What Causes Dreams And Nightmares?

What Causes Dreams And Nightmares?

Key Takeaways

  • Vivid dreams and nightmares tend to occur more often during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep.
  • Medication-induced vivid dreams and nightmares often result from alterations in brain chemicals, which can be troubling but generally not harmful to your well-being.
  • When nightmares become frequent and disrupt your daily life, mood, or sleep patterns, it could be a sign of a parasomnia sleep disorder known as nightmare disorder.
  • Certain medications, such as antidepressants and beta blockers, have been known to induce vivid dreams and nightmares.
  • What causes dreams and nightmares remains a mystery, but it is thought to be related to the brain’s emotional processing.

Sometimes, the way we dream isn’t always because of a good reason. Things like certain medicines, health issues, disorders, and stress can affect the dreams we have. Some of these dreams can be pretty scary and wake us up suddenly. We call those “nightmares.” There are also dreams that feel so real that they make it tough to know if you’re awake or still sleeping. We call those “vivid dreams.”

So, what causes dreams and nightmares to happen?

Children often have nightmares, especially between 3 and 6 years old, but they can happen to anyone at any age. It seems that during the teenage and young adult phases of life, nightmares occur more frequently in girls compared to boys.

Between half to three-quarters of adults say they’ve had at least one nightmare in the past year. Furthermore, research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that as many as 29% of adults experience nightmares on a weekly basis. When it comes to recurring nightmares, a 2018 study found that approximately 4% of adults are affected by them.

During times when our lives are changing a lot or when things are tough, we might have dreams that are super clear and feel really helpful. Interestingly, nearly 79.5% of people find these vivid dreams useful sometimes.

A 2023 study examining the connection between vivid dreams and the amount of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep found that participants who had a high percentage of REM sleep, specifically exceeding 25%, were over twice as likely to report having vivid dreams compared to participants who had a lower percentage of REM sleep.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine defines nightmares as “intensely vivid and distressing dreams, usually characterized by realistic scenarios that involve threats to one’s survival or security. These dreams often provoke strong emotions such as anxiety, fear, or terror.”

Now, let’s dig deeper into what causes dreams and nightmares to occur. What’s the reason behind dreams and nightmares?

What Are Nightmares?

Nightmares are dreams that can be distressing, frightening, strange, or otherwise unsettling. When these nightmares start causing problems, doctors call it “nightmare disorder.” This is a kind of sleep issue called “parasomnia,” which involves strange experiences while you’re falling asleep, sleeping, or waking up. Most nightmares occur during a specific stage of sleep called REM sleep.

When you wake up after a nightmare, it’s common to remember it very clearly, as if it just occurred. You might also feel changes in your body, such as your heart beating faster or sweating.


What Are Vivid Dreams?

Psychologist and dream expert Athena Laz suggests that there’s no specific psychological definition for what makes a dream vivid. However, she does mention that “vivid dreams are usually intense, realistic, and often come with strong emotions.”

According to a study conducted by Casper, last year, more than 72% of people reported that their dreams were getting more vivid.

Vivid dream

What Causes Dreams And Nightmares?

So, what exactly defines vivid dreams and nightmares? What causes dreams and nightmares to happen? Well, there’s no definitive answer as to why some dreams are more vivid while others are not. Nightmares are usually considered vivid dreams, but it’s important to note that not all vivid dreams are nightmares.! However, experts often find a connection between vivid dreams and nightmares.

Several factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing intense dreams and nightmares. Here are a few reasons why you might be having more vivid dreams and nightmares than usual:


Nightmares tend to happen more when you’re going through tough times or big changes in your life. Studies show that what you dream about can reflect the things that stress you out during the day. Oddly enough, some experts think nightmares might actually help reduce stress. Feeling anxious can also make nightmares more likely.


After going through a traumatic event like an accident, injury, physical or sexual abuse, or any other deeply distressing experience, nightmares become quite common. They’re especially frequent in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with about 72% of them experiencing nightmares. For many people with PTSD, nightmares make them relive painful moments, often making them feel helpless.

Mental Health Conditions:

People with mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia often report nightmares at higher rates.

Sleep Deprivation:

When your sleep patterns become irregular due to changes in your daily routine or when you don’t get enough sleep, it can increase the likelihood of experiencing nightmares.

Certain sleep conditions like insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, sleep-related movement disorders, and narcolepsy are linked to a higher likelihood of having nightmares. For example, about 17% of people with chronic insomnia and 33% of those with narcolepsy report having nightmares.


The use of certain drugs, whether they are illegal or prescribed, that affect the nervous system can elevate the risk of having nightmares.

Discontinuation of Medications:

Some medications, such as antidepressants, narcotics, and barbiturates, have been associated with a greater chance of experiencing nightmares. When you stop or abruptly reduce these medications, it can also lead to nightmares.

When it comes to antidepressants, making changes like discontinuing their use, reducing the dosage, or switching to another medication can significantly impact your dreams. This effect is particularly noticeable if you stop taking the medication suddenly without a gradual tapering-off process, according to experts.

This can occur because antidepressants function by changing the levels of neurotransmitters, which are like messengers in your brain. When you stop taking these medications, it can impact how these messengers work, potentially leading to unusual or unsettling dreams, as explained by experts from Harvard Health.

Personal History of Nightmares:

In adults, having a history of recurring nightmares during childhood and adolescence is a risk factor for developing nightmare disorder.

Eating Before Bed:

Having a meal too close to bedtime may heighten the likelihood of having dreams and nightmares. According to a study, 9.5% of people claimed that eating late appeared to impact the themes of their dreams. It remains uncertain whether the meal itself is a direct trigger for vivid dreams and nightmares. or if there are other factors at play.

Melatonin Supplement:

Using a melatonin supplement might make it easier for you to drift off to sleep. Many people opt for melatonin as a sleep aid without a prescription. These supplements have been observed to enhance REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, creating more opportunities for exceptionally vivid dreams or nightmares every night.

In a study involving college students, especially women, those who consumed 6 mg of melatonin before bedtime were more inclined to describe their dreams as strange compared to those who had a placebo pill.

Spicy Food:

The food you eat can have surprising effects on your journey into dreams. It’s not just about having a restless night; some foods can turn your dreams into a wild adventure.

Many people share stories of experiencing unusually vivid dreams after indulging in spicy or heavy meals. Some experts suggest that the heat from spicy foods can raise your body temperature, potentially disrupting your sleep.

Stanford University sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot suggested to the Wall Street Journal that if you’re slightly more awake due to the spicy food, you might be more likely to recall your dreams with greater clarity.

Scary Books And Movies:

Some individuals find that reading frightening books or watching scary movies, especially right before going to sleep, can lead to nightmares. According to a survey in the United Kingdom that involved 2,000 adults, more than 60% of the participants mentioned that they were more prone to having unpleasant dreams after watching scary shows.


Alcohol is indeed a significant factor contributing to nightmares. Enjoying a night out with friends and having cocktails and other alcoholic drinks can result in nightmares. Alcohol relaxes the upper airway, and when you consume it before going to sleep, your airway becomes even more relaxed.

This is one of the main reasons experts believe alcohol is a major cause of nightmares. The mix of breathing problems and dreaming makes it more likely for you to have a scary, vivid, or bad dream.


Using cannabis can affect how you remember, experience, and feel in your dreams, making them more vivid. A study conducted by Schonhard and Wunderli in 2020 suggests that cannabis increases vivid dreams by influencing the way we sleep.

Physical Illness:

It’s widely recognized that there’s a strong connection between sleep and your body’s defense against illness. While you’re asleep, your immune system is hard at work repairing tissues and fighting off infections. To maintain good health, you require consistent, high-quality sleep.

Numerous studies indicate that individuals with certain medical conditions are more susceptible to experiencing nightmares and vivid dreams.

In one study, scientists examined 1,233 individuals who had cardiovascular (CV) disease. They discovered that 19% of them experienced depression, 17% had anxiety, and 15% reported having at least one nightmare each month. People dealing with cancer also tend to experience more nightmares and difficulties with sleep due to the distress caused by their illness.


Pregnancy can bring about physical and hormonal changes that disrupt sleep patterns and lead to insomnia. A research study discovered that women in their third trimester of pregnancy often encountered more distressing dream content compared to women who were not pregnant. These vivid dreams and nightmares during pregnancy may be attributed to hormonal shifts and the stress associated with the process of nurturing and delivering a baby.

Survey On Significance of Vivid Dreams & Nightmares

We pooled over 1500 medical college people of which we got 506 responses, people aged from their 20s to their late 50s to investigate the prevalence of vivid dreams and nightmares and whether they provide valuable insights into their lives.

Have you gained valuable insights from these dreams?

Have you gained valuable insights from these dreams

A majority of respondents (60.8%) reported that their dreams and nightmares have provided them with significant insights into their lives. This suggests that a substantial portion of the surveyed population believes that their dreams hold meaning or relevance to their waking lives.

Are these dreams typically described as nightmares or vivid dreams?

Are these dreams typically described as nightmares or vivid dreams

A significant portion of the surveyed individuals experience both vivid dreams (70.8%) and nightmares (68.2%). This indicates that these types of dreams are relatively common among the respondents.

Do these dreams tend to occur after significant life events?

Do these dreams tend to occur after significant life events

Many respondents linked the occurrence of these dreams to specific life events. Around 62% reported experiencing such dreams after drastic life changes, 40.8% after trauma, 55% after losing loved ones, and 33.7% after health conditions.

12% of respondents indicated uncertainty about when their dreams occur, indicating that some may not be able to identify specific triggers for their dreams. These findings suggest that emotional and life-changing events can be significant triggers for vivid dreams and nightmares.

Have you ever encountered dead loved ones during times of stress, trauma, or significant life changes?

Have you ever encountered dead loved ones during times of stress, trauma, or significant life changes

A significant majority of respondents (73%) claimed to have met with their dead loved ones in times of stress, trauma, or significant life changes. This finding suggests that dreams may aid in processing grief and complex emotions. Students can view this as a natural part of their emotional journey and utilize it as a potential healing mechanism in their personal lives.

What are your pre-sleep food habits?

What are your pre-sleep food habits

The diverse pre-sleep food habits, including consuming spicy food (55%) and eating close to bedtime (25.7%), highlight the importance of sleep hygiene in students’ lives. Improved sleep quality can lead to better cognitive function, mood, and overall well-being. Students can consider adjusting their food habits to enhance their own sleep quality and overall health.

In conclusion, the survey data indicates that vivid dreams and nightmares are prevalent experiences among individuals. Many respondents believe that their dreams offer significant insights into their lives, and certain life events, such as drastic changes, trauma, and loss, are associated with the occurrence of vivid dreams.

Additionally, meeting with dead loved ones during dream states is relatively common. The diversity in pre-sleep eating habits among respondents suggests that diet may also play a role in dream experiences.

Vivid Dreams And Nightmares Challenge Your Everyday Life

Vivid dreams and nightmares can have a notable impact on your daily life, influencing various aspects such as your memory, sleep patterns, and overall fatigue levels. Here’s how these kinds of dreams and nightmares can affect your daily life.

  1. Memory: Vivid dreams and nightmares can lead to confusion between dreams and reality, impacting your ability to remember things.
  2. Sleep Schedule: Vivid dreams and nightmares can disrupt your sleep, leading to poor sleep quality and difficulty concentrating during the day.
  3. Fatigue: Vivid dreams and nightmares can be mentally and physically exhausting, leaving you feeling drained and making it challenging to focus on daily tasks.
  4. Nighttime Routine: Intense dreams can wake you up during the night, disrupting your sleep and making it difficult to establish a consistent nighttime routine.

Tips To Prevent Dreams And Nightmares

Figuring out the cause of dreams and nightmares is a crucial step in making them happen less often. Although you can’t completely stop having bad dreams once in a while. There are a number of ways you can do to have fewer vivid dreams and nightmares regularly:

Decreasing stress through activities like regular exercise, pursuing hobbies, and relaxation techniques can be effective in reducing nightmares.

Rather than suppressing troubling thoughts or dreams, finding ways to express them, such as talking to a friend or engaging in creative activities, can help process experiences.

Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, including going to bed at the same time every day, to improve sleep quality.

Seek support if you experience nightmares related to trauma or have been diagnosed with PTSD. Treatment can help reduce symptoms and nightmares.

Avoid large meals close to bedtime, as it may interfere with sleep.

Limit screen time at least an hour before sleep to avoid overstimulation, especially with negative or distressing content.

Consider using a white noise machine or app to create a soothing background noise that can help you sleep better.

If you have recurring nightmares, try “nightmare re-scripting” by imagining a more positive outcome for the dream while awake.

For those interested, lucid dreaming can be a way to gain more control over dreams and potentially reduce their intensity. This involves becoming more self-aware in waking life to carry that awareness into dreams.

What Causes Dreams And Nightmares? A Summary

When vivid and unsettling dreams happen often, it’s natural to wonder what causes dreams and nightmares to occur. Making changes to your sleep habits can be beneficial. This includes sticking to a regular bedtime routine, avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the evening, and putting away your phone.

It’s also important to find out what’s making you stressed or anxious and try to fix it. You can try relaxing activities like mindfulness and meditation before bedtime.

If disturbing dreams trouble you, you can try something called imagery rehearsal therapy. This approach is often used to treat nightmares related to post-traumatic stress disorder. It is like changing the story of your dream. You tell the story of your bad dream and make it end in a nice way. This can make your bad dreams less scary.

Of course, if distressing dreams are affecting your daily life negatively, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or therapist. They can help you figure out how to have better dreams.

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