According to the National Sleep Foundation, everyone spends about two hours dreaming each night. Many people do not believe so, and this is because we barely remember most of our dreams, that is, unless they are vivid.
Vivid dreams or dreams that feel so real and life-like can be both exciting and disturbing. They are a big cause of concern for many doctors and researchers since their purpose and occurrences aren’t fully understood.
We know that dreams feel so real only under a handful of circumstances: waking up from REM sleep (between 3 am – 4 am), sleep deprivation, hormone changes, stressful circumstances and pressure, and mental illness.
Read on to get to know why your dreams feel so real of late. Get to learn of the various sleep cycles and in which stages of sleep you are often bound to have real-life-like dreams.
What Is It Called When A Dream Feels So Real?
Intense dreams that feel like real-life and remain clear and detailed when you wake up are called vivid dreams. You may also experience this intense real-life feeling if you are experiencing a lucid dream – a dream in which you can control the narrative and what is happening.
A vivid dream can include sensory information such as colors, simulated pain, touch, smells, and more, but it still remains a passive experience where the dreamer is merely an observer.
Lucid dreaming involves becoming consciously aware that you are in a dream while still remaining asleep. Those who have had extensive experience with lucid dreaming can exercise full control over the content of their dreams.
You have all the control, or at least a big portion of it, in a lucid dream. If you do not like anything in the dream then you can just wish it away and then poof, it is gone. Context does not matter in lucid dreams, which makes many scientists believe that it is not highly attached to the mental psyche of the dreamer.
If you have more vivid dreams than lucid dreams then you are more likely to be stressed, mentally ill and overwhelmed when compared to someone who has more lucid dreams than vivid ones.
The differentiating factor between these two real-life-like dreams is that vivid dreams are never in the control of the dreamer and you can only learn how to control your lucid dreams, not the vivid dreams. It is also important to note that while lucid dreams can become vivid, vivid dreams are never lucid.
To better understand why we have vivid real-life-like dreams, we first have to know the various sleep cycles.
What Happens In Your Sleep
The process of sleep involves several stages that contribute to a restful state while also facilitating the processing of daily experiences through dreams and epiphanies. Despite common misconceptions, sleep is not a uniform process.
The sleep cycle typically lasts between 7 to 9 hours and comprises four distinct stages, namely Wake to sleep, light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. These stages vary in duration and may be impacted by sleep disruptions.
REM sleep is the stage in which most active sleep occurs, including dreaming, memory consolidation, and emotional processing.
During this stage, eye movements are rapid, which explains the name. Unlike non-REM cycles, brain activity during REM sleep is more similar to wakefulness, and muscle tone is completely lost.
The first stage of the sleep cycle is Wake to sleep/N1, which lasts between 1 to 7 minutes. During this phase, the brain slows down, and the body becomes drowsy, but it is still possible to move muscles. Breathing may become irregular, and it is the easiest stage to wake up from.
The subsequent stage is Light Sleep/N2, which lasts between 10 to 25 minutes. In this stage, body temperature and heart rate decrease, and brain activity slows down further. It is more difficult to wake up from this stage, and around half of the sleep time is spent in this stage.
The third stage of the sleep cycle is Deep Sleep/N3, which lasts between 20 to 40 minutes. It is the most challenging stage to wake up from, and it provides several restorative benefits, such as improved immune system efficiency, body recovery, and better creative thinking.
Finally, REM sleep, which occurs about 10 to 60 minutes after falling asleep, is characterized by increased brain activity, temporary muscle paralysis, and rapid eye movements under the lids. Dreams usually occur during this stage, although they can occur during other stages as well.
REM sleep accounts for about 25% of sleep and is more susceptible to disturbances than other stages, especially during the early morning hours. However, the most interesting fact about REM sleep, in this case, is that this when you are more likely to remember your dreams if you wake up.
If you ever wonder why your dreams feel so real or long, then know that the answers lie in the REM sleep cycle.
Top 8 Reasons Why Your Dreams Feel So Real
1. Waking Up from REM Sleep
REM sleep is differentiated from the other sleep cycles by its higher levels of brain activity. This contributes to more intense and complex dreams since your brain can bring to life real-life scenarios while still keeping you asleep.
Higher brain activity during this stage also means that if you wake up, then your brain will be better adjusted to remembering what was happening as compared to the other sleep cycles.
It is believed that we do not experience our dreams while we are asleep. The brain does not know it’s dreaming until you wake up.
Only when you are awake can the brain connect with the brain activity that was happening during the night and be able to recall it. The closer to REM sleep the dream is, the easier it is to remember, hence the vivid dreams.
As you can tell, there is no serious concern that can come from having vivid dreams, be it nightmares or regular dreams. Vivid dreams are just a consequence of you being in REM sleep.
However, it is important to note that the frequency of vivid dreams can be accelerated due to other underlying conditions like the ones below.
2. Sleep Deprivation
A lack of sleep is associated with various adverse effects, ranging from severe health issues like high blood pressure, stroke, and depression to daytime sleepiness and dizziness.
The longer your body remains sleep deprived, the more it struggles to compensate, leading to organ strain and an increase in dream activity.
When you experience a lack of sleep, your REM sleep becomes more intense. As a result, you may feel a stronger urge to sleep, leading to increased brain activity during REM sleep and more vivid, intense dreams.
3. Sleeping Disorders like Sleep Apnea and Insomnia
Sleep deprivation can also be caused by underlying sleep disorders.
Sleep disorders affect how your brain processes dreams; they also affect your quality of sleep. These disorders include sleep apnea, hypersomnia, parasomnia, narcolepsy, and restless legs syndrome.
A common symptom among them is sleep deprivation and that patients feel sleepy and tired throughout the day.
4. Effects of Using Some Medication
The use of medication can affect both the quality and duration of sleep in some individuals with sleep disorders.
Certain chemicals present in prescribed or over-the-counter medications can disrupt the natural sleep patterns of the brain, leading to alterations in the amount and type of dreaming experienced during REM sleep.
To ensure that medication does not interfere with your sleep, it is essential to consult with your healthcare provider or pharmacist.
Some types of medication that have been linked to sleep disturbances include alpha-blockers for high blood pressure, beta-blockers for chest pain, and certain anti-depressants that may cause insomnia.
Additionally, some medications can result in emotional side effects such as anxiety, agitation, and irritability. These emotional fluctuations can further affect REM sleep and cause vivid dreams that may feel very real.
5. Using Drugs like Marijuana
According to Dr. Hans Hamburger, a neurologist and sleep expert, marijuana smokers often experience vivid dreams due to the suppression of REM sleep, and these dreams may return more intensely when the individual stops smoking.
The same is true for cocaine, nicotine, and alcohol. Regular alcohol consumption, particularly before bed, can lead to irregular REM cycles that disrupt dreams, and alcohol abusers often experience vivid nightmares that may become more intense when they stop drinking as their brains struggle to readjust to normal sleep patterns and cognitive functions.
6. Stress and Anxiety
When we get sufficient REM sleep, cortisol, the stress hormone, usually decreases. This helps with emotional regulation and a better dreaming experience.
However, heightened stress levels can amplify the influence of cortisol on our emotions during REM sleep. As a result, it may become challenging to fall asleep, causing frequent awakenings at night or an increase in intense dreams as the brain attempts to regulate emotions.
7. Poor Mental Health
A wide range of mental illnesses and disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia, can contribute to poor mental health, which is often characterized by emotional turmoil and instability.
During REM sleep, the brain attempts to process emotional stimuli, which can lead to recurring dreams. In particular, when a person experiences numerous stressful events, these dreams may become increasingly vivid.
8. Hormonal Fluctuations, E.g. Pregnancy
Pregnant women commonly experience vivid dreams. Hormonal fluctuations can trigger various emotions and feelings of anxiety, which are both natural and widespread.
Additionally, vivid dreams are prevalent during the initial stages of pregnancy, though they may occur at any point throughout the gestational period.
Tips & Tricks To Use When You Have Vivid Dreams
Now that you know how vivid dreams come about, how about we talk of a few things you can do to prevent them or have them as frequently as you would like:
1. Keep A Dream Journal
A dream journal helps you take note of all the necessary details that pertain to your dreams so that you can better interpret their meanings and insights. It is also a good way to track your dream cycles and how often you dream of the same things.
2. Interpret the Dreams by Paying Attention to Symbolism
Symbolisms are the various connections, whether emotional or thematic, that draw a pattern in your dreams. It is important to learn of the symbolism since they reveal a growing pattern and trend in your waking life, this is more so the case if you are having vision-like dreams or nightmares.
3. Take Advantage of Lucid Dreaming
If you experience a lucid dream, make the most of it, as it can provide insight into the reason behind your thoughts. Taking control of your actions in the dream can also allow you to address challenges that you might not typically encounter in your waking life.
4. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene ranges from having a regular sleep schedule to avoiding drugs and alcohol before sleep, creating a conducive sleeping environment, and sleeping for the recommended number of hours (six to eight).
Consider using melatonin supplements if you want to reduce or increase the frequent vivid dreams. A few studies have shown that taking melatonin supplements can help reduce nightmares and real-life-like dreams but in a few circumstances the opposite can be true.
Consult your doctor to know what supplements are right for you.
- Keep Waking Up At 3am?
- What Your Dreams Are Telling You?
- Why Am I Dreaming So Much All of a Sudden?
- Psychology Of Crying In Your Sleep: Is It Normal?
Experiencing vivid real-life-like dreams is a common occurrence as you can tell, and it is rarely a cause for concern. You will stop having such dreams if you address several lifestyle changes, improve your sleep hygiene, and address stressful or challenging events.
While many causes of this problem are not serious, it is advisable to seek medical assistance to rule out any underlying medical conditions. This is especially crucial for older adults who are more prone to significant factors such as menopause and mental illness.