What Causes Vivid Dreams?

You may recall morning dreams more often—and more vividly—than other dreams. Experts believe this phenomenon is related to the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which occurs towards the morning.

During REM sleep, your brain processes your emotions and day-to-day experiences and then organizes them into long-term memories. Given all the mental activities happening during REM, it's no wonder dreams are often so turbulent just before you wake up.

Vivid dreams are a normal part of healthy sleep, but they shouldn't be causing you to frequently feel distressed during the day. This article takes a look at why vivid dreams occur, and how poor-quality sleep may be causing you to have them more often.

Woman asleep in bed
Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm / Getty Images

What Are Vivid Dreams?

We can dream during any stage of sleep, but we are most likely to experience vivid dreams during REM sleep, as that is when certain structures in our brains increase in activity.

In particular, the thalamus lights up and sends images, thoughts, and narratives collected throughout our daily lives to the cerebral cortex for processing. It's this information that comprises our dreams.

At times, the information being processed is so vivid that you might wake up questioning whether or not the dream actually happened. Other times, you might open your eyes perplexed by the dream's randomness.

Although there is no scientific evidence to support that certain symbols in your dreams provide insight into your mental health, scientists do recognize that emotions may express themselves in the emotional tone of your dreams.

If you are experiencing a lot of anxiety, you may be more likely to have a distressing dream. Likewise, if you mostly feel peace of mind, you may be more likely to have dreams that reflect your positive emotions.

Sleep Stages and Dreaming

During the night, your brain goes through four to six cycles called sleep stages. In each cycle, there are periods of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep followed by brief intervals of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Fragmentary dreams—often simple ideas or images—can occur in NREM sleep, but the most elaborate dream experiences occur during REM. It's during REM sleep that your brain actively dreams.

Each of the cycles of sleep lasts approximately 90 minutes. As morning approaches, the NREM periods become shorter and the REM becomes longer.

Most REM occurs in the last third of the night. As a result, many people will wake out of their last REM period and recall a dream first thing in the morning.

Morning REM Sleep and Dream Recall

Because of your sleep cycles, as you get closer to morning, your chance of experiencing dream sleep during REM increases, and when REM sleep is interrupted, you're most likely to remember vivid dreams.

Moreover, your sleep drive, or desire to sleep, lessens the longer you sleep. Therefore, you are more likely to be restless and awaken as the morning approaches, thus increasing the chance you will interrupt these increasingly prolonged REM periods.

It is also during REM sleep that sleep apnea is most likely to happen. This may be due to the muscle relaxation that occurs during REM to prevent you from acting out your dreams. As part of this, the muscles in your airways relax, which can interrupt breathing and wake you up—again, making you more likely to remember a dream.

What Causes Vivid Dreams?

Anxiety can have a major influence on the content of your dreams. It can also cause you to have trouble sleeping, leading you to have more negative emotions when you are awake. This cycle of anxiety, disrupted sleep, and intense dreams can ultimately take a toll on your mental health.

Stress and anxiety aren't the only causes of vivid or upsetting dreams. Other factors that may cause you to remember vivid dreams more often include the following:

Medications

Certain antidepressants may increase the frequency of vivid dreams and nightmares, and cause people to recall their dreams more often.

The class of antidepressants that are most closely associated with this effect are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). In particular, Prozac (fluoxetine) has been linked to increased vivid dreams and nightmares. People who take this SSRI are more likely to recall their dreams as well.

Another class of medications that are linked to vivid dreams are beta-blockers—a medication commonly used to treat cardiovascular disease. Lopressor and Toprol XL (metoprolol) are two beta-blockers that are closely associated with vivid dreams and sleep disturbances.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders heighten your body's response to stress, affect your ability to recall memories, and reduce your overall quality of life. They are also linked to serious health conditions, like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Experts believe that frequently waking up throughout the night is just as harmful on the body and the brain as not getting any sleep at all. When your REM sleep is interrupted, you are more likely to recall having a vivid dream.

Sleep disorders that may have this effect include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, and circadian rhythm disorders.

Pregnancy

People who are in their third trimester of pregnancy may have vivid dreams and nightmares more frequently than those who are not pregnant.

One research study gathered 59 non-pregnant women and 57 pregnant women in their third trimester. Between the two groups, there was no difference in the frequency of dream recall. However, 7% of non-pregnant women reported bad dreams compared to 21% of pregnant women. The pregnant women also reported poorer sleep quality.

Researchers believe that the various hormonal and physical changes in pregnancy make people more prone to insomnia, interrupted sleep, and recalling bad dreams.

Substance Abuse

Nightmares are common among people who have a substance abuse disorder. People who are addicted to drinking or drugs are also more likely to experience severe psychological stress—possibly due to childhood abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Experts believe this explains why people with substance abuse disorders experience nightmares so frequently.

Additionally, people who are in withdrawal or who have become sober often have dreams of themselves using the substance again. Experts view these "drinking dreams" and "drug dreams" as markers of the switch from psychological to physical addiction.

Mental Health Conditions

Nightmares are a common in several mental health conditions, including:

Nightmares are generally a symptom of these disorders, and they can happen regularly or in episodes.

In 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 actual onset of bipolar disorder.

People who have PTSD or C-PTSD may repeatedly relive traumatic events in their dreams. These are known as intrusive dreams, and they can often result in insomnia—particularly when the affected person develops a fear of falling asleep.

Having intrusive dreams can make it especially difficult to cope with past trauma. If you are struggling with frequent intrusive dreams, consider reaching out to a psychotherapist who can help you manage and overcome your condition.

Physical Illness

While you are asleep, your immune system goes to work repairing tissues and combatting illness. You need consistent, quality sleep to stay physically and emotionally healthy.

The relationship between sleep and immunity is well documented. Several studies also show that people with certain physical illnesses are more likely to experience nightmares and vivid dreams.

In one study, out of 1,233 people with cardiovascular (CV) disease, 19% had depression, 17% had anxiety, and 15% had at least one nightmare per month. The researchers looked for an overlap between their nightmares, CV medications, anxiety, insomnia, and depression.

Although they didn't find a connection between nightmares and CV medications in this study, the link between depression, anxiety, insomnia, and cardiovascular disease was clear.

Some research has also shown that having a sleep disorder may increase your risk of cancer and influence the effectiveness of cancer treatment. Furthermore, people with cancer are more prone to having nightmares and insomnia as a result of the psychological distress their illness causes.

Side Effects

Vivid dreams themselves aren't associated with side effects—that is, until they interfere with your sleep, in which case you may experience the following side effects:

You may also experience symptoms related to the underlying cause of your vivid dreams, whether that is a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, a physical illness like cancer, or a mood disorder like depression. Getting treatment for the underlying cause should help with your vivid dreams too.

How to Stop Having Vivid Dreams

To stop having vivid dreams, start by seeing if you can adjust your bedtime habits and schedule to improve the quality of your sleep. Steps you can consider include:

  • Going to sleep at a more consistent time each night that allows you to catch at least seven hours of sleep
  • Turning the television and your cellphone off for the night once you get in bed
  • Having dinner earlier in the evening and avoiding late-night snacks
  • Cutting out coffee 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, longer

If you have done what you can to give yourself the best chance of quality sleep and your dreams are still affecting you, it's time to investigate other possible causes.

If you are experiencing chronic pain and you're not sure why, see your healthcare provider for an evaluation. If you are experiencing 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.

Summary

The quality of your sleep affects your physical and psychological health. If you are not sleeping deeply enough or your sleep is regularly interrupted, you may be more likely to have vivid dreams and remember them upon waking.

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 a psychologist who can treat the underlying cause.

A Word From Verywell

Dwelling on your dreams too much can distract you from your day and cause you distress. You may find it helpful to keep a dream journal 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, and 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 every now and then, and you may have them more frequently if you are experiencing a stressful event 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 you anxiety, keeping you awake at night, or simply won't let up, contact your healthcare provider to sort out whether there is an underlying condition causing them.

  • Are vivid dreams related to deja vu?

    Experts have found no evidence that vivid dreams are more likely to come true or result in the phenomenon of deja vu. Many people do have dream experiences that they later feel have come true, but this may have to do with certain electrical patterns of the brain that cause a false sense of familiarity rather than any ability to predict the future through dreaming.

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