Everyone dreams but not everyone remembers doing so. People tend to spend about 2 hours each night dreaming. Sleep and dreams are complex and remain a mystery to scientists.
What we do know is that quality sleep is essential for many brain functions. Sleep affects how nerve cells communicate with each other. Researchers now also believe that sleeping can help remove toxins that build up in the brain during waking hours.
Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body, from the brain and heart to the immune system and mood.
A person may have vivid dreams for any number of reasons, depending on individual situations.
People often find that thoughts from the day invade their dreams. They usually experience the most vivid dreams during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which we cover in more detail below.
Causes of vivid dreams include:
Sleep deprivation can lead to more intense dreaming.
Alcohol consumption can suppress REM sleep. When a person stops drinking, it can lead to unusually vivid and intense dreams.
Using certain substances — such as marijuana, cocaine, and ketamine — can contribute to vivid or unpleasant dreams.
People who are recovering from addiction may find that they have vivid dreams about using the drug they are recovering from.
This is relatively common. Experts think that these dreams are part of the impact that drug addiction has on the brain.
Drug side effects
All medicines have potential side effects. For some people, these side effects can include bad or vivid dreams.
Examples of medications that may contribute to vivid dreams or nightmares include:
- antidepressants, including tricyclic monoamine oxidase inhibitors and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
- centrally acting antihypertensives, such as beta-blockers, rauwolfia alkaloids, and alpha agonists
- medications for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, including levodopa (Larodopa) and selegiline (Eldepryl)
All drugs will have potential side effects listed on the packaging.
Stress and traumatic events can lead to vivid dreams. Researchers believe that this is due to the role that dreaming plays in memory and processing emotions.
People who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to have bad vivid dreams than people who do not.
Vivid dreams and nightmares are common during pregnancy. Sometimes, the stress of preparing for delivery and parenting can contribute to this. Fluctuations in hormones can also play a role.
Ill mental health
People with depression can have vivid dreams. Themes such as poor self-image often feature. These dreams can sometimes lead to panic attacks.
People with schizophrenia or a dissociative disorder may have intense dreams during a relapse.
It is also possible for people with anxiety to experience more vivid dreams. These may feature situations of high anxiety or panic, such as running late or general embarrassment.
People with narcolepsy often say that they have vivid dreams that can be bizarre or disturbing.
Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that blurs the line between sleep and wakefulness. People with the condition feel very sleepy and fatigued during the day.
Symptoms include sleep attacks, wherein a person falls asleep and experiences a sudden loss of muscle control (cataplexy) during the day.
When someone has narcolepsy, they fall into REM sleep shortly after falling asleep. This can cause them to have vivid dreams even during a brief nap.
People with narcolepsy may also experience lucid dreaming. In lucid dreaming, a person is aware that they are dreaming, and they may also be able to control the experience.
Preventing vivid dreams
Taking a warm bath before bed can help a person relax.
In cases such as pregnancy and short-term stress, vivid dreams will usually go away on their own.
However, there are a few ways that people can avoid having vivid dreams. These include avoiding substances such as marijuana, cocaine, and ketamine and reducing alcohol consumption.
Practicing good sleep hygiene can also help reduce the chance of having bad or vivid dreams.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke offer the following tips to get a better night’s sleep:
- Aim to fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day.
- Exercise for 20–30 minutes per day but not right before going to bed.
- Avoid using caffeine and nicotine immediately before bed.
- Relax before bed, such as by taking a warm bath or reading.
- Create a room that is suitable for sleep, such as by avoiding bright lights and loud sounds and keeping the room at a comfortable temperature.
- Never lie in bed awake; instead, get up and do something else — such as reading or listening to relaxing music — until tired enough to fall asleep.
- Anyone who experiences distressing vivid dreams regularly should talk to their doctor.
There are two basic types of sleep: REM and non-REM. These have different stages. People will cycle through these stages several times in a typical night.
- Stage one is non-REM sleep, which lasts for several minutes. It is the changeover between being awake and falling asleep.
- Stage two is non-REM sleep, which is a period of light sleep before entering deep sleep.
- Stage three is also non-REM sleep. People need this period of deep sleep to feel refreshed in the morning.
- Stage four is REM sleep, which occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. People dream when they are in REM sleep. During this time, the eyes move quickly from side to side under closed eyelids, and the arm and leg muscles become paralyzed. This prevents people from acting out their dreams.
Everyone has vivid dreams occasionally. Any number of things, from pregnancy to stress, can contribute to vivid dreams. Substance misuse, medication side effects, or even an underlying sleep disorder may play a role.
In most cases, vivid dreams will go away on their own. Adopting healthful sleep habits can help prevent them, however.
Anyone who experiences distressing vivid dreams on a regular basis should talk to their doctor.