What Is a Vivid Dream?

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A vivid dream is one that feels so real that you can recall it very clearly when you wake up. This article discusses what vivid dreams are, what causes them, some of the potential negative consequences and how to avoid them if they are adversely affecting your quality of life.

What Is a Vivid Dream?

Have you ever woken up from a dream that felt so real, it’s hard to shake it off? You might have experienced a vivid dream. They can be happy or sad, based on your real life, or completely fabricated. Vivid dreams are ones that stick to your memory.

Researchers aren’t completely certain why we dream but they’ve figured out that it’s something to do with how we store our memories.

There are two recognized stages of sleep:

  1. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep: In NREM sleep, your dreams are basic with simple imagery, concepts, and ideas.
  2. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep: In REM sleep, your dreams are complex and more detailed.

A cycle of sleep consists of both these stages, starting with NREM and ending with REM periods. It takes around 90 minutes for a cycle of sleep to complete. On a typical night, your brain will undergo four to six cycles. As your body prepares to wake up, the REM intervals increase in length and the NREM intervals decrease in length.

Therefore, the dreams that occur in the REM period of the last sleep cycle before you wake up are the ones you most likely remember. We usually wake up in the middle of our REM stage of sleep because our body has met its sleep quota, is becoming restless and preparing to get up.

However, if the dream is very vivid, it is possible to remember it from previous sleep cycles. 

Causes

Scientists aren’t exactly clear on what causes vivid dreams; however, there are a few things that have been shown to increase their likelihood. 

  • Medications: Some medications have been shown to cause vivid dreams. Anti-depressants are medications that can help relieve the symptoms of depression. One of their side effects is that they can cause vivid dreams due to the effect they have on REM sleep. Beta-blockers are medications that treat high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. They have also been shown to impact sleep and contribute to nightmares.
  • Sleep Disorders: Waking up often during the night means you are interrupting your sleep cycles and are more likely to remember what you were dreaming. Certain sleep disorders can cause this to occur such as insomnia, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea. 
  • Major Changes To Your Sleep Schedule: Changing when you sleep and how much you sleep can increase the risk of vivid dreams. Some examples include transitioning to a job that requires night shift work, travelling across different time zones and pulling all-nighters frequently for an extended period of time. 
  • Anxiety and Stress: Ruminating over stressful situations such as issues at work, struggles at school, relationship problems and financial strain can cause most people to lose sleep. Major life events take a toll on your emotional and mental well-being. Experiences such as the death of a loved one, job loss, moving to a new city, getting married, and the birth of a child can trigger vivid dreams. It’s been shown that people with anxiety are more likely to have nightmares.
  • Substance Abuse: Vivid dreams and nightmares can be triggered by alcohol misuse and substance abuse. A study showed that individuals who are in recovery often have vivid dreams that involve drinking and drug use.
  • Mental Health Conditions: People with certain mental health conditions are more likely to have nightmares. Some conditions include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression.
  • Pregnancy: The physical body changes and increased hormone production that occur during pregnancy can affect sleep patterns and contribute to vivid dreams. 

Harmful Side Effects of Vivid Dreams

Generally, having a vivid dream once in a while isn’t a cause for concern. However, if you are having vivid dreams frequently and it is interfering with your day-to-day life, it can cause harmful effects on your overall health and well-being.

Some of these include:

  • Fatigue: When you’re not getting sufficient quality sleep, you have a reduced ability to focus and retain information which can cause issues at work, school, and at home. Having trouble staying awake and feeling sleepy during the day can be dangerous especially if your job requires you to operate machinery or do manual labor; you drive to work or you are responsible for the safety of children. You may not be able to react as quickly and can be easily distracted. Your judgment may be altered, putting yourself and others at risk. 
  • Mood Issues: Recurring vivid dreams that are distressing can negatively affect your mood. If the dream is especially traumatic, it can trigger depression and anxiety, and other mental health conditions. You are more irritable and easily aggravated which can drain your energy, making you feel awful and affecting your ability to function throughout the day. 
  • Avoiding Sleep: Having a persistent vivid dream that makes you feel anxious or overwhelmed may cause you to consciously or subconsciously resist sleep. Bedtime becomes something you dread because you’re worried you will have another nightmare. However, resisting sleep will contribute to poorer sleep and exacerbate negative health consequences.

How to Avoid Vivid Dreams

Identifying and treating the underlying cause of your vivid dream can help reduce them. Contact your doctor and/or mental health professional and they can provide appropriate advice, treatment options, and effective lifestyle changes. 

However, sometimes, it can be difficult to determine a specific cause of your vivid dreams.

Here are some tips to help you reduce the frequency of them:

  • Practice Good Sleep Hygiene: Having good sleep habits can help improve your sleep. Some include going to bed and waking up at the same time, limiting caffeine, large meals, and alcohol before bedtime, shutting down screens once in bed, and ensuring your bedroom is optimal for sleep (dark, quiet, and comfortable). 
  • Develop Healthy Habits: Being physically active, having a sensible diet, staying hydrated, and maintaining a healthy weight can help improve brain function, regulate your mood and reduce sleep disturbances and vivid dreams.
  • Try Stress Reduction Strategies: Everyone experiences and manages stress differently. However, there are some ways to help reduce and cope with stress. Some examples include breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, and guided imagery.
  • Seek Therapy: Working with a therapist or mental health care professional can help you understand your emotional triggers, identify ways to improve your mood, treat underlying mental health conditions and make you feel more in control of your life to help improve the quality of your sleep.

Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to feeling productive and well-rested for the following day. Certain medications, sleep disorders, mental health, and medical conditions can cause vivid dreams.

A Word From Verywell

Vivid dreams can affect your quality of life if they are persistent and distressing. Changing your lifestyle and following the advice and guidance of your healthcare provider can help reduce these dreams and allow you to get a better night’s rest.

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Verywell Mind 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.
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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. Her expertise in facilitating, storytelling, coaching, and promoting tough and honest conversations provides the foundation for her site, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.