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What Causes Vivid Dreams?

Sleep accounts for nearly one-third of a person’s life, and is a crucial part of maintaining a healthy mind, body, and life. Many things occur during sleep, including memory formation, sorting, and storage, a “master reset” of the brain — and dreaming.

Studies show the average adult recalls their dreams once or twice weekly, while others may not remember dreams at all. Without quality sleep, a person may experience new or worsening signs of mental health disorders, excessive daytime sleepiness, and other impairments that can alter one’s ability to continue daily life with minimal support.

Stages of Sleep

Throughout the night, the average person goes through four to six cycles of sleep. Each sleep cycle begins with non rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, followed by a brief period of rapid eye movement sleep (REM). Dreams can occur during both NREM sleep and REM sleep; however, you are more likely to experience vivid dreams that are more intense during rapid eye movement sleep.

Sleep cycles of NREM sleep last approximately 90 minutes, and are followed closely by short bursts of rapid eye movement sleep. REM sleep cycles grow shorter and shorter as morning approaches, and dreams that occur near morning are often most remembered by sleepers.

  • Falling asleep is the first stage of the sleep cycle.It is the shortest of the three non-REM sleep stages, and is accompanied by relaxed muscles, slowed breathing, and a decreasing heart rate.
  • Light sleep is the second stage of sleep.It is accompanied by even slower breathing, and a slower heart rate, ceased eye movements, and a decrease in body temperature. Stage N2 sleep lasts approximately 25 minutes.
  • Slow wave sleep, the third stage of NREM sleep, is the deepest stage of sleep. One’s heartbeat and breathing are at the lowest rate, and the body is completely relaxed. During this stage of sleep, tissue repair, cell regeneration, and immune system strengthening occur.
  • REM sleep, the final stage of a sleep cycle, is the primary stage where vivid dreams occur. During rapid eye movement sleep, the breathing and pulse increase, and brain activity increases, but your limbs experience temporary paralysis to keep you from enacting dreams.

What are Vivid Dreams?

Millions of Americans dream. Dreams may occur at any time of night, but most dreams occur during nighttime REM cycles, when specific areas of the brain become more active and aware.

During a regular sleep cycle, the thalamus lights up, enabling the brain to collect, process, and store information collected throughout the day in the cerebral cortex. During REM sleep, vivid dreaming can occur, and may leave you to question if your dream was part of real life or not.

Night dreaming often produces dreams that are not easily remembered; however, more vivid dreams can impact one’s mental health, make falling asleep difficult, and can make daily tasks difficult to accomplish. Realistic dreams are thought to provide insight into one’s mental and emotional well-being, but that has not been proven.

What are the Types of Vivid Dreams?

Vivid dreams are categorized into different types and include:

Lucid Dreams

Lucid dreams are common, with nearly half of the population experiencing at least one lucid dream in their lifetime. During lucid dreaming, the sleeper is aware that they are dreaming, and may be linked with frequent waking during REM sleep cycles. Sleepers believe they can influence if lucid dreams will have negative or positive dream content.

Fever Dreams

During an illness, specifically one accompanied by a high fever, dreams may become bizarre, more intense, and have a negative feel. The increase in body temperature disrupts a regular sleep cycle, leading to fewer dreams recalled.


Intense dreams that are associated with life-and-death scenarios, or content leading to safety concerns, are referred to as nightmares. A nightmare is generally accompanied by intense, bizarre, vivid, or scary content that may result in anxiety, panic attacks, high blood pressure, or an increased heart rate. Traumatic events, stress and anxiety, medications, and mental health conditions can trigger vivid dreams and chronic nightmares.

Dream Enactment

During REM sleep, the muscles throughout your limbs experience temporary paralysis to help keep you and others around you safe during vivid dreams. When dream enactment occurs, paralysis is suspended, allowing you to act out activities experienced while dreaming (hence sleepwalking, hitting, etc).

What Causes Vivid Dreams?

Dreams can occur at any part of one’s sleep cycle, but vivid dreams are more likely to occur during or after REM sleep, as this stage of sleep increases your chances of remembering content. Many factors can contribute to lucid dreams including:

Fragmented Sleep

Vivid dreams occur during rapid eye movement sleep, and are most often remembered when you wake during REM sleep. When you experience fragmented sleep, you experience frequent waking, increasing your chances of remembering vivid dreams.

Sleep Deprivation

Studies show that one night of deprived sleep leads to increased development of intense dreams the following night. Sleep deprivation can lead to sleep disturbances that worsen other mental health conditions.

Stress and Anxiety

Increased stress and anxiety throughout the day can make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep by nightfall, which may increase the risk of experiencing vivid dreams.

Sleep Disorders

REM sleep behavior disorders, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and other sleep disorders have been linked to disorder exacerbation, and poor sleep quality. With frequent waking and disrupted sleep, vivid dreams become more likely. People with post traumatic stress disorder may also experience vivid dreams.


Certain medications, like anti-anxiety SSRIs or beta-blockers, used to treat anxiety or high blood pressure,  have been linked to increased dream vividness, and an increased frequency of nightmares, according to peer-reviewed studies. In addition, anecdotal accounts of recreational drug use and substance abuse suggest they can contribute to vivid dreams.


Pregnant women, predominantly those in their third trimester of pregnancy, experience hormonal changes and imbalances that lead to excessive daytime sleepiness and sleep disturbances that cause worsened dreams — often with more negative content.

Are Vivid Dreams a Cause for Concern?

Vivid dreams alone are not generally a cause for concern, or a reason to seek care from a healthcare provider. The meaning of vivid dreams is not fully understood by many sleep professionals, but some think vivid dreaming is a part of memory formation, while others see it as superstitious behavior.

If you are concerned about your sleep, having recurring dreams that cause stress and anxiety, or believe your sleep problems are linked to a deeper issue, contact your healthcare provider for a consultation. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder that is triggering your vivid dreams, seek help from a sleep specialist.

Can I Induce Vivid Dreams While Sleeping?

While most vivid dreams occur during rapid eye movement sleep, there are a few things you can do to promote vivid dreaming throughout the night.

  • Keep a dream journal to immediately begin writing upon waking. Writing down what you remember from dreaming will help you to recall vivid dreams after you have woken up.
  • Avoid alcohol. Consuming alcohol suppresses REM sleep stages, making you less likely to enter into rapid eye movement sleep.

Can You Stop Vivid Dreams?

One of the keys to stopping or avoiding vivid dreams is to maintain a healthy and regular sleep schedule.

Other things that can help to limit vivid dreaming include:

  • Have good sleep hygiene that includes a regular bedtime and consistent sleep schedule. Facilitate a healthy sleep environment without blue light (television, tablet, phone), cool temperatures, and dim lights if needed in the bedroom.
  • Facilitate positivity and relaxation throughout the day. You can do this by participating in stress-relieving exercises, like walking, yoga, and meditation.
  • Perform physical activity for at least 20 minutes, just not right before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Avoid these substances especially before bed.

How are Vivid Dreams Treated?

Vivid bad dreams can be emotionally draining, especially for those who experience frequent nightmares, but they are often temporary and resolve on their own. If vivid dreams are causing physical, emotional, or mental problems, it may be time to seek professional care.

The most common treatment for vivid dreams is to treat the underlying condition causing bad dreams. For example, your primary provider will use blood pressure medications to treat hypertension, while a mental healthcare provider will use anti-anxiety medication to treat anxiety, panic, and excess worry.

Other treatments for vivid dreams include maintaining a healthy lifestyle, getting adequate quality and quantity of sleep, taking care of your mental health, avoiding emotional trauma that can trigger vivid dreams, and learning to cope with stress and anxiety in healthy ways.

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Elizabeth Magill

Elizabeth Magill is a professional freelance writer and editor who holds an MBA. Liz specializes in writing about health news, medical conditions, healthy living, small business, career and work, personal finance, and green-living, including news and trending topics in these specialties. Her clients include Healthline, The Motley Fool, GoBanking Rates,, Big Interview, HealthNews, Intuit Small Business Blog, Intuit Health, American News Report,, IFX Medical, and many others. She’s also a published eBook author and ghost writer for various clients in the health, medical, career, small business, and personal finance niches.