6 Reasons Why You’re Having Weird Dreams at Night

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi holds an academic position at Northumbria University. After completing her Ph.D. at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), she joined the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School as a post-doctoral fellow to research how sleep and circadian rhythmicity influence our cognitive functioning.

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By Geoff McKinnen Certified Sleep Coach

Last Updated On October 4th, 2023
6 Reasons Why You’re Having Weird Dreams at Night

Key Takeaways

  • Nightmares and Disturbing Dreams: Nightmares and bizarre dreams can affect adults as well as children, with up to 29% of adults reporting nightmares once a week. These dreams often occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a period of high brain activity during sleep.
  • Factors Influencing Dreams: Several factors can influence the content of dreams, including diet, sleep supplements, medication changes (especially antidepressants), binge-watching TV before bed, stress levels, and pregnancy.
  • Managing Dreams and Sleep: To improve sleep quality and reduce disturbing dreams, individuals can establish a regular sleep schedule, engage in a relaxing bedtime routine, create a comfortable sleep environment, limit exposure to blue light before bedtime, and manage stress effectively. If nightmares persist and significantly impact daily life, consult a doctor or sleep specialist for guidance.

You’re well past the point in your life where you’re scared of the dark. So why are you still plagued by frightening nightmares—or just plain bizarre dreams?

It’s true that nightmares and disturbing dreams prove most common in young kids. But they plague plenty of grown-ups, too: Up to 29% of us Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source report having nightmares once a week, according to findings in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

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Experts know that dreams often happen during REM sleep (short for rapid eye movement sleep) the period of sleep when your brain is highly active. It was once believed to be the only sleep stage where dreams happen, but it has since been discovered dreams can occur in other sleep stages.

But they still can’t say for sure why we dream. Or just as important, what influences whether our dreams are chill and happy (riding a horse on the beach—woohoo!) or strange and scary (running from a threatening figure through the woods—oh no!).

“Good or bad, here is something we know about dreams and the sleeping brain,” says Dr. Santhi. “Our understanding of dreams has been enriched by research on lucid dreaming, the intriguing state with a boundary moving between wakefulness and sleep.”

“Recent advances in brain imaging technology have allowed sleep researchers to relate various dream features to well-known patterns of brain activity. For instance, some brain areas are consistently active during dreams, irrespective of whether we are in NREM or REM sleep stage.”

And when it comes to the content of those unpleasant dreams, there are plenty of theories.

6 Surprising Factors That Can Cause Weird Dreams

1. You ate a huge, spicy meal for dinner.

Certain foods can impact how easily (or not) you drift off to dreamland. But foods that cause a fitful night’s sleep don’t just leave you tossing and turning. They might make for a night of crazy dreams, too.

Anecdotally, plenty of people report having weirdly vivid dreams after dining on something spicy or heavy. Some experts suspect that this could be because fiery foods raise your body temperature, which can cause you to have worse sleep. If you’re slightly more conscious, you might be more likely to remember your dreams more clearly, Stanford University sleep expert Emmanuel Mignot told the Wall Street Journal.

Anytime your food inhibits deep sleep, such as large meat-heavy meals, you may be more likely to remember your zany dreams.
Anytime your food inhibits deep sleep, such as large meat-heavy meals, you may be more likely to remember your zany dreams.

Other experts chalk the effect up to meal size. The more you eat, the harder your body has to work to digest all of that food—a process that can make it harder to achieve restful sleep, University of Chicago psychiatrist Lisa Medalie told NBC News.

2. You’re taking sleep supplements.

Popping a melatonin supplement might help you fall asleep more easily. But it can also cause you to have super vivid dreams or nightmares.

In fact, one small study, published in Sleep and Hypnosis, found that college students (especially women) who took 6 mg melatonin before bed were more likely to rate their dreams as bizarre compared to those who took a placebo pill.

Experts aren’t entirely sure why, but a side effect Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source of melatonin seems to be that it can kick your dreams into high gear. However, melatonin supplements can still be helpful for treating conditions Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source like REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, so talk with your doctor to determine if it’s right for you and what dose to take.

If you find melatonin supplements aren’t doing it for you, you might want to try natural sleep aids instead

3. You’re going off your meds.

Specifically, antidepressants. If you and your doctor decide that you should stop taking them, lower your dose, or switch to another prescription, there’s a good chance that your dreams will be affected. Especially if you nix the medications quickly instead of slowly tapering off.

This tends to happen because antidepressants work by altering levels of neurotransmitters—or chemical messengers—in your brain. Stopping meds can affect how those neurotransmitters behave, which can result in strange or disturbing dreams, say from Harvard Health experts. Verified Source Harvard Health Blog run by Harvard Medical School offering in-depth guides to better health and articles on medical breakthroughs. View source

Thankfully, the weirdness and any resulting scary dreams should stop once your body adjusts.

4. You binged on TV before bed.

Blue Light Influences Sleeping Experience
In addition to blue-light disruption, the imagery from watching TV can influence your sleeping experience.

Sure, catching up on your favorite shows might seem like a great way to unwind before turning in. But once you fall asleep (which might take a while, thanks to the blue light emitted by your laptop or tablet), your dreams could be pretty strange.

Studies on children find that watching media before bed significantly ups the risk of nightmares. Some experts say that could be because little kids have trouble telling the difference between what’s real and what’s fake, so the stuff on TV is more likely to scare them.

But adults might not be immune to what they see on the screen at night, either. In a British survey of 2,000 adults, over 60% reported being more likely to have bad dreams after watching a scary or gruesome show.

5. You’re super stressed out.

There’s no shortage of research documenting the nightmare-inducing effects of posttraumatic stress disorder, and some findings estimate that 90% of people suffering from PTSD report having disturbing dreams.

Weird Dreams

But even higher than normal levels of everyday stress might be enough to trigger nightmares in some people. Generally, research shows Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source that anxiety and mood problems are linked to higher rates of nightmares.

In these cases, taking steps to better manage your stress might be all that you need to keep nightmares at bay. But if you’re dealing with chronic nightmares, or your nightmares are impacting your ability to get a restful night’s sleep, talk with your doctor.

6. You’re experiencing a pregnancy dream

It’s not unheard of for pregnant women to report more vivid dreams, more nightmares, or simply more dreams than they usually remember. Pregnancy can be a stressful time and a life-changing event for many, so it makes sense that pregnancy dreams may reflect some of an individual’s anxiety or excitement.

Why do pregnancy dreams occur? Changes in hormone production are one proposed reason why pregnant women find themselves dreaming differently. The way a body changes during pregnancy can also affect a person sleeps at night, and these changes in sleep patterns can then affect how they dream.

For some pregnant women, these changes in dreaming are easy to manage and don’t hamper their efforts to sleep well during pregnancy. However, if you find yourself disturbed by your dreams and struggling with falling asleep fast, you might want to try talking about your dreams with a doctor or a counselor.

“Our understanding of dreams has been enriched by research on lucid dreaming, the intriguing state with a boundary moving between wakefulness and sleep.”

Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Getting Better Sleep at Night

One crucial way to improve sleep is to overhaul your sleep schedule. Adults should be getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, and the best way to do this is to fall asleep and wake up at roughly the same time every day, even on days off when it’s tempting to sleep in. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule helps you feel tired when it’s time for bed and wake up in the morning when you need to.

A relaxing bedtime routine can make it easier to stay on schedule at night. Some enjoy a few chapters of a good book, others a puzzle or brain teaser before bed. You can also try a cup of tea or warm milk, or a hot shower or bath in the evening.

Make sure your bedroom is set up for better sleep, too:

Frequently Asked Questions

Do dreams really mean anything?

Dream interpretation can be subjective, and often the best person to determine whether or not a dream means anything is the dreamer themselves. Try thinking about your dream or writing some of its details down. It may be as simple as a story inspired by something you’ve recently read or watched, or it may connect in some way to your personal life.

When should I be worried about my dreams?

If your dreams are distressing you, you may find yourself thinking about them to the point of distraction during the day. Alternatively, you can also feel filled with anxiety as bedtime approaches or find yourself feeling tired or sleepy during the day from poor sleep. If your dreams begin to have a noticeable impact on your waking life, that is when it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor or a sleep specialist.

Do weird dreams affect sleep?

Dreaming itself is a healthy and normal thing to do as you sleep, and in most cases, it won’t affect your overall sleep quality. However, awakening frequently from a dream, typically a nightmare, can have an impact on how well you sleep at night. This is especially true if your bad dreams cause anxiety that keeps you from falling asleep fast.

What is dream anxiety disorder?

Also known as nightmare disorder, dream anxiety disorder is when sleepers have repeated instances of frightening dreams that wake them from sleep. The sleeper awakens alert and with a detailed memory of the nightmare, which typically involves danger or an embarrassing situation.

What separates an occasional nightmare from nightmare disorder is the latter involves frequent nightmares that cause distress and sleep disruptions, impacting overall sleep quality and daytime function.

Is it normal to have really weird dreams?

Yes, it’s normal and even expected to have strange dreams at night. You may even uncover some sense in the dream if you sit down, think about its details, and think about your life recently. However, if the dreams you’re having upset you, you might want to brush up on sleep hygiene tips and relaxation methods to help you fall asleep with minimal stress.

Why am I acting out dreams?

Normally when we sleep, our bodies experience a temporary paralysis that keeps us from acting out the movements in our dreams. However, REM sleep behavior disorder is a condition where you act out intense dreams with sounds and sudden arm and leg movements. REM sleep behavior disorder is linked to Parkinson’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases and it can get worse with time.

Dreams Aren’t the Only Culprit Disturbing Sleep

As we covered above, plenty of factors can contribute to weird and uncomfortable dreams, ranging from stress to diet. However, there are even more things to consider when trying to get a better, deeper 8-hours of sleep each night.

Most things you’ve probably heard already. For example, limiting the amount of blue light before bedtime, avoiding spicy foods and sugary or caffeinated drinks, and relaxing with deep breathing exercises are common ways to manage or stop vivid dreams.

The quality of your mattress matters as well. It isn’t as common knowledge, but the best mattress for you could depend on your sleep style. For example, the best mattress for side sleepers tends to be a softer bed, as the extra cushion helps contour to side sleepers’ hips and shoulders.

About the author

Geoff McKinnen is a writer focusing mainly on the healthcare industry and has written articles on everything from foods to help you lose weight to the connection between Alzheimer’s and sleep. Geoff’s passionate about helping readers improve their well-being to lead happier lives. Outside of work, Geoff enjoys cycling and hiking and believes that by leading a healthy lifestyle, he can help others do the same.

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