dream experiences that they later feel have come true. This may have to do with electrical patterns of 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 people may experience when sick with a fever. Fever dreams are often negative and may be similar to a nightmare. 

    Fever dreams typically occur during REM sleep. A person having a fever dream may talk or thrash in their sleep. They may even appear to be hallucinating. 

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

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