How to Tell If Your Dreams Are Normal
Then I woke up.
For as long as I can remember, I've had vivid dreams that make me feel like the protagonist of a fully immersive, eight-hour Terry Gilliam movie—every night. After comparing notes with my husband and friends and realizing that no one else had dreams like this, I started to worry that something was wrong with me. So I assembled a dream team of experts to find out what, if anything, dreams have to do with sleep quality. Here's what they said.
Dreams can give the 411 on your REM.
We dream during all stages of sleep, says Raj Dasgupta, MD, a professor and sleep physician at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, but the REM phase is where high-def adventures usually occur (one small study showed that people woken during REM reported that they'd been dreaming more than 70 percent of the time). Excessive nightmares, extended vivid dreams or no dreams at all could signify an REM disorder. And that could be trouble: "Quality REM sleep lets your brain consolidate memories and improves cognition," says Dasgupta. Dreaming in REM also appears to be when the brain puts emotional events into perspective, recent research shows.
Nightmares are normal—to a point.
The occasional bad dream, while upsetting, isn't a problem, but more than one nightmare per week could also point to past unresolved trauma or current stress, says Tore Nielsen, PhD, who runs the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at the University of Montreal. In either case, you'd do well to take action: Talk to a therapist about what might be haunting you from your past; come up with a plan to manage stress. Keep in mind, however, that another factor could be at work: Dasgupta notes that many drugs—like antidepressants, some sleeping pills and antimalarial meds—can cause vivid dreams and nightmares, as can withdrawal from cannabis.
Good dreams don't equal good sleep.
If you regularly start dreaming the minute your head hits the pillow, you might be skipping the other stages of sleep and slipping immediately into REM—which could be a sign of a sleep disorder that requires a doctor's attention. Also, dreams needn't always be sweet: Even bizarre, creepy, confusing or banal reveries can be helpful as your brain sifts through memories, reacts to scenarios, and works out the sometimes-challenging puzzles that go along with being alive and human.