Don’t we all love a good night’s sleep? The peaceful kind that has very real, happy dreams. But the sad reality is that only about 20% of our dreams are filled with happiness or excitement and a whopping 65% are filled with sadness, apprehension, or anger. That works up to a high probability of having weird or disturbing dreams.
But is there more to our dreams? Can we control what we dream or at least set the tone? Scientific studies probing these questions have discovered some very interesting facts about dream mechanisms.
Reasons Why You May Be Having Weird Dreams
Rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep is deep, restful sleep. Most of your dreaming happens during REM sleep.
Anything that intensifies REM sleep or disturbs it can cause elaborate, emotional, and overall dramatic dreams.1 They’re two opposing ends of a spectrum. This is in contrast to less vivid, less emotion-laden dreams during non-REM sleep.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why your dreams may have turned outlandish or disturbing.
1. You Took A Sleeping Pill Before Tucking In
A number of OTC sleeping pills contain melatonin, the sleep hormone. There seems to be a connection between melatonin and dream bizarreness and vividity.2
Studies have indicated that higher levels of melatonin can promote REM stages of sleep where dreams are most likely to occur. Around 5 mg of melatonin intake 15 minutes before sleeping can turn your dreams into an award-winning 3-D movie.
This just means that if you’ve been popping sleeping pills before bedtime, you’re prepping your body for some intense levels of dreaming. This effect is more amplified in women than men.
2. You Stopped Taking Your Antidepressants
Antidepressants prescribed for clinical depression cause changes in the levels of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain. This reflects on the nerve connections your brain makes even while sleeping. Suddenly going off your antidepressants can trigger unusual dreams or nightmares.3
The better way to wean yourself from these medications is to lower your dosage gradually and completely before starting other medications. Once your body adapts to the change, your sleep-disturbing dreams will hopefully stop.
3. You Filled Up On Dairy Or Spicy Foods
As odd as it may be to think what you eat affects the nature of your dreams, this has been a topic of debate since the early 1900s. Based on a comic of the time, the British Cheese Board actually conducted a survey to see if there was any truth to these bizarre claims. A similar but more elaborate survey was conducted recently as well.4
Participants of this recent survey believed that dairy foods (like milk, cheese, and ice-creams) and spicy foods had something to do with their disturbing dreams at night. There are two ways to look at these claims:
- Just as food affects your mood and cognition, there is the possibility that it can affect your dreams as well.
- Certain foods cause digestive problems like acid reflux that can result in disturbed sleep. Disturbed sleep could lead to disturbing dreams. Eating patterns like binge-eating or eating late at night can have this effect as well.
4. You Are Shouldering Too Much Stress
Emotions that we feel through the day, including the ones we bottle up, can find their release in our dreams – well, that’s one theory on dreams. So, depending on what happens during your day, your dreams will be tailored.5 If you’ve been overthinking a comment passed by a colleague or you’re worried about a sick family member, you will have frightening dreams.
Long story short, those suffering from stress or anxiety are more likely to have frightening dreams.
5. You Watched A Disturbing Movie Before Bedtime
Horror movies stand uncontested when it comes to media responsible for causing nightmares. Movies that are gory or tell frightening real-life stories can affect your state of mind and cause disturbing dreams. TV shows aren’t left far behind either.
It is a real pity that even the daily news on television can mess with your sleep and dreams.6 Most news highlighted on television are discomforting or terrifying in one way or another and have the same effect that a horror movie does – weird, vivid dreams!
The most effective way to prevent bad dreams is to calm your mind before you sleep. Listen to relaxing music or read a happy book. Keep frightening TV shows and movies for when its brighter and not for the evening. You may be surprised as to how much of a difference these small measures can make.
|↑1||The Possible Functions of REM Sleep and Dreaming. Neuroscience. 2nd edition.|
|↑2||Kahan, Tracey, Jeanine Hays, Ben Hirashima, and Kimberly Johnston. “Effects of melatonin on dream bizarreness among male and female college students.” Sleep and Hypnosis 2, no. 2 (2000): 74-83.|
|↑3||Going off antidepressants. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑4||Nielsen, Tore, and Russell A. Powell. “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: food and diet as instigators of bizarre and disturbing dreams.” Frontiers in psychology 6 (2015).|
|↑5||Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑6||Propper, Ruth E., Robert Stickgold, Raeann Keeley, and Stephen D. Christman. “Is television traumatic?: Dreams, stress, and media exposure in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.” Psychological Science 18, no. 4 (2007): 334-340.|