What Causes Vivid & Weird Dreams?

5 Min Read | By Nicholas Barber

Last Modified 22 February 2024   First Added 31 October 2022

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

If you experience a vivid dream, it may even feel more like real life than a dream. Here, we look at what the experts say about vivid dreams and why we have them.

What exactly are vivid dreams?

Vivid dreams are exceptionally detailed and lifelike dream experiences that often resemble real-life situations. Unlike the hazy or fragmented quality of typical dreams, vivid dreams are characterised by their heightened sensory perceptions, intricate scenarios, and overall sense of clarity. You may experience a wide range of sensations, such as touch, taste, smell, and sound, with an intensity that rivals waking life. The imagery within vivid dreams is also exceptionally clear, and the dream scenarios may play out in a manner that closely mirrors how events unfold in reality.

As with all dreams, vivid dreams happen during your deepest sleep. We spend about two hours per night dreaming. Although we don’t completely understand the specific function of dreams, it’s believed that they’re a natural part of our emotional processing and memory formation. In a regular sleep cycle, we experience dreams during REM sleep. Usually, we forget these dreams and spend our daily life without any memory of what happened during our nighttime REM cycles. These cycles start about an hour and a half after you fall asleep, and they tend to be longer and deeper toward morning. That’s why you may feel like you always have vivid dreams just before your alarm rings. So unfair!

What do vivid dreams mean and what causes them?

Do you forget what you’re dreaming about the very instant you wake up? It can be really annoying, right? This happens to many of us, and indeed, it can be incredibly frustrating if we are enjoying a dream and want to fall asleep again to jump right back into it.

However, on the opposite end of the intensity spectrum, you may sometimes have a dream that’s so vivid that you have no problem recalling it in great detail. Every so often, the dream may even stick around in your thoughts for a long time afterwards. These are known as vivid dreams, and if you have one, don’t worry. Although they may leave a lasting impression, they’re not usually a cause for concern.

Here, we investigate the phenomenon of vivid dreams, look at what causes them and reveal how you may be able to avoid them.

Vivid dream meanings and causes:

One thing that all vivid dreams have in common is their lifelike feeling and intensity. Sleep professionals call these nighttime visions ‘vivid dreams’ because they’re just that; dreams that feel so realistic that it’s hard to tell the difference between being awake.

You might be one of the people whose dream content feels astonishingly realistic, and so you remember it the next day. It’s often tricky to put your finger on what’s behind a vivid dream experience. Have you been suffering a lack of sleep for a prolonged period? Been through a painful breakup? Are you on a new medication, or suffered some form of stressful event? It may well feel like a mystery because that’s what vivid dreams kind of are!

These are some of the known causes:

1. You're feeling stressed

If you’re experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, or emotional trauma, you may be more prone to vivid bad dreams. Evidence suggests that if you suffer anxiety symptoms during the day, you’ll be more likely to experience vivid and upsetting dreams at night.

2. Your medication is interfering with your dreams

Some prescription drugs can affect the vividness of dreams. For example, SSRIs (a category of antidepressant) can decrease how often patients remember their dreams, according to one study that also suggested the drugs increase the vividness of dreams.

3. You're sleep deprived

Vivid dreams may be upsetting or disturbing and may even stop you getting enough good quality sleep. A study found that participants deprived of REM sleep one night then went through longer periods of REM sleep with higher dream intensity the next evening. Nightmares are vivid dreams that are frightening or unsettling and can lead to nightmare disorder. This sleep disorder prevents you from getting enough sleep. If you’re experiencing sleep deprivation due to chronic nightmares, it’s time to speak to your doctor.

4. You wake up a lot during the night

Because vivid dreams usually happen during REM sleep, waking up during or right after REM sleep increases the chances that you will remember your dream more vividly.

5. You have a sleep disorder

Sleeping disorders that cause you to have a lack of sleep, such as insomnia, can increase your chances of having vivid dreams. If you suffer from narcolepsy, you’re likely to experience vivid and bizarre dreams.

6. You're pregnant

Physical and hormonal changes during pregnancy can cause insomnia and sleep disturbances. A research study found that women in the third trimester of pregnancy experienced more upsetting dream imagery compared with non-pregnant women. So if you’re expecting, hormonal changes or the stress of growing and eventually delivering a tiny human could be the cause of your vivid dreams.

How to stop vivid dreams

Unlike most dreams, sometimes vivid dreams can feel so intense that they may harm your mental health and well-being. Vivid dreams will usually eventually go away on their own, but there are some ways you can reduce your chances of having them. These include:

  • Practicing good sleep hygiene: Give yourself a regular bedtime and wake time (and stick to your schedule).
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol, which can interfere with your ability to rest. Talk to your doctor if you need support or have questions about cutting back.
  • If you’re having vivid dreams regularly and you feel like they are causing distress, again, talk to your doctor or therapist.
  • Nurture your peace of mind. Researchers have found that people with higher scores on measures of peace of mind are more likely to have positive dream content.
  • Managing stress and anxiety can also help to get rid of unpleasant dreams.

To learn more about the different types of dreams, explore more with… recurring dreams

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