Causes of vivid dreams

Share on PinterestThere are a number of factors that make vivid dreams more likely.

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

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.

Substance use

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.

5 Reasons Why You’re Having Weird Dreams

You’re well past the point in your life where you’re scared of monsters in the closet or under your bed. So why are you still plagued by freaky nightmares—or just plain bizarre dreams?

It’s true that nightmares and disturbing dreams prove most common in young kids. But they plague plenty of grown-ups, too: Up to 29% of us report having nightmares once a week, according to findings in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Experts know that dreams happen during REM sleep, the period of sleep when your brain is highly active. But they still can’t say for sure why we dream. Or just as important, what influences whether our dreams are chill and happy (riding a unicorn on the beach—woohoo!) or strange and scary (running from a vicious unicorn with fangs—What?!?).

But when it comes to the content of those unpleasant dreams, there are plenty of theories. Here’s a look at five surprising factors that might play a role.

1. You ate a huge, spicy meal for dinner.

Certain foods can impact how easily (or not) you drift off to dreamland. But foods that cause a fitful night’s sleep don’t just leave you tossing and turning. They might make for a crazy night of dreams, too.

Anecdotally, plenty of people report having weirdly vivid dreams after dining on something spicy or heavy. Some experts suspect that this could be because fiery foods raise your body temperature, which can cause you to have worse sleep. If you’re slightly more conscious, you might be more likely to remember your dreams more clearly, Stanford University sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot told the Wall Street Journal.

Anytime your food inhibits deep sleep, such as large meat-heavy meals, you may be more likely to remember your zany dreams.

Other experts chalk the effect up to meal size. The more you eat, the harder your body has to work to digest all of that food—a process that can make it harder to achieve restful sleep, University of Chicago psychiatrist Lisa Medalie told NBC News.

2. You’re taking sleep supplements.

Popping a melatonin supplement might help you fall asleep more easily. But it can also cause you to have super vivid dreams or nightmares.

In fact, one small study, published in Sleep and Hypnosis, found that college students (especially women) who took 6 mg melatonin before bed were more likely to rate their dreams as bizarre compared to those who took a placebo pill.

Experts aren’t entirely sure why, but it could be that melatonin leads to more intense REM cycles, which could kick your dreams into high gear.

3. You’re going off your meds.

Specifically, antidepressants. If you and your doctor decide that you should stop taking them, lower your dose, or switch to another prescription, there’s a good chance that your dreams will be affected. Especially if you nix the medications quickly instead of slowly tapering off.

This tends to happen because antidepressants work by altering levels of neurotransmitters—or chemical messengers—in your brain. Stopping meds can affect how those neurotransmitters behave, which can result in strange or disturbing dreams, say Harvard Health experts.

Fortunately, the weirdness should stop once your body adjusts.

4. You binged on Netflix before bed.

In addition to blue-light disruption, the imagery from watching TV can influence your sleeping experience.

Sure, catching up on your favorite shows might seem like a great way to unwind before turning in. But once you fall asleep (which might take a while, thanks to the blue light emitted by your laptop or tablet), your dreams could be pretty strange.

Studies on children find that watching media before bed significantly ups the risk of nightmares. Some experts say that could be because little kids have trouble telling the difference between what’s real and what’s fake, so the stuff on TV is more likely to scare them.

But adults might not be immune to what they see on the screen at night, either. In a British survey of 2,000 adults, over 60% reported being more likely to have bad dreams after watching a scary or gruesome show.

5. You’re super stressed out.

There’s no shortage of research documenting the nightmare-inducing effects of posttraumatic stress disorder, and some findings estimate that 90% of people suffering from PTSD report having disturbing dreams.

But even higher than normal levels of everyday stress might be enough to trigger nightmares in some people. Generally, research shows that anxiety and mood problems are linked to higher rates of nightmares.

In these cases, taking steps to better manage your stress might be all that you need to keep nightmares at bay. But if you’re dealing with chronic nightmares, or your nightmares are impacting your ability to get a restful night’s sleep, talk with your doctor.

Dreams Aren’t the Only Sleep-Disturbing Culprit

As we covered above, plenty of factors can contribute to weird and uncomfortable dreams, ranging from stress to diet.

However, there are even more things to consider when trying to get a better, deeper 8-hours of sleep each night.

Most things you’ve probably heard of, such as limiting the amount of blue light before bedtime to avoiding spicy foods and sugary or caffeinated drinks.

However, the quality of your mattress matters as well. It isn’t as common knowledge, but the best mattress for you could depend on your sleep style. For example, the best mattress for side sleepers tends to be a softer bed, as the extra cushion helps contour to side sleep’s hips and shoulders.

Geoff McKinnen is a freelance writer focusing mainly on the healthcare industry and has written articles on everything from foods to help you lose weight to the connection between Alzheimer’s and sleep. Geoff’s passionate about helping readers improve their well-being to lead happier lives. Outside of work, Geoff enjoys cycling and hiking and believes that by leading a healthy lifestyle, he can help others do the same.

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When Anxiety Gives You Bad Dreams That Give You More Anxiety and Bad Dreams

My college commencement ceremony is in two hours. I’m screwed. Somehow, I’m three credits short and there’s no way I’m walking away with a degree. I desperately need to fix this, but I don’t know how.

My heart slithers into my stomach. Stress has glued my jaw shut. Slowly but surely, I come to the realization that absolutely everything that could go wrong will go wrong.

And then I wake up. Everything’s fine.

This is an anxiety dream. I’ve had them every night for as long as I can remember, even before I knew I had an anxiety disorder. I can’t tell you what a good dream feels like, because I’ve never had one.

What I can tell you is that I never feel genuinely rested, no matter how much sleep I get. My days are plagued with fatigue and a fragmented attention span that I’ve neglected to address for years out of fear of being diagnosed with another psychopathy.

Like anyone who’s ever Googled an ailment, I was morbidly curious to find out if my condition was normal or if it was going to be the thing that ultimately kills me.

It takes approximately six seconds into an online search to realize the internet dream realm is as large as it is filled with New Age mysticism. Wading through hypnotherapy, brainwave power music, subliminal sleep messages, and genuine suggestions to wake up and huff flowers in the middle of the night is a waking nightmare. It can be hard to see the science through the smudge sticks, so I called up some actual doctors to figure out what the hell is going on with me.

Anxiety dreams, in their most elementary form, are bad dreams that cause the overwhelming feelings of panic and unease associated with waking anxiety. They’re very similar to nightmares, but instead of lurching you awake in a cold sweat, they sort of prod you into consciousness by jacking up your stress levels. Both occur during REM sleep, that critical period in which our most vivid and memorable dreams manifest.

Bad dreams, which include anxiety dreams, are more common than most people know, clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Nadorff told me. On average, he said, more than half of all dreams that occur during REM sleep involve some form of negative emotion.

I can’t tell you what a good dream feels like, because I’ve never had one.

“A lot of people aren’t conscious of how many bad dreams they have because in order for a dream to encode into your memory, you need to actually wake up while it’s happening,” said Dr. Nadorff.

When I told him about my own anxiety and persistent poor sleep, he said it wouldn’t surprise at all him if anxious people like me have the same percentage of bad dreams as people without the disorder. Anxiety doesn’t directly increase the frequency of our distressing dreams, he assured, but it does heighten their severity.

I embarked on my own somewhat (very) unscientific survey and spoke to several other anxiety sufferers about their sleep, and was relieved to discover their experiences were nearly identical to my own.

“They’re usually either deeply disturbing, or very surreal but emotionally neutral. The disturbing dreams rarely bother me after I wake up. I think I’m used to them,” Motherboard writer Rachel Pick told me. “When I was a student, they’d be about school. Sometimes they’re about my relationship, but that’s rare. So the dreams are about whatever is currently making me feel most insecure in my waking life. They’re pretty standard in plot—I fucked something up and people are pissed at me.”

When I asked Gawker reporter Sam Biddle how an anxiety disorder affects his sleep, he also described having bad dreams 100 percent of the time, and on a nightly basis.

“They’re always a variation on the same dream,” said Biddle. “I’m unprepared for school, or I realize I don’t have enough credits or have missed a class. Somehow, I’m extremely unprepared for school in a way that’s going to jeopardize my academic standing.”

Graphic artist Renee Griffin definitely noted a pattern to her bad dreams. “Most of what I remember from my dreams involves a general sense of frustration—physical weakness, failing people I care about, the inability to complete something or be heard,” she said. “Mine don’t tend to focus on real life anxiety triggers in a literal sense, but they are usually ordinary(ish) situations that get crazy frustrating.”

As for me, I almost exclusively cycle through the same two dream scenarios. Either I’ve failed to complete an important task for college, or I’ve mistakenly done something that’s mortally offended someone I care about.

Dreams may feel extremely similar, but Dr. Nardoff insists we don’t actually replay them. “The dreams are definitely different, but they’re all dealing with the same underlying psychological theme,” he said.

Furthermore, dreams aren’t as commonly connected to traumatic events as people tend to think—only one third of people who suffer from chronic bad dreams actually have a history of trauma, Dr. Nardoff said.

Goodnight Gloom

Anxiety sufferers most likely feel plagued by bad dreams because of a process in behavioral psychology called negative reinforcement, said Dr. Nadorff. Negative reinforcement, he said, is the act of avoiding or removing an unwanted stimulus to achieve a desired result.

So, say you’re dreaming about your high school boyfriend dumping you in front of your class assembly while you’re clutching your failing report card in nothing but your underwear. Your brain knows all it needs to do is wake you up to force-quit the bad dream. The act is unconscious, but the more it happens, the more it becomes reinforced. And because you’re only going to recall a dream if you wake up in the middle of it, you’ll tend to exclusively remember the bad ones.

People with anxiety are also more prone to sleep disorders like insomnia, which is linked to bad dreams, sleep physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School Dr. Ina Djonlagic told me.

There’s “a correlation between sleep quality and how we process traumatic experiences,” she added, which may help to explain why bad dreams, insomnia, and real-life anxiety can sometimes seem so hard to divorce.

But as personal health websites are eager to tell you, bad dreams and nightmares can easily turn into serious medical disorders. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine loosely recommends that seven hours per night is best for adults, but the reality is everyone requires different amounts of rest. Your body will tell you what it needs. “It’s a spectrum,” said Dr. Djonlagic, “and there are certainly people who need less sleep, but there are a lot who need more.”

Still, if bad dreams are making you avoid sleep, or preventing you from being able to fall back asleep, you run a higher risk of developing any number of disorders associated with chronic unrest.

On the less fatal end of the spectrum, regularly skimping on sleep can lead to REM rebound; a response mechanism where your brain prioritizes REM sleep, forcing you to have it earlier and for a longer amount of time. But because REM sleep is such a key player in the occurrence of bad dreams, having more of it means—you guessed it—more bad dreams.

“Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. It appears to be a completely different state.”

More seriously, chronic undersleep can also result in cognitive disorders like working memory problems and the inability to multitask, said Dr. Djonlagic. She often finds that people who aren’t getting enough regular sleep complain about being more forgetful, mentally fatigued, and have difficulty with visual discrimination exercises.

One recent NIH-funded study out of the University of Rochester Medical Center even suggests that sleep deficiency might be a corollary of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The study’s authors observed that sleep allowed cerebrospinal fluid (the liquid that comes out during a spinal tap) to rapidly flow through the brains of sleeping mice. When the mice were awake, however, spinal fluid barely flowed at all.

“Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. It appears to be a completely different state,” said the paper’s lead author Dr. Maiken Nedergaard.

The brains of people with Alzheimer’s have too much of a damaging protein called beta amyloid between neurons, so the study also examined whether the movement of spinal fluid during sleep helped to flush out these molecules after having been injected into the brains of mice. Surprise, surprise, it did. While this study hasn’t been replicated on humans yet and certainly isn’t definitive, it does leave the door wide open for further investigation into the effects of a good night’s rest. At the very least, it’ll make you reconsider the true meaning of the phrase “sleep it off.”

The Science of Better Sleep

For those of us who would like some semblance of normal sleep, there are two forms of clinical treatment that have seen the highest rates of success; a blood pressure medicine called prazosin, and image rehearsal therapy.

Researchers have observed positive results using prazosin to minimize sleep disorders in people with PTSD. Prazosin is a drug that works by stemming the flow of norepinephrine—a stress response chemical our bodies create during “fight or flight” situations—which doctors think contributes to nightmares. When norepinephrine rushes out of the central nervous system it can disrupt REM sleep, subsequently increasing the chances of having bad dreams.

Image rehearsal therapy is another technique that’s recommended for people who have frequent and recurring negative dreams. Treatment requires the patient to visualize a specific bad dream, write it down, and alter it in any way that makes it less negative. This exercise should be repeated several times a day for five to ten minutes. With practice, the person should be able to cognitively displace the old, bad dream with a new, more positive one. Sort of like incepting yourself.

Some therapists in the slightly controversial school of Jungian psychology find fault with image rehearsal therapy, however, because they see the repression of a patient’s dreams as a repression of their unconscious self. According to them, using cognitive behavior techniques to alter the outcome of your bad dreams means depriving yourself of the opportunity to work through some deep-seeded issues. I say to each their own, listen to your gut, whatever floats your boat, etc etc.

Unfortunately, prescription anti-anxiety medications, while effective in helping many people regulate their waking symptoms, are unlikely to do much for inhibiting bad dreams, said Dr. Nadorff.

Because anxiety and bad dreams are processed in different areas of the brain, patients usually need to address the two disorders separately, even if they’re symptomatically the same, Dr. Nadorff added. If you’re not not treating the sleep disorder in addition to the psychopathy, “you’re not going to see much remission and you’ll have higher rates of relapse.”

Most people won’t think to see a doctor about their bad dreams and nightmares, he added, because for many it can be an embarrassing condition. A lot of poor sleep-sufferers don’t even realize that effective clinical treatment exists, but having even one nightmare per week is enough to make an appointment with a physician or therapist.

After talking to actual doctors about my own anxiety dreams, I don’t feel good, but I do feel better. I’m open to trying both prazosin and image rehearsal therapy, but ultimately I’ll probably try to find a better way to contain my anxiety with the help of a therapist.

After all, we humans spend about one-third of our lives sleeping, and all of it shouldn’t be bad.

You’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is Motherboard’s exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.

Am I an Oracle? Because My Dreams Are Vivid AF

Sometimes you can pinpoint what “caused” your vivid dream: A week straight with no sleep before finals. A painful breakup or other stressful event. A new medication. Other times, it feels like a mystery, because vivid dreams kind of are.

These are some of the known causes:

Age, gender, and personality

We all dream, but some of us may be better at remembering our dreams than others. If you’re biologically female or under 30 years old, you may be more likely to recall your vivid dreams. One study even found that right-handed people were more likely to remember their dreams, for yet unknown reasons.

Sleep disorders

Any sleep disorder that shorts you on rest can increase your chances of experiencing vivid dreams. That includes sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and insomnia. And the sleep disorder known as REM sleep behavior disorder could lead to action-filled vivid dreams.

Stress and anxiety

One theory on dreams suggests that they reflect your real life. So, if you’re stressed or anxious when you’re awake, you might be in your sleep as well. Anxiety is linked to more frequent disturbing dreams — like daytime anxiety, but when you’re sleeping (yay…).

Certain medications

Some prescription medications, including certain antidepressants, beta blockers, drugs for Parkinson’s disease, and drugs to help you quit smoking can all cause strange dreams. Talk to your healthcare provider if you take prescription medications and experience vivid dreams on the regular.

Substance use

Substances including ketamine, marijuana, and cocaine can lead to vivid dreams, which can also be common during the recovery and withdrawal process.

While alcohol is a depressant, it prevents you from getting good sleep, as it keeps you from entering the REM stage. Withdrawal from heavy drinking can lead to weird dreams. Talk to your doctor if you feel that your drinking has become problematic.

When was your last period? Nightmares and vivid dreams can be a common early sign of pregnancy. If you already know you’re expecting, hormonal changes or the stress of growing and eventually delivering a tiny human could be to blame for your dreams.

Other health conditions

Both mental health conditions and physical illnesses can cause vivid dreams. Schizophrenia, depression, cancer, and heart disease are all linked to intense dreaming.

Nightmares and the Brain

In the late 1700s, the popular reference text, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, first published by Nathan Bailey in 1721 and reprinted through 1802, defined a nightmare as a “disease when a man in his sleep supposes he has a great weight laying upon him.” Although that definition doesn’t surface often today, nightmares are still considered to be frightening dreams that result in feelings of terror, fear, distress, or anxiety.

Despite our colloquial use of the term, for example, “my commute was a nightmare,” for an estimated 3 to 7 percent of the U.S. population, nightmares can be a real problem. Although adults can suffer from nightmares, they are more typical in children, especially those between the ages of 3 and 6. “We think that some of this may be evolutionary,” says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, an HMS assistant clinical professor of psychology at Cambridge Health Alliance and editor of “Trauma and Dreams,” published by Harvard University Press in 2001. “Children are smaller and are vulnerable to many more threats than adults. Nightmares may partially reflect this vulnerability.”

Dreams are understood to be recent autobiographical episodes that become woven with past memories to create a new memory that can be referenced later, but nightmares are simply dreams that cause a strong but unpleasant emotional response. Dreams are part of the brain’s default network—a system of interconnected regions, which includes the thalamus, medial prefrontal cortex, and posterior cingulate cortex—that remains active during comparatively quiet periods.

REM sleep is one example of a quiet period. It is a stage of sleep that is characterized by rapid eye movement, irregular heartbeat, and increased rates of respiration. REM sleep is discontinuous, chunked into four or five periods that together make up about 20 percent of our slumber. It is during these REM episodes that brain structures in the default network exert influence, and it is during REM sleep that vividly recalled dreams occur most often.

Nightmares tend to happen during the period of sleep when REM intervals lengthen; these usually occur halfway through slumber. As we prepare to awaken, memories begin to integrate and consolidate. We dream as we emerge from REM sleep. Because we tend to dream on the sleep-wake cusp, images imagined while dreaming, including the vivid, often terrifying images produced during nightmares, are remembered.

Terror-filled sleep

Nightmares are often confused with night terrors, a phenomenon more likely experienced by children than adults and usually more dramatic than a nightmare. Night terrors are not technically dreams but are instead sudden fearful reactions that occur during transitions from one sleep phase to another. They typically occur two to three hours after sleep begins, when deep non-REM sleep transitions to REM sleep. Night terrors often cause children to kick, scream, and thrash about, but, because night terrors do not occur during REM sleep, most children do not remember them.

“Night terrors are a phenomenon of the deepest parts of non-REM sleep, when the brain is less active,” says Barrett. “In a night terror, a child awakens with heart pounding. There is, however, either no content to the feeling of terror or there is a simple scary image. There is not, however, the sort of narrative story you experience with dreams, including nightmares.”

John Winkelman, AM ’83, MD ’87, PhD ’83, an HMS associate professor of psychiatry who studies sleep disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital, says night terrors are often forgotten the next day because they arise during what is known as short-wave sleep, a time when neurons in the neocortex, the brain’s center for higher mental functions, are less active.

Trauma and nightmares

Nightmares can arise for a number of reasons—stress, anxiety, irregular sleep, medications, mental health disorders—but perhaps the most studied cause is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nightmares are a common complaint among people suffering from PTSD and, in fact, are one of the criteria used for the diagnosis of the disorder. A University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study, published in 2009 in “Sleep Medicine Clinics,” found that 80 percent of people experiencing PTSD have frequent nightmares. A 1998 study that analyzed data from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study found that regular nightmares were reported by 52 percent of combat veterans but only by 3 percent of civilian participants. Not only are nightmares more common in those with PTSD, they are more frequent, sometimes occurring several times a week.

Post-traumatic nightmares often involve elements similar to the trauma itself, according to the National Center for PTSD of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. About half of the people who have nightmares after a traumatic event have nightmares that replay the trauma. Those with PTSD are much more likely to have exact replays of their trauma.

Barrett says that in post-traumatic nightmares, the region of the brain involved in fear behaviors, including the amygdala, a structure deep in the brain that works to identify potential threats, may be overactive or overly sensitive. “Post-traumatic nightmares,” she adds, “are probably not completely different from daytime flashbacks and general daytime anxiety that those experiencing the nightmares are having.”

Rewritten endings

People who are deeply affected by nightmares can be treated in a variety of ways. First, the cause of the stress, if there is one, must be determined. If a stressor is identified, effective ways to manage it should be found. For medication-induced nightmares, dosages might need to be altered or different drugs administered. People with post-traumatic or chronic nightmares can be treated with psychological therapy or with medication.

Psychological therapy for nightmares is called image rehearsal therapy, or IRT. In this form of cognitive therapy, individuals, especially those who repeatedly experience a given type of nightmare, are asked to recall and write down their nightmares, then asked to rewrite the nightmare and give it a positive ending. The individual then rehearses the rewritten version before going to sleep with the aim of displacing the unwanted content during sleep. IRT has been investigated in a number of studies, says Winkelman, and found to reduce nightmare frequency and distress.

A study published in 2003 in the “American Journal of Psychiatry” reported that the drug prazosin could help relieve nightmares in people with PTSD. The drug, traditionally used to treat hypertension, reduced the level of neurochemicals in pathways that become overstimulated in PTSD.

Scott Edwards is a freelance science writer based in Massachusetts.

Narcoleptics Can Have a Hard Time Telling Dreams From Reality

If you have a jarring dream that you lost your job, you probably wake up feeling a sense of relief—it was just a dream! You get on with your day, and you go to that job you still have. But what if you remembered your job loss not as a figment of your imagination, but as reality? Instead of feeling relief, you would wake up distressed about being unemployed.

I was tipped off to this idea of dream-reality confusion by a Facebook friend who posted that she was having trouble distinguishing between the two. Someone commented that their dreams “are so realistic they feel like memories later,” another that they’ll dream about waking up and making a sandwich and “have no way of knowing if it was dream or reality,” and another that it’s “literally what most of art is about.”

It’s normal to sometimes question whether or not you actually had that conversation, or wonder if you really ate that midnight snack. “People think they’re awake when they’re dreaming, so wake-dream confusion is universal,” says Allan Hobson, a dream researcher and professor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. “But some conditions are probably more associated with thinking that a dream was real.”

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It’s common in people with psychotic disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, for whom delusions are a fact of everyday life. “The boundaries between cognitive states are blurry for these people,” says Patrick McNamara, a neurology professor at Boston University. “Other studies have found they’re often very creative individuals—because they can cross these cognitive boundaries, they’re also more vulnerable to these confusion states.”

This big problem may relate to a small section of your brain, a fold called the paracingulate sulcus. Studies show that people with a less pronounced fold experience more hallucinations and are worse at identifying imagined and real events. But dream-reality confusion disproportionately affects a particular group of nonpsychotic people: narcoleptics.

Erin Wamsley, a psychology professor at Furman University, led a study that found an overwhelming link between dream delusions and people with type 1 narcolepsy, the type accompanied by cataplexy, a complete and sudden muscle paralysis often brought on by strong emotions. Cataplexy is a split-second phenomenon—at one moment the person may be laughing at a joke, the next they collapse onto the floor. Once they drop, they often transition into sleep.

“It’s thought that the fundamental problem in narcolepsy is that they’re moving between states of consciousness too quickly and abruptly,” Wamsley says. Eighty-three percent of narcoleptics interviewed for Wamsley’s study experienced dream-reality confusion, almost all of them at least once a month. Only 15 percent of non-diagnosed people had the same problem, and only 5 percent experienced it more than once in their lives.

For narcoleptics, the confusion wasn’t just more frequent, but also more drastic. As Wamsley reported:

patient experienced sexual dreams of being unfaithful to her husband. She believed this had actually happened and felt guilty about it until she chanced to meet the ‘lover’ from her dreams and realized they had not seen each other in years, and had not been romantically involved. Several patients dreamed that their parents, children, or pets had died, believing that this was true (one patient even made a phone call about funeral arrangements) until shocked with evidence to the contrary, when the presumed deceased suddenly reappeared.

Healthy people became “very briefly confused about a minor thing that’s of no consequence” while “the narcolepsy patients were confused for longer periods of time about more serious things that a typical person would not be confused about,” Wamsley says. It’s worth noting that normal sleepers often face a dilemma—did that thing happen, or was it a dream?—while narcoleptics in Wamsley’s study took their dreams for fact without question.

People with the sleep disorder have unusually vivid dreams and high dream recall, which may explain the error in their memories. “When you and I think about what is true and what is real, we might use perceptual vividness as a cue for that,” Wamsley says. “Did you see something on TV or was it your real experience?” Narcoleptics might remember their dreams as real events because they’re laden with IRL detail and clarity.

It’s also possible that the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for encoding new memories, functions differently for them. Depending on your state of consciousness, your hippocampus is in one of two modes: It should record new memories in “write” mode when you’re awake, and recap past memories in “playback” mode when you’re asleep.

“When an organism falls asleep, memories of a recent experience are replayed in the sleeping brain on a cellular level,” Wamsley says. But in narcolepsy, the hippocampus might stay in “write” mode during sleep, encoding dreams as real experiences as it would when you’re awake. It’s difficult to capture explanatory brain scans in a laboratory because dream-reality confusion doesn’t happen on command. The question remains why it happens, but not if it happens.

“In narcolepsy patients, this was definitely something they were really suffering from,” Wamsley says, even though it’s not an official symptom of the disorder. “But there’s very little research on this idea of confusing dreams versus reality.” Future studies may test how well narcoleptics remember the source of a memory. “I would be interested in how they perform on a test like that to see if they have more general problems distinguishing what’s real from what’s imagined, or if it’s really specific to dreams,” Wamsley says.

For now, if you’re just confused about inconsequential events, rest easy—it’s okay if you ate that late-night sandwich.

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Can You Confuse Lucid Dreams with Reality?

by Paul via Email

If everything you see, hear and feel in lucid dreams is the same as when you’re awake, how do you know you’re dreaming? Can you confuse lucid dreams with reality? What is the objective difference?

Rebecca says: Great question. This is a common misapprehension about lucid dreaming and I’m more than happy to set the record straight.

In my experience (and, I’m sure, the experience of many lucid dreamers) it is not possible to confuse lucid dreams with reality. With the power of conscious thought behind you, knowing you’re dreaming is as intuitive as knowing you’re awake.

Any deviation from that truth would be an indication of psychosis, and I see no evidence whatsoever to tar lucid dreamers with that brush!

In fact, this myth of confusing dreams with reality stems from a common misunderstanding that lucid dreams can “feel” exactly like waking life. People think that if this is so, then the two states must be indistinguishable.

While conscious dreams can FEEL real, there are other factors, such as memory and logical thought processes, which clearly distinguish these states.

To illustrate this I have mapped out three separate states of awareness – waking reality, lucid dreams and normal dreams – as I experience them:

So while lucid dreaming is a conscious experience, it’s a completely different state from being consciously awake, and it is easy to distinguish so.

How Do I Know This Isn’t Real?

Philosophical arguments aside (what if reality is a dream itself?) here’s a more specific example from last night’s lucid dream and why I couldn’t possibly confuse it with reality. There’s nothing special about this example and I believe you could apply all the same rules of logic to any other lucid dream.

In my dream, I was standing on a mountain over a forest. The desire to fly made me realize I was dreaming. I became lucid and the scenery shot into focus – suddenly I could see thousands of pine trees as vividly as real life. I got a sense of how high up I was, and now, when I looked into the distance, I could see the shiny silvery sea. If it looked so real, how could I be sure I wasn’t awake?

  1. I was standing on a mountain
  2. I was talking to an odd looking character I’d never seen before
  3. I had no memory of how I arrived on the mountain
  4. Moments earlier the scene was dream-like
  5. I said out loud “my body is asleep in bed right now”
  6. I had a memory of my real “normal” life
  7. I could fly and there was little sense of gravity
  8. I could fill the atmosphere with invisible waves to fly higher
  9. …and so on…

But, you might argue, this scene was too fantastical to confuse with reality. So what if I dreamed lucidly of a very boring and lifelike scenario…?

Lucid Dream vs Reality

My experience of being in my living room in a lucid dream is not the same as my experience of being in my living room in reality.

The lucid dream version is self-contained. I can only hear things in the immediate vicinity or whatever my consciousness is focused on.

I don’t necessarily know what day it is, nor what time of day.

The world beyond the living room doesn’t exist yet until I go there. As a result, I tend to perceive only my localized bubble of awareness and there can be little room for separate lines of thought that don’t directly manipulate my dream reality.

And of course, the big giveaway is, in a lucid dream I can do impossible things like push my own fingers through my hand (see: reality check). However, this is typically used to distinguish a dream from reality, and not the other way around.

Indeed, 95% of the population goes to sleep every night and fully accepts their dreams as reality. It’s only when they wake up they realize it wasn’t real.

In this sense, you can confuse normal dreams with reality, can you not?

But there is no concern for a sane mind to become locked in the belief that they are lucid dreaming, when in fact they are awake.

Memories are tricky. They are blurry and subjective and emotionally rooted. You can’t critically analyze them in hindsight and so it’s easy to confuse snippets of dreams with real life memories.

False Awakenings

A final word on false awakenings – aka dreaming of waking up.

These can be exceptionally realistic dreams, like the most vivid kind of lucid dream, and yet you still don’t know you’re dreaming. Because you dreamed of waking up, you naturally assume you are now awake. Confusing, much?

A false awakening has all the characteristics of a lucid dream (vivid, intense, self-awareness) without realizing you’re dreaming or taking conscious control. It is a good example of a scenario where you can confuse a dream with reality based on it’s tangible and realistic nature.

The worst case scenario in a false awakening is you get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, head out the door for work… only to wake up, back in bed again. This next awakening can be a false awakening, too. And so it can be a frustrating cycle.

The answer is to perform a reality check when you wake up. Often this transforms a false awakening into a lucid dream!

And while for some people the experience may frustrating as it plays out, I don’t believe there is really any doubt of reality when you finally do wake up for real. Objective thought will reveal whether you are dreaming or not… and the only reason a false awakening persists in the first place is because dreams lack objective thought.

This is the key to distinguishing your reality for what it is – and it’s automatically provided by a healthy human consciousness.

About the author

Rebecca Turner is a science writer, illustrator, explorer of consciousness – and founder of World of Lucid Dreaming. She is currently studying for a biology degree in Auckland and blogging at her site Science Me.

What Your Dreams Could Indicate About Your Mental Health, According To Science

Unsurprisingly, these disturbances in sleep also affect people’s dreams. A 1995 study of patients with bipolar disorder found that dreams could even predict oncoming shifts in mood. “By categorizing the dreams that preceded mood shifts, we were able to identify a particular type of dream that seemed to precede a mood shift, particularly in the direction of mania,” researchers Kathleen M. Beauchemin and Peter Hays wrote. When people were heading into manic states, they tended to dream of “death and bodily injury.” Those moving into depressive episodes didn’t show a tendency toward common dream themes, but they did show a decrease in dreaming overall.


Like people with depression, people with schizophrenia experience more frequent nightmares than is typical. According to Carr, studies have shown that the dreams of schizophrenic people “contain heightened levels of anxiety and negative affect,” as well as “hostility directed towards the dreamer.” These dreams also are more highly populated with strangers (as opposed to friends or other people known to the dreamer) than usual.

Trauma is also closely linked to nightmares. People who develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following extremely stressful, traumatic experiences are more likely than the general public to experience recurrent nightmares; people with PTSD can have nightmares as often as five days a week or more. The shape of nightmares related to PTSD is different from typical nightmares. They tend to be similar to flashbacks, in which the dreamer re-experiences parts of or even whole traumatic events. At least half of people with PTSD have these “replicative nightmares,” repeatedly reliving moments of trauma.

If disturbing or nightmarish dreams are routinely interrupting your sleep, take the time to talk to your doctor about it. Your dreams may or may not be signs of a bigger problem, but you should seek help regardless, as frequently disrupted sleep can negatively impact your health. Dream researcher and clinical psychologist Antonio Zadra pointed out in The New York Times that recurrent nightmares need to be addressed simply for their own sake, even if they’re not signs of other issues, writing, “In some cases, nightmares represent a primary sleep disorder rather than a symptom of an underlying psychological conflict.” So whether you think your disturbed sleep is the result of depression or trauma, or your nightmares seem to crop up out of the blue, it’s worth talking to an expert — doing so might just help you to get some peaceful sleep.

Stressed to the Max

Conversations with friends and colleagues these days often are peppered with concerns about stress. People are regularly talking about being stressed, recovering from stress or avoiding stress. It’s a word that has become so common that its very commonness tells us something.

It’s not our imagination. We do live in a world of increasing stress. Modern Americans may not have to deal with our ancient ancestors’ life and death stressors like cave lions and lack of central heating. We aren’t stressed as our grandparents were with two world wars and a major Depression. But we are experiencing our own sources of stress that are no less anxiety-producing.

Many families have members risking their lives fighting wars or disease in faraway places. Others have people they love fighting crime and poverty here at home. Shootings in schools and theaters and malls make us feel less safe in more places. The dive in the economy over the last seven years and the high unemployment rate have made people keenly aware that life can change for the worse in an instant. We worry because there are very real things to worry about. Further, we can’t escape it: Our technology keeps us aware of tragedies, dangers, and catastrophes on a daily basis.

Our constant use of smartphones, tablets and other devices can cause equally constant overstimulation of the brain. According to, such overstimulation increases stress and lack of satisfaction with life, causes headaches and makes it hard to focus. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg found that those who constantly use a computer or their mobile phone can develop stress, sleep disorders and depression.

Despite the fact that a happy marriage means less stress, the number of adults who have never married is at an all-time high. Over 40 percent of kids born today are born to single parents. The divorce rate is still between 40 and 50 percent. This all translates to more people dealing with the stress of looking for and maybe not finding a partner. More people either are dealing with the stress of putting up with bad partners or handling the stress of breaking up. More people are managing the stress of single parenting and more people are dealing with the stress of trying to live decently on one income.

More than half of Americans say they fight with friends and loved ones because of stress, and more than 70 percent say they experience real physical and emotional symptoms from it. How we deal with it may even affect our long-term mental health, according to a study that came out from the University of California at Irvine in 2013.

Have I stressed you out yet? Even thinking about all the ways we are stressed can be stressful! How can we find some peace?

Fortunately, we do have some say in how stressed we are. Try some of the following stressbusters to give yourself a break:

  • Take charge of information overload. Do you really need to see the same news clip a dozen times? Do you really need to check social media every hour? Probably not. Remember, in the not-so-long ago, people got one newspaper a day and were well-informed. Corral your need to know to a couple of times a day.
  • Learn to say no. Sometimes we make our own stress by taking on too much. Take a realistic look at how much you can really accomplish in a day. Prioritize requests and resist pressure to take on more than those items that made it to the top. You’ll avoid the stress of trying to do it all, and you’ll avoid the stress of disappointing people.
  • Resist any temptation to use substances to reduce your stress. Smoking, drinking, popping pills, binge eating or drinking 10 cups of coffee a day may seem like strategies to reduce stress, but they really don’t help. At best they provide some relief for a very short time. Over the long haul, they add the stress of serious health risks.
  • Get some exercise. Go for a walk or a run. Get on your bike, ski, swim. Do something, anything, that gets you moving. Exercise makes your body release endorphins, a natural destressor. Further, it’s good for your heart and your lungs to get aerobic at least a few times a week.
  • Turn off the screens. A constant pixel diet isn’t good for the brain (or your sleep, either). Declare part of the day as a screen-free zone. Give your brain cells and your thoughts a rest. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to savor the quiet. You’ll come back to screenwork refreshed and probably in a better mood.
  • Get enough sleep. According to a 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Control, 50 to 70 million Americans report sleep disorders or sleep deprivation. Only a third of Americans get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night. It may temporarily reduce your stress if you stay up all night to finish a pressing project, but if it becomes a pattern, your body isn’t getting the restorative rest it needs.
  • Take time out. Make sure you devote some time every week to doing things you truly enjoy. Too often, people promise themselves they will take up a hobby, invite friends over or just go to a movie when they finish x or get on top of y. The list of “have to’s” can become endless and the time to do something fun just never comes. Put some fun time somewhere near the top of the list and get to it now and then.
  • Hang out with positive people.People really do need people. We especially need people who think we’re special in some way and who treat us well. Time spent with positive people doing something positive is a surefire antidote to stress.

Stressed to the Max

9 Things To Do When You’re Stressed To The Max

I am the type of person that stresses out about things that are weeks in advanced and then ends up putting them off the week before they are due. I stress about anything from a ten point project that will hardly affect my grade, to the two hundred point test that is in two months. If you’re anything like me, here’s a few things I use to destress myself.

1. Get yourself a planner.

Some people may find this extra, but it is so helpful. I write anything and everything down no matter how small the task is. Yeah, using your phone may work too, but physically writing things down makes it stick in your brain more.

2. Go out and buy some essential oils.

I know this might sound lame but it really does help. Putting a little bit goes a long way and it will immediately sooth your nerves about anything going on in your life.

3. Take a freaking nap.

Sometimes, when you have thirty things to do and you don’t know where to being, a nap is the best place to start. You will (hopefully) wake up refreshed and ready to take on the tasks at hand.

4. Have a jam session.

Put on some tunes and dance the stress out of you. Jump up and down and scream the lyrics. Just have a good time to get you relaxed and take your mind off things.

5. Go to the gym

Okay, I personally don’t do this but I hear that it helps. Something about your brain releasing endorphins which relaxes you? I don’t really know (mostly because I’m not even sure where the gym is on campus).

6. Call your mom and ask how her day is.

Mom’s always seem to know what to do. They are an instant calmer and always have the right thing to say no matter what the situation is. Just ask about her day and how the family is and you’ll get an escape for at least twenty minutes.

7. Watch something on Netflix.

This one is my personal favorite. There are so many different options and once you pick something, you can just let your brain go numb for forty-five minutes.

8. Go and find a dog to pet.

Go out onto the quad or wherever you are and I bet you in a short time, a dog will walk past you. They’re so happy that it will make you happy so your day will instantly get twelve times better.

9. Cry for a bit.

Sometimes, all you can/ want to do is cry. Which is totally okay because after you do, you’ll feel a whole lot better and can be productive again. Just don’t spend too long doing it!

Well, there you have it. Nine things to do when you’re stressed to the max. Hopefully, when you have a huge paper or finals come around, these will help you out just like me.

2. One catch with the *so tired* thing? You can’t actually sleep.

Another legit reason that stress is making you wake up feeling like death: You spent a good chunk of the previous night tossing/turning/wishing your brain would just TURN OFF ALREADY. “I call it ‘wired and tired,'” explains Lucie Hemmen, Ph.D, a psychologist in Santa Cruz, CA. “Practice bumps back homework, which bumps back bedtime — and by the time you’re ready to go to sleep, you’ve pushed yourself past the point of exhaustion.” Real talk: That wired feeling may be a sign that sneaky stress hormones are pumping through your body at unhealthy levels, just to help you survive your ridic day. And when you’re experiencing that crap-night-of-sleep cycle on repeat? It’s maybe time to give your schedule some breathing room.

3. You’re legit sick, like, every other day.

When you’re in high-stress mode, your immune system can be suppressed up to 30% — making you more likely to catch every single cold or flu that’s circulating around your school. So if you’ve already taken 8 gazillion sick days this year, it could be a signal that you’re overwhelmed.

4. Wait … where did you put your phone/keys/brain-that-works?

Here’s the funny thing: A tiny jolt of stress in some situations (like getting called up to present your project in class) can make your mind do totally amazing, somewhat super-human things (like recalling a random fact about photosynthesis when your teacher asked you #KilledIt). But when every project, paper, practice, etc., etc., etc. is weighing on you to the point where you just feel stuck? Your memory goes fuzzy, your focus becomes non-existent, and your ability to actually listen gets squashed. It’s like stress hijacks your brain.

5. Your head feels all sorts of tight and/or explode-y.

OK, think about the last time someone spooked you: Your shoulders instantly scrunched up, right? And your neck muscles tightened? Well, that response to danger actually dates way back to caveman days: “It’s an animal instinct to protect the jugular,” says Ehrman. But the tricky part is, your brain can’t distinguish between an approaching tiger (HELLLLP!) and that vague I-have-a-million-tests-this-week-make-it-stop feeling. And if you’re not paying attention, you may be walking around in constant *high alert* mode. “All of that tension travels up the back of the neck, causing blood vessels to swell and press on brain tissue,” explains Ehrman. To counter-act this stress-induced stiffness and the headaches it causes, try this trick: A few times a day, you can sit up straight, take a nice deep breath, put your chin to your chest, and roll your head all the way to the left (ahhh)…then back to the right (yup, so much better!).

6. Those X-rated thoughts about your bae? Gone 🙁

Remember how you used to daydream about making out with your GF or a shirtless Harry Styles every two secs? It doesn’t happen to everyone, but some girls feel a loss of sexual-feels when they’re secretly overwhelmed by school pressure, family probs, money worries … you know, LIFE. (Don’t get too worked up. The urge will come back. Promise! Something as simple as exercise could help relieve your stress.)

7. Everything (*sniffle*) makes you emotional (*SOBSSSS.*)

Everyone has days where a random sloth video on YouTube makes you cry. But if you’re walking this Earth like a timebomb of intense feels, snapping when your bae makes a dumb joke or getting extra annoyed at a teammate, something might be out. Like those times when you chill out afterward and think, Yikes. Who WAS that person? “When you’re super-stressed, the brain stem — the primitive part of your brain — takes over, and the part that anticipates outcomes goes dark,” says Hemmen. So what does that mean?! Think of it this way: Stress shuts down your filter AND turns up your tendency to act on instinct … making your inner rage-beast bubble up in interactions where you’d normally feel fine.

8. Your tummy does weird things on the regs. #awkward

Maybe it’s gas or stomach aches or too much/not enough bathroom time that’s got you down — it doesn’t matter, because it’s THE. WORST. And it’s all stuff that could be caused by sneaky feelings of pressure or worry or dread, says le research. “We have brain cells scattered in every organ system,” explains Ehrman. “And for some people, their nervous energy goes straight to their gut.” In fact, some experts even call your gut a “mini-brain” (wut) because it holds so many neurotransmitters. They’re still figuring out exactly how stress hormones wreak their havoc, but they DO know that there’s a definite link.

9. Sometimes, it’s like you forget to breathe…

You’re sitting there in class and you get a mediocre test grade. All of a sudden you’re convinced that you’ll never get into college and that your future is over. Your emotions can spiral out so fast that you actually feel light-headed, or slightly tingly, or straight-up shaky. So what’s up with that? Sometimes — when you’re all worked up — you literally hold your breath to keep the tears down and/or the emotion in. And it’s not something you should ignore. “Research has shown that there is no such thing as a spontaneous panic attack,” says Ehrman. “Holding your breath, rapid breathing, a little dizziness — these can and will get worse over time.”

So What Can You Do About It?

First off: Make sure to get enough rest and ~breathe~ (deeply! often!). “It’s important to create space in your day for your brain and body to be in a state of calm,” Ehrman explains. “That keeps the stress from piling up.” Aside from catching all of the 😴😴😴 you can, building in five-minute brain breaks every day — where you sit and count your breaths or picture yourself in your happy place — will help, too. (Try it on the bus to an away game or instead of starting your homework at the end of class.) And if the symptoms of stress — and that sense of being SO overwhelmed — don’t let up, talk to an adult you can get real with, whether that’s your mom or a school counselor or your doc. They can help you figure out a plan to lighten your load and deal with the pressure you’re feeling.

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Stressed out to the max

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