Last Updated on February 10, 2024 by Louise Carter
Everybody has dreams at night, whether we remember doing so upon waking or otherwise.
The average person experiences up to 6 dreams over 8 hours of sleep. Sometimes, these midnight movies can feel vivid and realistic, confusing us upon waking.
Without a reliable sleep schedule, dreams will become increasingly difficult to separate from reality. Eventually, you’ll enter a more intense state of sleep with brain activity, leading to vivid dreams.
Feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression can also increase the intensity of dreams as the mind attempts to make sense of the many messages it’s processing. Lifestyle changes can also provoke vivid dreaming.
If you’re a regular drinker, alcohol suppresses REM sleep (the stage we dream). If you suddenly and unexpectedly halt alcohol consumption, your dreams will feel much more realistic.
Vivid dreams can result from hormonal changes in the body, potentially due to pregnancy or menopause, while colorful dreams that are hard to separate from reality could signify narcolepsy.
Dreaming is a critical part of the human experience and can’t be denied altogether.
Relaxing your body and mind before bed, avoiding caffeine and difficult-to-digest foods late at night, and following a reliable sleep hygiene routine can be beneficial.
Is it Common to Mistake Dreams for Reality?
Sometimes, it’s easy to tell if you’re dreaming, no matter how vivid the experience.
If you’re enjoying a dinner party with your spouse, children, and Elvis Presley, it’s a dream. Other dreams follow a more realistic, mundane narrative and can be confusing.
Struggling to tell the difference between events that unfolded in a dream and your life is called dream-reality confusion.
The journal Dreaming suggests that DRC is more common in those who sleep poorly, struggle with social boundaries, and are prone to neuroticism.
To understand whether you’re dreaming or awake, conduct the following reality checks:
- Push your finger into the palm of your other hand. You’ll feel the sensation if you’re awake.
- Check your reflection in a mirror or look at distinguishing features (tattoos, piercings, scars, or birthmarks.) These often look different from reality.
- Pinch your nose. If this doesn’t impact your breathing ability, you’re dreaming.
- Pick up a book or newspaper and read the text. Then, put it down and reread it. The text will vary if you’re dreaming.
Another technique to tell dreams from reality is to look for a timepiece, especially if you know where one should ordinarily be. According to Clocks and Sleep, just 0.74% of dreams feature clocks or watches.
Why Are My Dreams So Vivid And Realistic?
If you’ve started to endure particularly intense dreams, you may feel disconcerted upon waking. Understanding why your dreams are becoming so vivid is the first step to gaining control.
If you’ve not been sleeping well before bed, whether that’s because you pulled an all-nighter the previous evening or struggle with regular insomnia, the intensity of your sleep will increase.
This will lead to vivid and lifelike dreams, which is known as “REM rebound.” REM sleep is usually the final of four stages in a sleep cycle and is the part of rest in which we dream.
It usually takes around 90 minutes from falling asleep to enter REM sleep.
If you’re not well-rested, your body and mind will race through these sleep cycles and place you in REM sleep sooner for the good of your mental health.
During REM sleep, the brain sifts through recent events and decides what memories must be retained, removing irrelevant data. If you’re sleep-deprived, the brain will have more information to decipher.
You’re unlikely to recall your dreams if you drink heavily or habitually. As alcohol can interfere with and shorten a sleep cycle, you may rarely enter this phase after drinking.
Stopping or heavily reducing your alcohol intake overnight will affect dreams, similar to sleep deprivation. REM sleep has been repressed for some time, and your brain will be keen to enter this state.
This doesn’t mean you should immediately reach for alcohol to manage your dreams. This side effect will pass quickly if you maintain your low or zero level of intake and develop a reliable sleep schedule.
Use of Drugs
While drinking alcohol is likely to suppress dreams, leading to more vivid visions when you stop, the use of narcotics is more likely to lead to intense dreams.
Substances designed to alter the brain’s chemistry will understandably influence your subconscious.
Equally, the immediate cessation of drug use will likely promote realistic dreams. Your body is craving a substance, and you’re denying it.
Brace yourself for some intense dreams that center around drug use until the initial withdrawal passes.
Prescription medications can also trigger intense and vivid dreams, especially those that cause significant adjustments to the brain and body.
Check the information pamphlet provided with antidepressants, beta-blockers, or muscle relaxants. All may list convincing dreams or nightmares as adverse side effects.
Stress is among the triggers of lifelike dreams and nightmares.
If you fall asleep while your brain releases cortisol – the hormone associated with stress and anxiety – your mind will race and remain more active than while you are calm.
Stress, anxiety, or depression can lead to recurring dreams and nightmares, often playing on our subconscious fears. These dreams reflect relatable fears, like social embarrassment or health issues.
Some dreams, like being unexpectedly naked in public, are easily detectable as false. Others can be more distressing and difficult to recover from, like taking a test without answers.
PTSD is also linked to vivid nightmares. The human brain is prone to ‘negativity bias,’ forming stronger memories of adverse or frightening events than positive experiences.
Dreams will feel increasingly real as the subconscious recalls real-life events that impacted your life.
Hormones can play a role in dreams, especially in women. Intense dreams ahead of a monthly menstrual cycle are common, which Sleep Medicine ascribes to sudden rises of progesterone in the body.
Menopause can also lead to increasingly lifelike dreams. As the female body approaches menopause, it reduces the production of estrogen. This decreases the length of slow-wave sleep and lengthens the time spent in REM sleep, making intense dreams likelier.
Pregnancy can also increase the intensity of dreams. This will begin in the first trimester when the body is subject to sudden hormonal adjustments. The third trimester is also commonly a time of vivid dreams, where hormones are often paired with anxiety.
Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder in which the brain and body struggle to control sleeping and waking cycles. Narcolepsy affects 1 in every 2,000 people, with many undiagnosed cases.
Sleep explains how narcoleptics frequently experience intense and lifelike dreams as they fall into REM sleep almost immediately upon dozing.
It rarely takes longer than 15 minutes for somebody with narcolepsy to start dreaming.
This can create confusion between dreams and reality, especially as people with narcolepsy often have lucid dreams. This means that the individual can control the dream’s events as though they’re going about their everyday tasks.
Outside of vivid dreams, common symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- Constant fatigue during the day, no matter how much sleep you get at night and how well-rested you feel upon waking.
- Sudden onset attacks of cataplexy – a complete loss of muscle control.
- Falling asleep during periods of intense emotion, especially laughter and happiness.
- Hallucinations as the brain slips between states of wakefulness and dreaming.
While narcolepsy is rare, consult a doctor if you’re concerned about this condition.
How To Stop Vivid Dreams
Intense, lifelike dreams – and especially nightmares – can become problematic. Getting realistic dreams confused with reality can cause you problems upon waking.
Here are examples of how a vivid dream you’re convinced is real can cause problems in the morning:
- You dreamt your partner did something that offended you or hurt your feelings, changing your behavior toward them.
- In your dream, it was a lazy Sunday morning with no responsibilities. However, it’s Tuesday, and you need to get to work.
- Based on a dream, you’re adamant that you completed an important task that you are yet to finish.
- You had an intense nightmare and are frozen to the spot, worried that you’re unsafe.
Seize control over intensely realistic dreams and take steps to prevent such an outcome. Ways to reduce the intensity of your dreams include the following:
- Eat several hours before bed so you have finished digesting before sleep, and avoid trigger foods associated with nightmares.
- Don’t consume caffeine within 6 hours of sleep so your brain can unwind.
- Rid your mind of anxious thoughts by writing a journal or practicing meditation.
Sleep hygiene is also at the heart of reducing the impact of your dreams.
Go to bed and wake up at similar times each night and day, avoid screens in the final hour of your waking day, and maintain a body temperature that encourages restful sleep.
Psychosomatic Medicine explains how dreaming is essential to health. However, discuss the concern with a sleep specialist if your dreams are causing you distress and impacting your ability to sleep.
Vivid, profoundly realistic dreams can be fun but can lead to problematic misunderstandings and disturbed rest. Focus on a peaceful night of sleep over subconscious entertainment.